Yesterday, I literally had one foot out the front door for my daily pretense that I am getting some exercise by walking around the block, when I got dragged back indoors by an idea. It was as if some well-known bear had opened its hibernating eyes: I had an idea and the idea, for better or worse, grabbed me and turned the old circuits back on ... DO IT! So I sat back down at the computer and knocked out a newspaper column on a topic I generally shy away from ... it's too vast, too faceted, too electrifying, too self-serving ... no one can get a handle on racism and pretending there is some handle is a pastime for fools. OK, I played the fool, wrote the column, contacted the editor who had told me that I was allowed one column a month in the local paper (this would be my second), and he agreed to shoehorn the piece in today because, as he put it enigmatically, it had "value." What the fuck does that mean? I have no clue and am not inclined to find one.
Where had the energy and drive come from? It popped up like some teenaged pimple that had just been waiting to appear full-blown ... not-cleared-up at all. Other writing projects have been dwindling, waning in my mind. My social outrage circuit has run out of the pep it once had. And yet this one for no good reason I could discern, insisted that I spend forty-five minutes not walking around the block. I didn't really think it was very good or very important ... all I knew was that I was bound to do it. I did. Then I walked around the block.
Here's what the newspaper printed:
THE IDEA OF RACIAL RECONCILIATION IN AMERICA
NORTHAMPTON — Here’s another column about racism you do not need to read.
In the emotional tsunami that rose up after June 17 fatal shooting of nine black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a friend of mine sent me a proposal.
The Rev. Emmett Coyne, a Roman Catholic and author, suggested in a draft of a letter he wanted to send to a newspaper that a serious approach to racism in United States might be an American version of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and that a good choice to head such a body would be Charleston’s longtime mayor, Joseph P. Riley Jr., who is planning to retire.
Emmett and I knocked a few emails back and forth, tweaking the wording he wanted to use in his letter. I played the skeptical — very skeptical — editor ... and did what I could to help make the proposal more newspaper-friendly. Emmett hoped to get it published in time for President Barack Obama’s trip to Charleston today: Maybe the suggestion would catch his eye.
Emmett needed to cut the emotional chaff, I said — there was enough of that abroad in the land. Angry? Grief-stricken? Weeping? Historic? Forgiving? Healing? Forgetaboutit! To create an impact, state your premise in clear terms and leave the tears and hymns to others. That was my half-hearted suggestion.
It was half-hearted because I didn’t think the proposal stood a snowball’s chance in hell of achieving liftoff. If there is one thing America has proved it can do, it is to forget the lessons of the last news cycle.
Kids gunned down in a Connecticut grade school? That’s last year’s news. Banks and stock brokers fleecing the world? Bail ’em out and gut meaningful reform. Jon Stewart is a hoot as he points out hypocrisy after greedy hypocrisy on his Daily Show, but as we laugh, not a hair on Mitt Romney’s head is dislodged. And then there’s always “Mission Accomplished” followed by yet another conflict in which young Americans will die.
Well, I’m just your average white-guy liberal — someone exhausted by the mounting examples of things that need doing and fail to get done on behalf of the country I live in. I am beyond infuriated: I am tired. Mitt Romney et al. know I am tired. And the same is true for any more overtly racist covens.
The trouble with the idea of an American version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — a place where people could speak and be heard — is that it would require a willingness to admit that such a commission were warranted in the first place.
It would require me to step up and say that despite all my feel-good guilt and make-nice talk, I am a racist. Not overtly, of course. I don’t burn crosses or act super nice around those of other races, but my fatigue outstrips my outrage. I have my excuses.
To step up to the plate and concede that I have been part and party to the grinding slights that other races have suffered requires an energy and patience and courage and self-assessment the leaves me breathless ... as I suspect it leaves other good-hearted liberals as well.
There are children to rear, bills to pay, lawns to mow, family fights to fight, jobs to be fretful about, ... the whole panoply of living life. There are many ways as well in which I may chastise myself — and I really don’t want to shoulder another. Really, I don’t.
I am thankful for Emmett’s efforts. I am thankful that anyone might consider a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I am grateful that some less galling outlook might claim the national scene and the bullets and poverty recede, if even only slightly. Grateful, yes. But not willing to buy into some “caring” solution that solves little or nothing.
I am unwilling to express a hope I do not feel. If I could make things better, I would. But in the meantime, the best I can muster is a bit of honesty and a hope that I can live up to the Buddhist suggestion that, “It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern. It is what I do and do not do — that is my concern.”
It may not be much, but it beats the heartfelt pretense that rises up and falls away with such striking regularity.
Adam Fisher of Northampton is a regular columnist.