Upon Seeing I am Not Your Negro

The election of the 45th president of the United States and everything that has lead up to it, and everything that has come of it in these first days since his inauguration has moved me to take action in a way I’ve never done before. It’s caused me to consider all the ways I’ve been complacent as a citizen in my communities, and it’s caused me to focus on what I can do. On what talents and skills and natural abilities I have that I can offer. I’m not alone here, I know that. It’s also caused me to really consider my privilege. That it took the election of a fascist with a white supremacist entourage to the presidency to get me uncomfortable enough to take action is my privilege showing. Until now, I’ve had other things to worry about. I’ve waited for others to fight the battles I knew were worth fighting, and I’ve patted myself on the back for congratulating them. But myself, I’ve been comfortable enough to let others bear the burden of their own oppression rather than taking an active role in the cause of freedom for all.

I’ve been listening to the Black Lives Matter movement, which I believe in. I’ve been following the writing of people like Shaun King and Son of Baldwin on facebook, at their opinions and the articles they link to. I’ve been paying attention to my own friends of color, especially women, trans and queer people of color to hear first hand about the experience of being marginalized in America, and how they feel about our current climate in the US. I recently watched 13th on Netflix, and then a few nights ago I watched I Am Not Your Negro at the Egyptian. I don’t say these things to congratulate myself. I am a white guy who grew up in a white town in a white part of Northern New York State. I say these things because I believe in educating myself, and I need education. I have been complicit in the oppression of people of color simply by not actively taking part in destroying it. I firmly believe that. I’ve been forming thoughts these past few months and now after watching James Baldwin the other night some of that has crystallized for me and I process by writing. And here I am.

I’ve often thought that my personal development corresponds with the development of society. That I am a metaphor for society at large. This was one of the things James Baldwin woke inside me Thursday night. That my story is not unlike the story of white America.

I have been sober for over ten years. The story of my sobriety is the story of someone consumed with an obsession of self, someone seeking relief from the myriad pains and sufferings of simply being alive, someone resisting change, someone ultimately discovering that the world was not to blame, that in fact I was to blame. Me. That the drugs and booze I sought relief though, they only brought more suffering. Not everyone who drinks and does drugs is an addict; but an addict I am. It took reaching a point of desperation such that I questioned whether or not to continue living for me to change. I stood on the side of Aurora in the hot summer sun in 2006 with cars and buses storming past me, completely ignorant of me and my pain, and I looked up at a mural on the side of what was then the Steel Pig bar. This mural was a caricature of a colorfully dressed hip couple dancing and drinking, cigarette smoke and music swirled around them, and they looked down and laughed at me. And standing there deciding whether or not to kill myself I finally decided I’d lost, and I gave up. I stopped fighting. And I found the relief I’d sought for years.

I found relief in taking action, begun by asking for help. One of the first things I did was accept that I’d done a lot of damage to a lot of people. Because of the guilt and the shame I’d felt, I had also begun to resent those same people. I accepted that I held strong resentments against people and institutions that I had wronged. This is how the mind of someone obsessed with self works. I wronged someone, and then because I could no longer look them in the eye without feeling a combination of shame and guilt, I resented them. It was easier. I hated them. Because of what I did to them. I accepted this.

The story of my sobriety is the story of man gaining the ability to be honest with himself. Having the capacity to be honest seems to be a prerequisite to getting sober from what I can tell. I had to honestly admit that I had a part in every resentment that I held. Likewise I now think the story of white America is the story of a people who have a very hard time accepting the damage they’ve done. A people unable to be honest with themselves, and therefore unable to look black America in the eye without feelings of guilt, shame, resentment, or hate. Some of white America responds like a drunk being asked to face their problem. They react with anger, with violence, with self righteousness. Some of America gets lost in feelings of guilt and despair, unable to overcome the wreckage of the past.

I believe white America is a people who are near that point of desperation and unable to or unwilling to admit defeat. The battle is over! Admit it! America is not a white nation and a black nation, it is one nation but tearing itself apart. There are indeed overt racists. White people who actively belittle, cajole, name call, discriminate and oppress. This is well documented. Some of these are the people in the highest seats of power unfortunately. There are also white people who like me would not consider themselves racists because they support civil rights, but because these people, like me, have not actively worked to bring about the end of institutional racism, they are indeed complicit in oppression. This is a very uncomfortable truth.

My white brothers and sisters, we need to be strong. People of color need us to be strong. What does that mean? It means being strong enough to feel the uncomfortable truth and accept our part, and it means making amends. It means putting their struggle before our comfort. It means giving people of color the opportunity to tell us what it means. All lives do not matter until black lives matter. And black lives do not matter until we admit our complicity in their oppression and join them in their struggle, ACTIVELY join them. Now is the time. Right now.

Having gotten sober, all the promises of the world have opened up to me. I used to have no idea who I was. I considered myself a peaceful, spiritual dude, a feminist, a strong man. I was not. I was just a drunk and a stoner with long hair and some cool beads. But I tell you, having shed the obsession to be high all the time, and having gained the tools necessary to deal with a mind which wants to obsess on self, I have been able to find out who I really am. And I’ve found a community of people who accept me for who I am and allow me to continue to grow into who I will be. Like Whitman wrote, do I contradict myself? Very well then, I am large. I contain multitudes.

America, you are large. You contain multitudes. America, who the hell are you? Who do you want to be? You will never know until you make peace with the past, and that means being strong enough to admit defeat and feel really uncomfortable. America your past is not pretty. As Baldwin puts it, “The history of America is the history of the negro in America.” It cannot be separated. And it must be faced before our nation destroys itself. Go see I Am Not Your Negro if you haven’t already. It’s eloquent and sad and rage-inducing and beautiful. And, I think, it is hopeful. There is relief, America, and it does not come from some external force, it comes from within, it comes from looking in the mirror and taking action. Each of us. I think especially my white brothers and sisters.

At the rally before the Womxn’s March in Seattle I heard something that I think needs to be repeated. I’m paraphrasing: In times of struggle, look to the wisdom of the survivors. Look to women of color. I’m a white dude coming to terms with his place in the dismantling of oppression, a system I have been complicit in because of my lack of action. But I have fucking had enough, and I don’t think it’s too late. I am not a leader here nor wish to be. I’m just a worker among workers. I’m uncomfortable, and I don’t know what I’m doing. But if my privilege or my experience can help, it’s yours.

Published by pedalpoet

Poet, writer, and songwriter living in Seattle, WA

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