Mar 292012

On Sunday a friend of mine told me the story of a time she went down to South Carolina to visit some of her people.  They took her to a forest thick with trees; and as she walked toward the edge of them, she said, she just felt like something wasn’t right – like something bad had happened there.  My friend isn’t particularly clairvoyant that I know of, but she said she just felt…off. She asked her hosts what the story was with the forest, and they told her to look up to the higher branches.  When she did, she saw the remnants of chains – the trees had grown around them over the last 50 years, but they were still there – chains from old lynchings.  To be honest, my first thought was about why they hadn’t cut the trees down. I then stopped myself and realized that there are some memories that are so painful, some versions of ourselves so ugly, that to try and cut them down is to try and forget something that should not be forgotten, to cover something up that needs to be revealed if it’s ever going to be healed.  

I’ve been reading a lot lately in the news that makes me think about the ways people keep trying to keep hidden the dark underbelly of racism that is still very much a part of our national identity.  This is something that people of color know about every day – deal with every day.  Every day.  As a white person, I don’t have to think about it if I don’t want to, because the system is set up for people who look like me, by people who look like me, and was built on the backs of men, women, and children whom people claimed they had the right to own.  I keep trying to find a nice way to say that we white people are foolish to even begin to tell ourselves that we do not live in a racist society; but, I don’t think things like that can or should be said in a nice way – as in, not in a way that cleans it up, or in a way that allows us to sweep it under the rug.  Only if we can start to be honest about the things that make us most ashamed, about the things that scare us the most, can we begin the process of healing.

The poem below, “What Kind of Times are These” was written by the poet and activist Adrienne Rich, who died today at the age of 82.

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.
Check yourself.  When you find yourself getting anxious, or scared, or angry when you see some stranger on the street, be honest about why that feeling comes up – what is it about them that gets to you?  Is it their skin color, their nationality, the way they dress, who they date, the way they identify themselves?  Then remind yourself that the person you’re looking at is a child of God – just like you.  They have had different life experiences from yours, but they are part of the human family with you.

We are all in this together, my friends.  I know that it may seem easier to only love people who look or act or dress like us, but I don’t think God works that way (and….come on, that gets kinda boring, doesn’t it?).  Open yourself up to the opportunity to be amazed by the power of the Spirit moving through you and connecting all of us.  Let yourself be opened up.  Be honest. Say what scares you.  Say what gives you hope.  Say what makes no sense to you – ask questions.  Listen when people talk – try to hear them, even if what they say makes no sense to you.  Recognize their humanity.  Know that they are a beloved child of God.  Know that you are, too.

  3 Responses to “What Kind of Times are These”

  1. I’m reading this with subdivision playing in my mind…

    and i wonder then what it will take for my country to rise.
    first we admit our mistakes and then we open our eyes

    I am so thankful for you.

  2. My first thought is: don’t cut down the trees. If the trees were to have feelings, they’d surely ache over how they were misused. Let them have as many years as they can to live past that and function in the ways for which they were created.

    My further thought is how some of the really overt stuff we think of as iconic and fixed in time was not so long ago. Recalling the movie “The Help”: I have a music friend now who was about 16 and growing up in Richmond in that very time. My default relational setting with him is that we both grew up here in the city around the same time and we both have similar tastes in pop music and enjoy making it together. But I don’t see things through his every day lens, nor have I tried to understand what that’s about – or what it might be supposed to mean to me.

    I think that is an important link for me to make. I think standing together as close as we may be able to get to the same spot and looking at least for a few minutes through a shared lens – that feels like a key starting place to me.

    Thanks for the focus.

  3. Gosh, Jess. Thank you so much.

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