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Finding a Way to Talk About These Hard Things



On Monday, our family celebrated the Fourth of July in part by watching the movie, "Free State of Jones".  The movie is based on a fascinating true story about a poor Mississippi farmer, Newt Knight, who worked as a medic for the Confederate Army.  In 1862, he deserted, disgusted by the news that men who own more than 10 slaves are exempted from military service.  He eventually found safety with a group of escaped slaves, and attracted other deserters as well.  In time, the group took control of Jones County, Mississippi and seceded from the Confederacy.  

The story doesn't end with the end of the Civil War but continues 15 years into Reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.  This makes the movie less coherent and significantly more disturbing to watch.  By the time we left the theater, I felt like the movie lasted much longer than 139 minutes.  It wasn't a great movie, but I was glad I saw it.  I won't soon forget what I learned or what I felt.  I'm very glad movies like this one are getting made with big-name actors and shown in major movie theaters.  More honest movies about the history of race in our country can only help us have more honest conversations.

The shootings that followed this week reminded me that the violence and malice so vividly illustrated in the movie are not over and done with.  President Obama put it beautifully in his remarks on Thursday:

To be concerned about these issues is not political correctness, it’s just being American and wanting to live up to our best and highest ideals.  And it’s to recognize the reality that we’ve got some tough history and we haven’t gotten through all of that history yet. And we don’t expect that in my lifetime maybe not in my children’s lifetimes that all the vestiges of that past will have been cured, will have been solved.

Today, as we try to recover from the trauma of this week's shootings of civilians and policemen, everyone seems to be saying, "We've got to find a way to talk about this."  But how do we possibly do that?

Falcon Heights, Minnesota and Baton Rouge, Louisiana are very, very different places.  I am sure that the police departments for these two cities are very different as well--different cultures, different kinds of training, different personnel, different leadership.  But the fact that police officers from both departments were involved with very similar situations helps me to remember that there is systemic racism in the mix here.  And the racist comments made by the disturbed man who shot the policemen in Dallas makes it clear that it isn't only white people or police who are shaped by systemic racism.

Systemic problems--systemic evil--is particularly hard to talk about, in public or private conversations.  We find it much easier to talk about why individual people have biased views or act in biased ways.  We can even imagine how particular leaders can cultivate bias within their organizations.  But what about a bias that is cultivated and perpetuated by our culture as a whole, that seeps into every organization and every interaction?  How can we begin to get a hold of that?

It seems to me that we often need a "third thing"--a cultural artifact of some kind--to get the conversation started and to keep it going.  Movies. Television shows. Magazine articles.  Or even books.

Each year, the Maryland Humanities selects a book for a state-wide book club called "One Maryland One Book". This year, they chose a Young Adult novel called "All American Boys" by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.  The book is about an encounter between a white police officer and a young African-American man that ends in violence.  The chapters alternate between the voice of the Black kid who was assaulted and a White kid who is friends with the policeman.  It isn't high literature, but it does a solid job portraying different points of view.  In the end, the book makes it clear that police brutality is unacceptable, but it doesn't make any one person or group the villain.  

Public libraries and school libraries all over the state will be promoting this book in September and October.  The authors will be speaking at the Baltimore Book Festival and at several events for high school kids.  Our congregation, in partnership with Columbia Town Center, is planning an neighborhood book discussion.  It seems like an excellent opportunity to do some of what everyone knows we need to do--talk about our history and begin the hard work of building a better future.


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