By Ruby Sales, Another Love Letter From The Front Porch, August 31, 2018)
Have you ever had to navigate the waters of systemic trauma of White supremacy and find ways to swim without drowning? How do we name the trauma that we endure from White supremacy without becoming the trauma that we endure? How do we speak the truth of our lives without being silenced or demonized by the tyranny of White denial? How do you stand tall as a European American without being pulled down by the seductive drug of Whiteness?
From being stopped by police because we are Black or being excluded from the benefits that White people take for granted, or having our Black and Brown children put in cages or their parents hounded and hunted with military vigilance that violates all aspects of human decency, we have a mountain of stories to tell about a moment in our lives when we came face to face with the unspeakable and the unforgettable trauma of White supremacy.
Today people of all colors gather to memorialize a Black native daughter and a White native son who it might seem in the foul air today came from what might appear to irreconcilable places. However they both stood shoulder to shoulder for a rainbow America.
It is therefore fitting that we deepen our thinking about ways that we might expand their vision. We cannot move on as a nation and create a new democratized and more humane future until we address the long and lingering existence of White supremacy, its roots and causes and the harm that it does to all of us. Without addressing these issues we will never live up to our potential as a nation and as fully realized human beings. Nor will we heal the brokenness between our inner and outer lives that sabotages our best and strongest impulses.
Some of you might ask and rightfully so where do we begin when the task seems so big and the culture of Whiteness and its systemic primogenitor white supremacy seem so overwhelming.
I agree that the task is huge, but it is not insurmountable. I propose that we can find both the problems and solutions by telling our individual stories within larger group ones.
So let us begin right now together. Our stories, if they provide the hindsight, insight and foresight that we need to fashion a future together as a nation that reaches its highest capacity as a democracy require us to be wholly transparent. We cannot pick “the bone,” as Vincent Harding called racism, out of our throats unless we become a nation of truth tellers who recognize that a nation that dines on lies will choke to death on them. In our stories, we will not only face the lies that we tell about our selves and others, but we will encounter glorious truths of our better individual and collective selves and individual and collective impulse to have more meaningful lives.
I, as do many of you, have a story to tell. My story begins as a Black girl in the segregated south. Rather than being one more story about the pain of growing up in a culture of Whiteness that declared me inessential and a threat to the efficacy and future of White supremacy, my life must be viewed through optics that consider my place and value in my community and its struggle and hope for freedom. I grew up in a community where my elders saw me as a significant partner in a project that they laid out in the early days of freedom where our ancestors on the morning of freedom from enslavement pledged their upmost endeavors to educate their youth for the advance of the race and for the preservation of our rights and liberties.
Unlike my status in White America, I was both beloved and claimed by my community. So much so that in many ways I was naive and shocked that the Southern White world hated me enough to want to kill me. I later discovered this startling reality on my first demonstration with my classmates at the Montgomery Capitol as a Tuskegee University student when White policemen on horses greeted us with German shepherds which they turned loose at our throats. In that instance I faced a world that my parents nor members of my community no longer had the power to protect me or my classmates. I was no longer Ruby Nell the intimate name that my family and members of my community called me. Instead my name was dirty nigger wench to these vigilante police in riot gear prepared for war.
Rather than beat me down, their attack against my classmates and me steeled my resolve to become more involved in this movement that had unleashed the freedom fire that was shut up in my bones. At this point in my story I was born again, and my new name was freedom fighter.
In my new role as freedom fighter, I left college and went to work with local Black farmers and servants. We lived, as they did often, in shacks that we called freedom houses. Young Black college students like myself set our educations aside to participate in the birthing pains of a new future for the South, Black America and for America.
Ours was a transcendental spiritual movement rather than a transactional one. Our primary mission was to redeem America from the stranglehold of the spiritual malformation and social perversity of Whiteness. It was a non-violent transcendental movement that was fueled by a radical love that not only saw the stunted promise in Black people but saw the potential goodness in White Americans that they failed to see in themselves.
As a freedom fighter, my story became one of hopefulness, redemption, redemptive anger, grief, trauma, love, joy, victory, and remains an adult labor for justice worthy of my love. It required me to make a choice between being a stagnant and traumatized victim or an active survivor and change agent who is constantly in the process of becoming.
I am reminded that I am both a survivor of an attempted assassination by a White supremacist vigilante and the beneficiary of the gift of life and years by a white seminarian brother freedom fighter who stepped in front of me and received the blast that was intended for me.
Each August, I am reminded how the currents of trauma ebb and flow in our lives despite the life jackets we wear. I have managed to pack a lot of survival tools in my life jacket since that terrible day. However, it is undeniable that I will never forget that Jonathan Daniels was my benefactor. Tom Coleman was the attempted assassin and cold bloodied murderer. He murdered Jonathan Daniels and almost fatally wounded Father Richard Morrisroe. We were all companions in the southern Freedom Movement.
Jonathan and I were both college students who were working in “Bloody Lowndes County” in the Black Southern Freedom Movement commonly known as the Civil Rights Movement. However, those of us who were a part it thought of it as a larger Freedom Struggle that transcended the narrowness for human dignity, the demand for respect from White southerners and the right to control our own lives and body. In line with this mission, we called our selves freedom fighters.
Every day we had to navigate the reality that any White southerner had the right to kill us at anytime or on any whim. Yet our commitment to the struggle was, as Jim Lawson noted, a soul force more powerful than fear. We had reached a higher level of consciousness where Southern White Americans could not hold the fear of death over us to stop our work as freedom fighters. Despite our resolve, very few of us left the movement without the residue of the trauma that comes from being constantly on alert in a war zone from the terrorism of White Supremacist culture warriors who used every weapon in their arsenal to keep their social order in tact. Their chronic assaults shattered us into tiny bits that many Freedom fighters spent years to piece together again. Tragically some never did!
In the storms of my trauma and grief, I moved on with my life and refused to let that single act hold my life hostage . This does not mean it is not a significant part of my personal history. Nor does it mean that I did not grieve for the loss of my beloved friend Jonathan. Rather it means that I was determined not to carry the weight of Tom Coleman’s hate and malformation on my back or in my inner life.
My story is simultaneously one of Black people who, like me, bore the trauma and whelps of the brutality and psychological blows of White supremacy that infiltrates the veins of south and flows throughout the nation. It is story of hopeful innocence in a culture of moral cynicism. It is a collective Black story of redemption—of a people who in the face of untold White terror forged a non-violent transcendental freedom movement—the first of its kind in the modern USA. So powerful was our courageous hopefulness until we brought down a powerful White Supremacist government without firing a shot! It did not come without a cost, but we were willing to pay it, not only for Black liberation, but to redeem America out of the miasma of moral nihilism wrought by the spiritual malformation and social perversity of a Whiteness, which is a virulent seed that contaminates and dehumanizes everyone it touches.
My story is also an American one that exposes what Vincent Harding calls “the racist bone in America’s throat” that continues to choke the vitality and life out of democracy and our individual and collective humanities. Yet there is another stream in this story that takes us to the pages of U.S. history where many Whites broke with the culture of Whiteness to bring into being a future and a healthy democracy that was experiencing acute labor pains. Their journey was not easy. Often they suffered severe economic penalties and social ostracism and banishment from members of their community. In many ways they were without a people. They too, as did people of color, experience the trauma of being exiles in our their land.
Often people want to know how did I move forward past my trauma? How did I make a future for myself while working to build a better future for people of all colors? Or how could I not hate Tom Coleman and the White people who set him free? Additionally people ask me how could I ever have faith in America again after a White jury acquitted Tom Coleman. To all of these questions my answer remains the same.
I always answer that I draw on the cultural and spiritual resource that Black women hollowed out of the violent and dehumanizing soils of enslavement and southern apartheid. They taught me how to backpack for the journey as a Black girl and same-gender-loving woman. I believe that these women were visionaries who created universal resources that can help the nation backpack on a collective and individual journey to upbuild our lives and democracy by harmonizing the I with the We.
These gifted and exacting seers and practitioners shared these gifts with me with love seeped in a demand for accountability and a caring for others. I would like to share these resources with you today in our collective and most hopeful grief.
In the fiery furnace of White supremacy, these master mixers preserved our presence, kept alive the ideals of democracy with a pound of agape seasoned with a half cup of creativity, redemption, resistance, truth-telling, hopefulness and three tablespoons of sorrow, belief in the promise of democracy and folk culture that offered a healing from their trauma. This is our task today if we have any chance of making a new history with each other that frees us from the spiritual malformation and social perversity of Whiteness.
In an age of extreme cynicism, as they taught generations of Black youth, we need to fill our backpacks with the pragmatic optimism of looking White supremacy squarely in the eyes, not with bitterness, but with an optimistic hopefulness of believing that the ideals of democracy are elastic and broad enough for us to find the room to matter and become relevant players in shaping the present and future direction of the nation. In short, as they invited us to follow their examples, we can specialize in making what seems to be wholly impossible possible.
Having been bucked and scorned by the guardians of Whiteness, they imagined and created a counterculture that, first and foremost, addressed the spiritual malformation and social perversity of Whiteness. They understood that nothing short of a spiritual revolution could change the dehumanizing consequences of a culture of Whiteness.
I agree. As long as we exist in the throes of Whiteness we will not humanize our future. Instead, we will continue to spiral down into a pit of moral nihilism that will ultimately take us down the road to a fascist military state of containment, walls and constant surveillance.
I recognize that the seductions and opiates of Whiteness are difficult ones for White people to overcome. This is true when they believe that the artificial social construction of Whiteness is their real identity rather than their authentic ethnic selves. Believing this, the culture of Whiteness captivates them and strangles the life out of their authentic ethnic selves, causing them to commit soul suicide where the artificiality of Whiteness and its perversions become their sole identities. It is their lifelines, and it is this breath of Whiteness that make them willing to give up everything in order for their White selves to live. To give up Whiteness is a death sentence in their minds.
I believe that in order to be healed and restored, European Americans must believe that their authentic selves are worthy and sufficient without dominating and containing people of color. They must believe that they are worthy of being redeemed.
Far from creating in European Americans a sense of superiority, the culture of Whiteness creates self-loathing that makes them feel that they are unworthy of self-love, being beloved or being redeemed. I offer to White America the reassurance that these women offered to me—the belief in our goodness and the possibility of living into the fullness of our humanity despite the pull of society to become less than who we can become.
If we exist in the throes of Whiteness we will not humanize our future. Instead, we will continue to spiral down into a pit of moral nihilism that will ultimately take us down the road to a fascist military state of containment, walls and constant surveillance. Today we see the handwriting on the wall where White people call the police on Black people for being in public spaces where they do not believe we belong. Despite our claims of being a free and mobile society, there is a travel ban on people of color in our own land where we are persona non grata.
Faced with the daily constraints of the walls that the guardians of Whiteness build to lock people of color out and to lock White people in, they were seers who could see through walls. My grandmother used to say, “Ruby Nell I know you think that is a wall right there. But what you see depends on your eyesight. You might see a wall, but I see just another space to navigate and walk through.” They believed that despite the racist and other systemic walls that they faced, the idea and ideals of democracy are elastic and broad enough for each of us to find our voice and place.
If they could open up new spaces by tearing down walls with scraps from White America and in the face of the trauma and onslaught of White supremacy, we who have so much more surely can do the same today.
Everywhere they entered they built hope zones out of sites of trauma that White Supremacists intended to be death traps that killed our collective and individual spirits causing us to conform and break under the weight of the trauma of Whiteness.
Out of the sackcloth of segregation, these carriers of hope and master architects built a human counterculture of elasticity, creativity and hopeful innocence and resilience that feed themselves and others, especially young Black people whom they saw as the reapers and harvesters of their collective work and dreams.
It was a counterculture that blended optimism of what was possible in a democracy with the pragmatism of its meaning and limits. They practiced the spiritual and social act of active and engaged hopefulness!
I was better off for being in their presence. They taught me to endure and resist at the same time. Their lessons saved my life and I still draw on them as I backpack on this leg of my long journey. I invite you to use them to create a project called backpacking to humanize our future as a beloved community and a mature democracy.