Dear White People (including myself): “How much TIME do you want for your ‘Progress’?” James Baldwin

Note: This is about recent news about what has been done to black and brown bodies in America, if you feel you cannot read more about that, I understand. This is written to white people. If you don’t identify as white, you are still welcome to read, but please know this is not in any way directed to you.

Last night I watched James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket via PBS. In the film, amid the 1980s, he asks,

“What is it you wanted me to reconcile myself to? I was born here, almost 60 years ago. I’m not going to live another 60 years. You always told me ‘It takes time.’ It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time. How much time do you want for your progress?”

Time, it seems, is a singular certitude which binds us together. We use it to mark, name, note, consider, forge ahead, look behind, and yet, we (societally speaking as it pertains to the US) don’t use it for honoring and loving one another in our common humanness. Time ought to stir up the reverence it assumes by its finitude. Time ought to point to the rootedness of our endless connectivity to every fellow human.

Many of us are keenly aware of the recent news of black, brown, and other marginalized bodies being threatened and killed by systems of injustice and oppression. Sometimes these systems slowly kill through discrimination, inequality, and other racist acts––other times they kill immediately by the bending of a knee into the neck of a man whose face is in the pavement… until he dies. In times like this, words ring in my ear from Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas: “It should not require a miracle simply to be black and alive in America.”

If time tells us much about the fight for equality specifically for black people in the history of America, we can take a VERY short walk with a few quotes I’ve recently read (and God knows we could take a much longer walk with history for time immemorial):

“There is a strong moralistic strain in the civil rights movement that would remind us that power corrupts, forgetting that the absence of power also corrupts.” ––Bayard Rustin, 1965

“Our grandfathers and our great-grandfathers had to run, run, run! My generation has run out of breath. We just ain’t runnin’ no more.” ––Stokely Carmichael, 1967 

“A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.” ––Audre Lorde, 1978 poem (full poem here)

“Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. … hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.” ––Toni Morrison, 1993 Nobel Lecture

“Our responsibility as citizens is to address the inequalities and injustices that linger…” ––Barack Obama, 2016 

If time is that which unifies us, why has the greatest struggle––the one for our unity, taken so much time? Some suggest that we must slowly steer the ship in the right direction, meanwhile black, brown, and marginalized bodies die. There is no time to take the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism” as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said. “There is no time for talk when men are suffering,” wrote theologian James Cone.

So what do we––white people, do?

Read. Listen. Heed. 

Read from authors, journalists, and poets who don’t look like you, don’t think like you.

Listen to the stories of black, brown, and marginalized voices and bodies. Really listen. Listen until you feel their stories. Listen until your body recognizes itself in their body. Listen until it hurts (that’s how we know our listening becomes hearing).

Heed what you find out. Take action by way of encouraging others to do the same. Take action by beginning with yourself: your own research, your own learning, your own healing. End the war within yourself, the war which subconsciously elevates you above your fellow human.

Do not waste time being ashamed. Begin where you are. All we have is time. And let this time deepen our unity, let this time enliven our bond, let this time give us back to each other.

Suggested Books from Black authors (there are MANY, MANY, MANY more to all these lists, this is an effort to only suggest that which I have read/listened to/or watched myself):

1. The Fire Next time, by James Baldwin

2. I’m Still Here, by Austin Channing Brown

3. Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr.

4. Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde

5. The Origin of Others, by Toni Morrison

6. Jesus and the Disinherited, by Howard Thurman

7. Black Theology & Black Power, by James Cone

8. Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates 

Suggested Listening:

1. A 2-minute video of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

2. A story about being a Black Birder on This is Love Podcast

3. Kerry Connelly: Silence, Privilege, and Dismantling Racism (Part One) (Encountering Silence Podcast) (Note: this is a white person expressing what other white people can do as we become more cognizant of our own role in systemic racism). Check out more of Kerry’s work here.

4. James Cone on Black Liberation Theology (NPR)

Suggested Viewing: 

1. James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket (PBS)

2. Backs Against The Wall: The Howard Thurman Story (PBS)

3. Who Killed Malcolm X?  (Netflix)

4. Childish Gambino – This Is America (Official Video)

Onward, in the great unifier that is time.

Let’s do our work. 

There are also anti-racism resources here.

(photo on top of this post is “National Guard troops lined Beale Street during a protest on March 29 , 1968. Bettmman Collection / Getty Images).
Screen Shot 2020-05-28 at 3.26.37 PM
Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images.

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6 comments

    1. Great question, Toni. We all must begin with ourselves and our own work. A lot of times the big picture of overwhelm can stop. Maybe this means starting with reading a book with a group of other white people and discussing. Maybe this means bodily paying attention to how we respond to the news physically and discussing with another white person. But beginning with our own work is a must. As white people who benefit from the systems which oppress others, we will need to get more and more uncomfortable.

  1. Wow. I say this with love. Sometimes you are blind to your own privilege as a highly educated, economically advantaged white woman. Is this article “whitesplaining”? It certainly strikes me as that, as if there is a need for the words of those impacted by racism to be translated by a white person so white people will read and understand them. It saddens me.

    1. Thanks for your opinion, Craig. You’re right, sometimes we do fail to know our areas of privilege, even the fact that we as two white people can have this conversation here comfortably. There is no explaining away racism or oppression of any kind and there is certainly no justification for it. And this piece seeks to take note of the work white people need to do for ourselves (including me). I am not speaking to or for anyone impacted by racism (per my notes on who this is to) but heeding the note of where and how racism begins via white supremacy. You’re more than welcome to not read or to discontinue reading.

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