I want to share with you a moment in my life when the hurt and wounds of racism were both deadly and paralyzing for me. And I think what I've learned can be a source of healing for all of us.
When I was 17 years old, I was a college student at Tuskegee University, and I was a worker in the Southern freedom movement, which we call the Civil Rights Movement. During this time, I met another young 26-year-old, white seminary and college student named Jonathan Daniels, from Cambridge, Massachusetts. He and I were both part of a generation of idealistic young people, whose life has been ignited by the freedom fire that ordinary black people were spreading around the nation and throughout the South.
We had come to Lowndes County to work in the movement. And it was a nonviolent movement to redeem the souls of America. We believe that everyone, both black and white, people in the South, could find a redemptive pathway out of the stranglehold of racism that had gripped them for more than 400 years. And on a hot, summer day in August, Jonathan and I joined a demonstration of local young black people, who were protesting the exploitation by black sharecroppers by rich land holders who cheated them out of their money. We decided to demonstrate alongside them. And on the morning that we showed up for the demonstration, we were met with a mob of howling white men with baseball bats, shotguns and any weapon that you could imagine. And they were threatening to kill us.
And the sheriff, seeing the danger that we faced, arrested us and put us on a garbage truck and took us to the local jail, where we were put in cells with the most inhumane conditions you can imagine. And we were threatened by the jailers with drinking water that came from toilets. We were finally released on the sixth day, without any knowledge, without any forewarning. Just out of the clear blue sky, we were made to leave. And we knew that this was a dangerous sign, because Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney had also been forced to leave jail and were murdered because no one knew what had happened to them. And so, despite our fervent resistance, the sheriff made us leave the jail, and of course, nobody was waiting for us.
It was hot, one of those Southern days where you could literally feel the pavement—the vapor seeping out of the pavement. And the group of about 14 of us selected Jonathan Daniels, Father Morrisroe, who had recently come to the county, Joyce Bailey, a local 17-year-old girl and I to go and get the drinks. When we got to the door, a white man was standing in the doorway with a shotgun, and he said, "Bitch, I'll blow your brains out!" And before I could even react, before I could even process what was going on, Jonathan intentionally pulled my blouse, and I fell back, thinking that I was dead. And in that instant, when I looked up, Jonathan Daniels was standing in the line of fire, and he took the blast, and he saved my life.
I was so traumatized and paralyzed by that event, where Tom Coleman deliberately, with malicious intent, killed my beloved friend and colleague, Jonathan Myrick Daniels. On that day, which was one of the most important days in my life, I saw both love and hate coming from two very different white men that represented the best and the worst of white America. So deep was my hurt at seeing Tom Coleman murder Jonathan before my eyes, that I became a silent person, and I did not speak for six months.
I finally learned to touch that hurt in me as I became older and began to talk about the Southern freedom movement, and began to connect my stories with the stories of my other colleagues and freedom fighters, who, like me, had faced deadly trauma of racism, and who had lost friends along the way, and who themselves have been beaten and thrown in jail.
It is 50 years later. Many people were beaten and thrown in jail. Others were murdered like Jonathan Daniels. And yet, we are still, as a nation, mired down in the quicksand of racism. And everywhere I go around the nation, I see and hear the hurt. And I ask people everywhere, "Tell me, where does it hurt?" Do you see and feel the hurt that I see and feel?
I feel and see the hurt in black and brown people who every day feel the vicious volley of racism and every day have their civil and human rights stripped away. And the people who do this use stereotypes and myths to justify doing it. Everywhere I go, I see and hear women who speak out against—who speak out against men who invade our bodies. These same men who then turn around—the same men who promote racism and then turn around and steal our labor and pay us unequal wages. I hear and feel the hurt of white men at the betrayal by the same powerful white men who tell them that their skin color is their ticket to a good life and power, only to discover, as the circle of whiteness narrows, that their tickets have expired and no longer carry first-class status.
Now that we've touched the hurt, we must ask ourselves, "Where does it hurt and what is the source of the hurt?" I propose that we must look deeply into the culture of whiteness. That is a river that drowns out all of our identities and drowns us in false uniformity to protect the status quo.
Notice, everybody, I said culture of whiteness, and not white people. Because in my estimation, the problem is not white people. Instead, it is the culture of whiteness. And by culture of whiteness, I mean a systemic and organized set of beliefs, values, canonized knowledge and even religion, to maintain a hierarchical, over-and-against power structure based on skin color, against people of color. It is a culture where white people are seen as necessary and friendly insiders, while people of color, especially black people, are seen as dangerous and threatening outsiders, who pose a clear and present danger to the safety and the efficacy of the culture of whiteness.
Listen to me and see if you can imagine the culture of whiteness as a dehumanizing process that melts away all of our multiple and interlocking identities, such as race, class, gender and sexualities, so that...so that unity is maintained for power.
I believe, because I know and believe that the culture of whiteness is a social construct. Each of us, from birth to death, are socialized in this culture. And it marks people of color also. And it makes people of color, like white people, vote against our interests. Some of you might ask—and my students always tell me I give hard assignments—some of you might ask, and rightfully so, "How do we fix this? It seems so all-powerful and overwhelming." I believe that we must fix it, because we cannot humanize our future if we continue to be complicit with the culture of whiteness. Each of us must connect with our authentic selves, with our authentic ethnic selves. And we must connect with the other aspects of our identities. And we must move out of the constructs of whiteness, brownness and blackness to become who we are at our fullest.
How do we do this? I believe that we do this through our collective narratives. And our collective narratives must contain our individual stories, the arts, spiritual reflections, literature, and yes, even drumming.
It must be a collective telling, because individual stories just create a paradigm where we are pitting one story against another story. These different models that I have talked about tonight I think are essential to providing us a pathway out of the quagmire of racism.
And I want to talk about another very important model. And that is redemption. I believe that movements for racial justice must be redemptive rather than punitive. And yes, I believe that we must provide the possibility of redemption for everyone. And we must be willing, despite some of the vitriolic language that might come from those very people who oppress us, I think that we must listen to them and try to figure out where do they hurt. We must do this, I believe, because our redemption is tied into their redemption, and we will not be free until we've all been redeemed from unredemptive anger.
The challenge is not easy. And in a technological society, it grows even more complicated, because often we use technologies to perpetuate the very values of racism that we indulge in every day. We use technology to bully, to perpetuate hate speech and to degrade each other's humanities. And so I believe that if we're going to humanize the future, we must design ways to use technology not to degrade us, but to elevate us so that we can live into the fullest of our capacities. And I believe that technology must provide us larger vistas so that we might engage with each other and move beyond the segregated spaces that we live in, every day of our lives. I believe that we can achieve this if we set our minds and hopes on the prize.
The question before us tonight is very serious. It is: "Do you want to be healed? Do you want to be healed?" Do you want to become whole and live into all of your identities? Or do you want to continue to cannibalize your multiple identities and privilege one identity over the other? Do you want to join a long line of generations of people who believed in the promise of America and had the faith to upbuild democracy? Do you want to live into the fullest of your potential? I certainly do. And I believe you do, too.
Let me just say, quite seriously, I believe in you. And despite everything, I still believe in America. I hope that this offering that I've given to you tonight, that I've shared with you tonight, will provide redemptive pathways so that you might claim the fullest of your identity and become a major participant in humanizing not only the future for yourselves, but also for our democracy.