Racism isn’t dead. The truth is, as long as there is hatred and ignorance in the hearts of man, it never will be.
I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I just finished Sue Monk Kidd’s latest book, The Invention of Wings, and finally saw the movie Selma. Both are incredible works of art that tell very true stories.
The Invention of Wings is about a white, slave owning young woman in Charleston during the late 1800s, and her friendship with the slave who was “given” to her for her 12th birthday. The protagonist, Sarah, is the outlaw of her own family. She is an abolitionist as a young child and her first act on her 12th birthday is to write a document freeing “her slave” because she doesn’t want to own her. Sarah’s parents tear up the document. The book is based on the true story of the Grimke sisters of Charleston, SC who were forerunners in the abolitionist movement as well as the women’s rights movement.
The book is written in alternating chapters by Sarah and her companion, Hetty “Handful”. Hetty was born into slavery and she and her mother worked at the same house in downtown Charleston. This is not a “pretty picture” of slavery, as is often given by the likes of Gone with the Wind and other period films. Kidd covers the beatings, abuse, public murders, and domestic mistreatment in great detail. It’s a difficult book to read.
Both Hetty and Sarah find their wings and their voices throughout the story, but not without pain, loss, and grave betrayal from their own love ones.
After reading the book, I rented Selma. It has been at the top of my “to see” list so I was glad to be able to grab a copy. The first few scenes are so incredibly difficult to watch. I heard different voices from my childhood as the movie played on. I remember family members telling me that Dr. King had engaged in serial extra-marital affairs so he couldn’t have been a good man. I remember comments that sure, he did great things, but a real man should tend to his family first.
Maybe these things are true, but the voices I remember are the voices of Southern white family members who were openly racist. I remember feeling like they were attacking someone I didn’t even know.
The more I read about Dr. King, those things may be true, but do those actions define him, or does his work in the civil rights movement define him? Did Hetty’s search for freedom define her, or did her rebellious acts of survival define her? What if I were picked apart as much as these men and women are? Would I be defined by my work or by my sins and shortcomings?
I recently had a conversation with someone back home in Memphis and I commented that we are the minority there. Memphis, according to the most recent census I found, is 78% black, or African American. Most people in Memphis would never know that though, because it is still a very segregated place. As is Charleston. And most other cities in the Deep South. But it isn’t just the South. Racism between all classes and cultures still exists, both in the U.S. and elsewhere.
No wonder people focus on the personal details of leaders’ lives – it is far easier to pick them apart than to look at our own hearts. As open minded as I am, I would be lying if I said I never question my safety when a large black man or a homeless white man passes me. When I go into the jail and men are moving to a different section, I assume they have bad intentions towards me. When I am in the grocery store and no one around me speaks English, I get miffed for a moment because that’s not “American” and I don’t understand what they are saying.
I confess these things because I believe the truth about freedom can be missed in books like The Invention of Wings or in movies like Selma when we focus on the flaws and fail to see the bigger message – that we are broken, biased, and blind people who would rather patronize than empathize. Oh what the world would be if we could see the forest that all of our trees make together…