“...even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried…
[and] if we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy...”
-Amanda Gorman “The Hill We Climbed”
I recently spent some time on the phone with my great-aunt. As she talked, I busied myself around the house, mindful of her tangents, listening as she threaded one story after another. She had been talking about my work in graduate school and as an antiracism facilitator when she veered into a topic on the importance of our work. I was in front of my dresser, picking through earrings and sliding on bangles when she merged that conversation into one about the things she’s seen on the news. It was here that, over the next few minutes she listed, not by name but by one sentence details, the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin and Breonna Taylor. She breezed through this litany of the deceased as if reading from a journal she kept nearby for such phone calls, though I was certain none of this had been written down. Rather it was that these stories had been catalogued in her mind, an imprint on her brain of each of the lives lost.
I don’t believe that my 80-year-old aunt is alone in how she holds such stories, their emergence elicited by the sight or sound of what feels like the possibility of Black joy on the horizon or more Black pain on its way. In fact, I recently attended an online workshop where I witnessed other Black elders lament mournfully a lifetime of fighting racism and the prioritization of white people’s comfort. Injustice and inequity normalized for theirs and the generations before them, often bringing about hopelessness and bitterness, emotions to be settled into and rarely reconciled.
We often encounter the same emotions during our workshops. James and I have seen numerous times participants who express sadness, frustration and remorse with their own memories of the ways in which racism has interrupted, or inhibited, their relationships with others. We have heard this among teachers with their students, family members with their loved ones, friendships and courtships and marriages. Often it is our introduction of dyads and pair-shares in this space that has afforded participants’ their first ever opportunity to unearth and address these hurts.
And just what do “hurts” look like exactly, you may ask. Here are some examples:
A parent who told you as a child you couldn’t play with the Black or brown kids in your community
A student you cared about succumbing to the harsh realities of his environment because of the lack of resources and opportunities
Being taunted or disliked because of an attempt to build closeness with folks from different racial/ethnic/cultural backgrounds
A confrontation or disagreement with someone who expresses themselves differently and with whom you haven’t yet reconciled
Engaging with or being a part of a friend group where there’s been complicity in the use of racially insensitive language or its subscription to stereotypes among certain groups of people
And the aforementioned is merely a snapshot of offenses that we may have encountered in a lifetime. There are myriad ways in which we hurt and hold its sadness, anger, disappointment and pain as we move through our days.
What James and I have found in doing this work together, what we have found helpful for our participants, is to provide space for our folks to move through these kinds of grief. In our workshops, we often allot time for dyads and journal reflections. We think about prompts that will allow participants to unearth the deeply buried memories of loss, betrayal and distrust that has likely been provoked and perpetuated by racism and our inability to move beyond some deep-seated generalizations we believe about each other.
This letter wants to ask this of you: interrogate those feelings. Go back to those moments, move through this kind of grief, and reach out to the one who’s hurt you, or have been hurt by you. We have seen it work and we know that, ultimately, the dissolution of these barriers make way to the desegregating of our lives and the promise of another world that, as Arundhati Roy shares, is not only possible, but is on its way.