Radical Empathy–Why Black History Month Should Matter to White Folks

Maya QuoteI have a passion for history and literature which I have passed along to my young son. He is drawn to the concept of re-imagined endings and loves to read the You Choose book series; the ending changes based on choices the reader makes throughout the story. He watches Alternate History Hub and spends hours imagining “what if” scenarios.

His 10-year-old mind (and very old soul) gets lost in a story, fiction or nonfiction; he often experiences what he thinks the characters feel so deeply, he can’t sleep. As we talk about Black History Month and what he is learning in school, we spend a lot of time discussing empathy and alternate experiences.

Just imagine for a moment–what if we reversed it? All of it.

It’s February 2015, White History Month. The first white president is serving his 2nd term in office. Throughout the country, protests continue as white people insist their lives matter.

Yes, I know your textbook says American History, but the primary focus is on Black Middle Class Men. Black History is a core requirement; learning white history is optional. Don’t be so sensitive. You white people are always race-baiting, talking about slavery and segregation—especially you angry white women. You have a white president now, what more do you want?

Black folks don’t want to hear about 4 little white girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. We don’t want to see images of white men being lynched while our people look on smiling, as though they were at a sporting event. We don’t want to talk about 14-year-old Emmett Till being brutally tortured, murdered and mutilated for allegedly whistling at a black woman.

We don’t want to be reminded that white bodies were used like guinea pigs for scientific experiments. We have no interest in hearing about white slave mothers being raped and forced to nurse black women’s children while their own were taken from them and sold.

It makes us very uncomfortable. Why can’t you white people just get over it and let go of the past? Why do you need a month dedicated to reflection–a celebration of white history and accomplishments? 

We are okay hearing about that white woman Rosa who wouldn’t give up her seat on the bus. We are fine listening to inspirational speeches from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We love hearing about things you invented, as long as you don’t mention the ones we stole. We have lots of white friends. They are really articulate too.

That sounds absolutely absurd, doesn’t it? Downright racist and ignorant—yet reverse it back, and that is the sad reality we live in.

I know. Here comes another white girl telling everyone about being black in America. First, I am no girl–I’m a grown ass woman. Second, I’m not trying to tell anyone anything; I’m writing about the radical, irreverent power of empathy. It requires we feel something as we imagine life through the eyes of alternate experiences.

I’m raising two young children who count on me to show them how to navigate a world where empathy is rare–a place where subtle, even subconscious racism (the most poisonous kind) is often driving the bus. To disarm it, we have to work together to render it powerless.

In reality, I can never experience life as a black woman, man or child. I also can’t explain what I do understand about white privilege, white guilt, race as a social construct, appropriation of culture, etc., because this is a blog entry, not a thesis. Instead of beating people down with intellectual bullying, how about we focus on how we make each other feel?

When I began studying African-American history and literature, I not only learned to think about what it means to be black in America by learning facts–I began to feel it down deep in my soul. How?

Toni Morrison showed me. Maya Angelou schooled me. Richard Wright, Bell Hooks, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Shirlee Taylor Haizlip, Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nikki Giovanni, David Bradley, Dr. Joanne Braxton and countless others transported me. They took this “white girl” by the imaginative hand on a radical, emotional, creative, empathic journey through words. It’s a trip best guided by gifted, passionate writers that everyone should read all months of the year.

The denial of access to black history is not exclusively a black problem—it’s an American problem. It deprives every citizen the opportunity to experience the powerful beauty of awe-inspiring accomplishments, brilliantly birthed under the worst of circumstances.

Every significant relationship between a student and teacher is reciprocal. Teach me. But then allow me the space to learn. I may ask ignorant questions. I may misspeak at times. Don’t give up on me. With patience, brutal honesty and vulnerability, we may all learn something about ourselves in the process of trying simultaneously to understand and to be understood.

I don’t have to be black to empathize with the pain and challenges of living in a society that continues to devalue blackness. I don’t have to be a mother who has lost a child to cry bitter, angry tears over the senseless, tragic loss of so many young lives. I do have to acknowledge the fact our experiences are different.

What we share is the human capacity for empathy—the radical kind that tells you speaking up and out is no longer a choice, but a directive from the soul. If a Blacks Only, No Whites Allowed sign is hanging over the knowledge fountain however, a non-black person thirsty to learn will stop drinking.

Empathy isn’t easy. It is painful, uncomfortable, heart wrenching at times. It can be full of rage, sadness, love and struggle. But it is mandatory for true healing, restoration and social change.

lynchingOn Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, I posted the iconic photograph depicting the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in 1930 with this quote from Dr. King on my personal Facebook page: “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.” I lost a few friends that day, but the reason I posted it was to remind people that we weren’t just honoring a man who made a great speech. He and so many others sacrificed their lives for social change.

The photo should make you feel sick—this wasn’t some other country, it was right here. I was overwhelmed with sorrow and anger that the state I live in celebrates Lee-Jackson Day the same weekend as Dr. King and I made it known. Each time I feel fear to speak, I recite these words, also from Dr. King–“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Empathy is not some flowery Hallmark sentiment that makes you feel warm and fuzzy. It is a radical call to action. Expressing it openly may result in “nig” being carved in wet cement in front of your house and having to explain why to your children. It means losing friends and family members who question why you feel the need to always speak up. After all, you are white you know. If a person of any ethnicity can view that photo (and so many others like it) without feeling your soul shred, then I don’t question your blackness or whiteness—I question your humanness.

Black lives matter. Black voices matter. Black experiences matter. Black History Month matters. Only when I feel what you feel will I know what you know—and vice versa.


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