I just did something I haven’t done in at least a dozen years. Wrote a letter to a magazine editor.
Given my interest in the Civil War & my novel Soldier’s Heart, an essay in the New Yorker (8/22) re: the Underground Railroad caught my eye. Essayist Kathryn Schulz titled the article “Derailed, The troubling allure of the Underground Railroad”. She worries that creating the historical sites of the Freedom Trail will have the unintended consequence of letting us off the hook too easily. Will we still do the relational work necessary to share our history, or remain separated out, along lines of color and culture? I was intrigued by her use of a word you just don’t see much these days: Iniquity. Here’s my response:
Iniquity is a word so biblically particular and resonant that it shapes Kathryn Schulz’s critique in “Derailed, The troubling allure of the Underground Railroad” (August 22nd). Slavery is “fundamentally the story of America” and “iniquity unbound by latitude.” If we are to trace our “moral genealogy” from the agents of the Underground Railroad, she reminds us that “Iniquity is always coercive and insidious and intimidating, and lived reality is always a muddle, and the kind of clarity that leads to action comes not from without but from within…when someone needs [an Underground Railroad]—and someone always needs it—we don’t have to build it. We are it, if we choose.”
Amen. And what does choosing entail? Getting the history right, for starters; confession, if you will. Does confession have value without repentance? And then what?
In our town, the Goodridge Freedom Center opened this summer. It is an authenticated stop in the Network to Freedom. It was the residence of William C. and Evalina (Wallace) Goodridge, an African American couple, both freed slaves, whose creative entrepreneurship (his) and careful management (hers) made them a fortune. Their “hidey-holes” for freedom seekers included a secret cellar under their kitchen floor, compartments on their railcars, and a spot under the stairwell of their five story commercial building, the tallest in York of that era.
It was my privilege to speak there recently. Attendees brought the Goodridges’ story to bear on their present day lives and community. Human trafficking. Separated out communities. Refugees in our midst. We have ample opportunity for choosing and it gets worked out in relationship. We need to press into our shared and sometimes sordid history in order to redeem it. I hope the congregations and community centers like the Goodridge House in York, PA and elsewhere across the U.S. become staging areas for choosing.
A biblical underground agent comes to mind. Was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? (James 2:25)
“To be a better American”
Let’s get more specific. Just a couple of days after I wrote that letter, a friend and work colleague, Mack White, shared another article with me. Mack is the director of The Salvation Army’s Bridging the Gap, a life skills and character education program for students. The story Mack shared, written by Colby Itkowitz for The Washington Post, provides some good, honest action steps.
On Aug 24 a video went viral when a caller to C-SPAN’s Washington Journal admitted he was prejudiced and asked how to change “to be a better American.”
The video of Heather McGhee answering the question, How to stop being prejudiced, got over 1 million views. McGhee is head of the public policy group Dēmos. “Thank you so much for being honest and for opening up this conversation” she said. “It’s one of the most important ones we have to have in this country.”(Check out the video at Dēmos.org)
Drawn from the video and Itkowitz’s interview, here are McGhee’s practical steps anyone can take toward ending prejudice:
1: Enjoy cross-racial and cross-cultural friendships
2: Avoid forming opinions about people of different communities from crime stories on the evening news
3: If you are spiritual, join a mixed racial/cultural church
4: Read up on the rich histories of communities whose culture is different than your own
5: Start honest conversations with your family, friends, community, about race and your desire to end prejudice
6: Admit the presence of pre-conceived notions and bias. Exit the denial phase as the brave caller did
7: Create a shared sense of history
8: Acknowledge the sins of our past that still influence policy
9: Celebrate that USA’s greatness comes from its diversity
10: Do the intentional work of finding the human capacity within all of us, across race and culture
By the way, Mack is also a member of the well-known jazz band, Extremity. If you were at the Strand during YorkFest on Saturday night (8/27) you got a sweet jazz-infused taste of Yorkers making some shared history. Want to know another huge inspiration for me? The children and youth of The Salvation Army, students in the youth programs, and in the church (and yes, diverse. Sunday service starts at 10:45 am).
Many of these children have overcome so much. They want to be their best selves. They want to be “better Americans.” So refreshing. Even when adults don’t seem to get it, the kids do. The kids always do.