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Compassion is not pity, not even empathetic pity. There is arrogance and haughty pride in pitying others. Compassion is when we are confronted with another’s suffering and we suffer with them. Their pain is ours. We are motivated to relieve their suffering. When we feel true compassion we help those who suffer, not as a cathartic release, but because it breaks our heart that they are hurting. I have not always known or believed these things, but I am thankful that I do now.
I am blessed to travel this country to talk about racism. Yes, its a blessing, but in every place someone says, ‘If you stop talking about race, racism will go away.’ That doesn’t even make stupid sense. The reality is that we talk about race all the time, in corridors, in offices, at ballgames, but we do not often talk about it in places where our ideas are challenged.”
I’m a multiracial black man. I have folks from Trinidad, Barbados, and Venezuela—you know, places that President Trump dismissed as shithole countries. When I first heard him use that term I thought he was talking about Indiana.”
Americans like happy history—narratives that make us look smart, brave, and exceptional. We want a history that has been cherry-picked, one that ignores our mistreatment of the weak and disfavored—a history that can be celebrated at picnics, parades, and in smug conversations. This approach to history is neither honest nor mature.
After sitting through my lecture on white supremacy—its origins, reach, and consequences—one of my students said to me, “I couldn’t have taken another minute of that.” I said, “Good, then it was the right amount.”
And, then, the old man preached about the daily indignities of the old south— insulting stereotypes and caricatures that portrayed us as buffoons, butlers, and beasts; lies about our morality and worth, some told by preachers who said we had no souls, that we wore the Curse of Ham; backbreaking toil, often forced by law, the fruit of our labor on another man’s plate; poverty that warped, crippled, and everywhere premature death; our voices silenced by poll taxes and literacy tests; schooling in raggedy shacks with tattered books because education would spoil us for work in the fields; cuffed, chained, and caged, for crimes both real and imagined; our soldiers killed in their uniforms, their medals stripped; our businesses, churches, schools, and homes burned to the ground when we progressed too much; our women and children raped; everywhere the barbarism of color discrimination followed us, enveloped us, and when all else failed, there were sadistic cowards with ropes and pyres to kill us, kill our bodies, to try and end us. But, we did not end.
At the bottom of all the political pontificating is a simple question: Will we be the city upon the hill or a nation of tribalistic assholes?
Funneling anger is risky business. Anger is a powerful fuel, and one could argue that much social change has resulted in no small part because of angry voices. In my half century of living, however, I have seen too many activists become frustrated and worn out—made callous by failed attempts to make change, with their idealistic passion devolving into seething anger, or worse, thick hatred.
Go to any city in the United States and you will find people living in dump-like environments. These are real people, not an abstract, intellectual category. They are people with hopes and fears. And, quite frankly, many of them are not interested in discussions about economic determinism. They are interested in having a home, obtaining a job that does not pay starvation wages, getting their children educated, affording health care, enjoying some of the social goodies. Helping a poor family will not change societal patterns of inequality, but it will change the pattern of that family's life. And, when we get done helping that family we can pick up a book, voting ballot, or protest sign.
I am glad to see so many young people thinking about social justice. I have been woke since the doctor slapped my ass.
I have long felt that Americans, especially whites, would rather talk about slavery than Jim Crow. All slaves are dead. They do not walk among us, their presence a daily reminder of that unspeakably cruel system. Their children are dead. Distanced by a century and a half, the modern American sees slavery as a regrettable period when blacks worked without wages. Slavery was, of course, much worse.
If you don't know how much a gallon of milk costs, then you probably don't understand the person who can't afford the milk.
Most politicians have some con artist in them, but worse is the con artist who has some politician in him.
The browning of America worries the weak and the wicked. Walls and fences will not keep this country white. Look at me: it is obvious that someone hopped a fence.
There are many stories told in the Jim Crow Museum, but none are as horrible as these tales. The idea of using the skins of black people to make purses, shoes, belts, and other products is, of course, disgusting to contemporary Americans; however, there was a time—not so long ago—when the debasement of black Americans was so nearly complete that one could read about the skin of a black person being tanned in the same newspaper that reported the previous day’s baseball box scores.
We rise, our backs unbowed, tongues untied, no more standing in the back of the line, feet shuffling, pretending to be dumb so others feel smart; no more being knocked down so others can stand on us to be taller; we are not satisfied with a half-loaf, not satisfied with another man’s leftovers. Those days are gone. We will live like people, not pigs corralled and slaughtered. This is our country; we, too, sing America. White people can go back to England, go back to Germany, go back to Ireland, but we are not going anywhere. America is the home we built. We will honor the pain, suffering, and sacrifice of our ancestors by working to create a just society, by dismantling patterns of injustice. We will not be invisible. We will not shut up. We are the fast train coming.
When the dancing stops, the problems remain. Each day we dance — or work, or study, or shop — as if this country does not have systemic injustice, as if some groups are not hurt in the everyday flow of society. Every now and again, a racial incident or an expression of art makes us pause and reflect, but we soon return to dancing, return to the avoidance that we crave.
While it is true that it sometimes takes courage to speak, here is an absolute: In any situation where it requires courage to speak there is something wrong with the situation. No exceptions.
Young visitors to the museum ask me, “What was it like to live during the civil rights struggle?” I gently tell them that we are living during the civil rights struggle. -David Pilgrim
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