Creating spaces for Truth-telling about Race in the United States
April 2, 2009
Attorney General Eric Holder's remarks at the Department of
Justice on February 18, 2009, have rather typically —and sadly—-
sparked more heat than light. For this outcome I do not blame Mr.
Holder. He not only has a right to his voice, but the responsibility
to use his personal and political power to help move us farther along
the long arc, which Dr. King famously said, bends towards justice.
What I want to accomplish in this reflection is an
invitation to "the other half," the perennially missing half: that of
learning and teaching how to create spaces where more truth, and thus
more light, can emerge.
First, the opening paragraphs of the speech: Wednesday,
February 18, 2009
Eric Holder, Attorney General of the United States
Every year, in February, we attempt to recognize and to appreciate
black history. It is a worthwhile endeavor for the contributions of
African Americans to this great nation are numerous and significant.
Even as we fight a war against terrorism, deal with the reality of
electing an African American as our President for the first time and
deal with the other significant issues of the day, the need to
confront our racial past, and our racial present, and to understand
the history of African people in this country, endures. One cannot
truly understand America without understanding the historical
experience of black people in this nation. Simply put, to get to the
heart of this country one must examine its racial soul.
Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting
pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too
many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. Though race related issues
continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion,
and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation,
we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about
race. It is an issue we have never been at ease with and given our
nationâ€™s history this is in some ways understandable. And yet, if we
are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with
one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank
conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us. But
we must do more- and we in this room bear a special responsibility.
Through its work and through its example this Department of Justice,
as long as I am here, must - and will - lead the nation to the "new
birth of freedom" so long ago promised by our greatest President. This
is our duty and our solemn obligation.
I want to call Mr. Holder, and ask him for an hour of his
time. I know, I know, that's like asking for a week in Washington
time, but still. . .
First I would say, Mr. Holder, thank you for speaking your
truth to your power, and thank you for hearing this humble citizen
speak my truth to my power.
With respect, sir, I don't agree that most of us are
cowards, nor do I believe we need more confrontation. Confrontation
of various kinds is how we came to this impasse, and ignores
Einstein's very wise insight that we cannot solve problems at the same
level of consciousness that created them.
Mr. Holder, we will never 'get to the heart,' nor will we
'examine the racial (or any other kind of) soul' in confrontation, nor
in 'simply talking with one another about race.' The soul, to
paraphrase Parker Palmer, is shy; it doesn't show up in noisy,
confrontational spaces. Nor does the heart open in places lacking
psychological safety, in places promising, frankly, more violence.
I would say, Sir, I am not suggesting another diversity
program with its own vaunted experts and expertise. We don't need
more theories, regulations, more studies, more well-intentioned
conferences in sterile hotel rooms where earnest people get bludgeoned
with the usual instruments of torture: panels of talking heads,
edgy experiments in unsafe containers. Even the official apologies and
public rituals of accountability—-while important— have failed to
effect much healing as they have rarely emerged from authentic and
sustained engagement with our tangled personal and collective
histories of oppressing and being oppressed.
I would say Mr. Holder , May I read you a poem?
"I am a landscape," he said.
"a landscape and a person walking in that landscape.
There are daunting cliffs there,
And plains glad in their way
of brown monotony. But especially
there are sinkholes, places
of sudden terror, of small circumference
and malevolent depths."
"I know," she said. "When I set forth
to walk in myself, as it might be
on a fine afternoon, forgetting,
sooner or later I come to where sedge
and clumps of white flowers, rue perhaps,
mark the bogland, and I know
there are quagmires there that can pull you
down, and sink you in bubbling mud."
"We had an old dog," he told her, "when I was a boy,
a good dog, friendly. But there was an injured spot
on his head, if you happened
just to touch it he'd jump up yelping
and bite you. He bit a young child,
they had to take him down to the vet's and destroy him."
"No one knows where it is," she said,
"and even by accident no one touches it.
It's inside my landscape, and only I, making my way
preoccupied through my life, crossing my hills,
sleeping on green moss of my own woods,
I myself without warning touch it,
and leap up at myself -"
"- or flinch back
just in time."
"Yes, we learn that.
It's not a terror, it's pain we're talking about:
those places in us, like your dog's bruised head,
that are bruised forever, that time
never assuages, never."
In the silence after reading the poem, I would ask, would
you be willing to lend the authority and resources of the Department
of Justice to teaching and learning simple and transformational
practices of being together in our complicated landscapes of injury?
There is pain there-but -no, we are not cowards for
flinching back from stepping yet again into the sinkholes of blame and
recrimination, continued wounding of one another. On the contrary, it
requires a great deal of courage to admit that sitting down with one
another among diverse —-and even competing— truths holds as much
promise for racial and all other forms of justice (economic, gender,
environmental) than the decades of standing at podiums and in
courtrooms pressing in on one another's injured places. No wonder we
bite one another!
Sir, in additional to your very important and still
necessary practices of pursuing justice in the courts, will you,
beginning with one circle made up of your immediate staff
begin the process? I know some people who can help.
Mary Pierce Brosmer 513.272.1171 x. 3