Friday, November 23, 2012

What replaces normal? THE great task that awaits us.

The other day I posted some of David Simon's reaction to this recent election that he titled the death of normal.
Regardless of what happens with his second term, Barack Obama’s great victory has already been won: We are all the other now, in some sense. Special interests? That term has no more meaning in the New America. We are all — all of us, every last American, even the whitest of white guys — special interests. And now, normal isn’t white or straight or Christian. There is no normal.
But in addition to declaring "normal" dead, Simon pointed us in the direction of what its replacement will be.
America will soon belong to the men and women — white and black and Latino and Asian, Christian and Jew and Muslim and atheist, gay and straight — who can walk into a room and accept with real comfort the sensation that they are in a world of certain difference, that there are no real majorities, only pluralities and coalitions.
To me, Simon just described the essence of the challenge that awaits us. Its the next step for those of us who want to continue the process of "forming a more perfect union." President Obama  spoke to this same challenge back in 2008.
And on the eve of the bus boycotts in Montgomery, at a time when many were still doubtful about the possibilities of change, a time when those in the black community mistrusted themselves, and at times mistrusted each other, King inspired with words not of anger, but of an urgency that still speaks to us today:

“Unity is the great need of the hour” is what King said. Unity is how we shall overcome.

What Dr. King understood is that if just one person chose to walk instead of ride the bus, those walls of oppression would not be moved. But maybe if a few more walked, the foundation might start to shake. If a few more women were willing to do what Rosa Parks had done, maybe the cracks would start to show. If teenagers took freedom rides from North to South, maybe a few bricks would come loose. Maybe if white folks marched because they had come to understand that their freedom too was at stake in the impending battle, the wall would begin to sway. And if enough Americans were awakened to the injustice; if they joined together, North and South, rich and poor, Christian and Jew, then perhaps that wall would come tumbling down, and justice would flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Unity is the great need of the hour – the great need of this hour. Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it’s the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country.

I’m not talking about a budget deficit. I’m not talking about a trade deficit. I’m not talking about a deficit of good ideas or new plans.

I’m talking about a moral deficit. I’m talking about an empathy deficit. I’m taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.
But the very best thing I've ever read about the struggle that awaits us came from a speech Bernice Johnson Reagon gave at the West Coast Women's Festival way back in 1981. She had the prophetic vision to see what was coming. And she had the wisdom to break it down for us. Its not going to be pretty and its not going to be easy. But our lives depend on it. I'm going to quote a good bit of her speech here. But please take the few minutes it will require to read it...its just that important!
We’ve pretty much come to the end of a time when you can have a space that is “yours only”—just for the people you want to be there...To a large extent it’s because we have just finished with that kind of isolating. There is no hiding place. There is nowhere you can go and only be with people who are like you. It’s over. Give it up.

Now every once in awhile there is a need for people to try to clean out corners and bar the doors and check everybody who comes in the door, and check what they carry in and say, “Humph, inside this place the only thing we are going to deal with is X or Y or Z.” And so only the X’s or Y’s or Z’s get to come in. That place can then become a nurturing place or a very destructive place. Most of the time when people do that, they do it because of the heat of trying to live in this society where being an X or Y or Z is very difficult, to say the least. The people running the society call the shots as if they’re still living in one of those little villages, where they kill the ones they don’t like or put them in the forest to die...

When somebody else is running a society like that, and you are the one who would be put out to die, it gets too hard to stay out in that society all the time. And that’s when you find a place, and you try to bar the door and check all the people who come in. You come together to see what you can do about shouldering up all of your energies so that you and your kind can survive.

There is no chance that you can survive by staying inside the barred room. That will not be tolerated. The door of the room will just be painted red and then when those who call the shots get ready to clean house, they have easy access to you.

But that space while it lasts should be a nurturing space where you sift out what people are saying about you and decide who you really are. And you take the time to try to construct within yourself and within your community who you would be if you were running society. In fact, in that little barred room where you check everybody at the door, you act out community. You pretend that your room is a world...Of course the problem with the experiment is that there ain’t nobody in there but folk like you, which by implication means you wouldn’t know what to do if you were running it with all of the other people who are out there in the world. Now that’s nationalism. I mean it’s nurturing, but it is also nationalism. At a certain stage nationalism is crucial to a people if you are going to ever impact as a group in your own interest. Nationalism at another point becomes reactionary because it is totally inadequate for surviving in the world with many peoples.

Sometimes you get comfortable in your little barred room, and you decide you in fact are going to live there and carry out all of your stuff in there. And you gonna take care of everything that needs to be taken care of in the barred room. If you’re white and in the barred room and if everybody’s white, one of the first things you try to take care of is making sure that people don’t think that the barred room is a racist barred room. So you begin to talk about racism and the first thing you do is say, “Well, maybe we better open the door and let some Black folks in the barred room.” Then you think, “Well, how we gonna figure out whether they’re X’s or not?” Because nothing in the room but X’s. You go down the checklist. You been working a while to sort out who you are, right? So you go down the checklist and say, “If we can find Black folk like that we’ll let them in the room.” You don’t really want Black folks, you are just looking for yourself with a little color to it.

And there are those of us Black folk who are like that. So if you’re lucky you can open the door and get one or two. Right? And everything’s wonderful. But no matter what, there will be one or two of us who have not bothered to be like you and you know it. We come knocking on your door and say, “Well, you let them in, you let me in too.” And we will break your door down trying to get in. As far as we can see we are also X’s. Cause you didn’t say, “THIS BARRED ROOM IS FOR WHITE X’S ONLY.” You just said it was for X’s. So everybody who thinks they’re an X comes running to get into the room. And because you trying to take care of everything in this room, and you know you’re not racist, you get pressed to let us all in.

The first thing that happens is that the room don’t feel like the room anymore. And it ain’t home no more. It is not a womb no more. And you can’t feel comfortable no more. And what happens at that point has to do with trying to do too much in it. You don’t do no coalition building in a womb...Inside the womb you generally are very soft and unshelled. You have no covering. And you have no ability to handle what happens if you start to let folks in who are not like you.

Coalition work is not work done in your home. Coalition work has to be done in the streets. And it is some of the most dangerous work you can do. And you shouldn’t look for comfort. Some people will come to a coalition and they rate the success of the coalition on whether or not they feel good when they get there. They’re not looking for a coalition; they’re looking for a home! They’re looking for a bottle with some milk in it and a nipple, which does not happen in a coalition. You don’t get a lot of food in a coalition. You don’t get fed a lot in a coalition. In a coalition you have to give, and it is different from your home. You can’t stay there all the time. You go to the coalition for a few hours and then you go back and take your bottle wherever it is, and then you go back and coalesce some more.

It is very important not to confuse them—home and coalition...

It must become necessary for all of us to feel that this is our world. And that we are here to stay and that anything that is here is ours to take and to use in our image. And watch that “ours’ make it as big as you can—it ain’t got nothing to do with that barred room. The “our” must include everybody you have to include in order for you to survive. You must be sure you understand that you ain’t gonna be able to have an “our” that don’t include Bernice Johnson Reagon, cause I don’t plan to go nowhere! That’s why we have to have coalitions. Cause I ain’t gonna let you live unless you let me live. Now there’s danger in that, but there’s also the possibility that we can both live—if you can stand it...

There is an offensive movement that started in this country in the 60’s that is continuing. The reason we are stumbling is that we are at the point where in order to take the next step we’ve got to do it with some folk we don’t care too much about. And we got to vomit over that for a little while. We must just keep going.
I think of this speech by Reagon every time I watch someone bar the door to another person because they're not "X" (read: normal). I wonder what it would look like if, instead, we just vomited a bit and kept going. As Reagon says, it means letting ourselves feel uncomfortable for awhile. It might also mean working through the conflict that putting "X" and "Y" together ultimately brings...knowing that conflict doesn't need to be fatal and that - even in its midst - we also share some important common ground.

Those are simply the beginnings of what I know and too often fail to practice. But I agree with Simon, and President Obama, and Reagon...figuring this all out is THE task that awaits us all.


  1. Thanks SP for your diligence in bringing forth truth and not allowing us to turn away especially your analysis of PBO speeches.

    You have brought so much love and insight into my life!

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