Tuesday, August 15, 2017

We cannot go backward

Photo by Todd Robertson
I came of age on the edge of darkness. My senior year in high school was spent in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where I saw “whites only” drinking fountains and there were no black faces in my school. I went to college in Oklahoma and heard tales of black students having to sit in a roped off area of the law school classes. In the dorms, we had long conversations about whether or not we would want to swim in the same pool with “them." At my first "real" job, I was shunned because I went to break with the only black person in the all-women department supervised by, of course, a man.

I didn’t grow up in a particularly progressive family, but it wasn’t filled with hate. When I looked at the photos from the Charlottesville rally, what struck me was the angry hate that filled the faces of the young, white men. What happened to them? How did they get to a place of such deep hatred, teetering on the edge of violence?

It reminded me of a time in the early 1990s when I visited the compound of the Aryan Nations, a white supremacist group led by Richard Butler from his compound outside Hayden, Idaho. I was writing a novel about white supremacists and, at the time, the Aryan Nations was a well-known terrorist group. I wanted to see for myself what they looked like and what they said in a one-to-one conversation. I was surprised when they granted me an interview. I was a nobody from no where.

When I drove into the compound in my tiny rental car, two old dogs came up to the car, tails wagging, which somewhat relieved the pounding of my heart. At least the dogs were friendly.

The compound had a rural, run down look: worn wooden buildings, people sitting in chairs on a long front porch. I noticed two, young tow-headed children coloring on the porch steps. I could have been visiting my grandparents.

Butler’s office was a make-do metal building overflowing with papers, pictures of Hitler, swastikas and t-shirts for the believers. Butler was in his mid-70s and was kindly enough as he began to spew a well-rehearsed stream of how white people are threatened and have to stand up for themselves. He had heard all of my questions before. His answers were ready and pat so he didn't mind that I was recording them.

After about an hour of his disturbing monologue, I left. As I walked to my car, I glanced over at the children and could see what they were coloring: swastikas. That image of those young, innocent children coloring a symbol of hate shocked my system. I managed to get my car started, but as soon as I was off their property, I stopped and wept and still tear up thinking about them. That was about 25 years ago. Were they part of the torch-carrying crowd in Charlottesville? 

When Jimmy Fallon said in his powerful message, “We cannot go backward,” it made me weep again. Weep for the hard-earned progress made  over the past few decades, when all it took was one man with no moral compass to puncture the apparently unhealed wound underlying that progress.

We have much work to do. We cannot go backwards. However, those of us who believe in love, have to find a way to connect with those who hate. It reminds me of Edward Markham's poem Outwitted:

He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But, love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle and took him in!

We cannot go backwards. We have to draw a bigger circle. Each one of us who believes in love has to try to pass that love along to those who may have literally spent their chiildhoods amidst hate. Last year's election separated us into camps, divided friends and families as we drew a line in the sand and defended our positions, creating "them" and "us."

We cannot go backwards. Gandhi said, "We have to be the change we want to see in the world." We must have the "wit to win."

If we want to see a world of love, we have to BE love. Maybe it's time to refriend the people we've unfriended on Facebook. Maybe we can't understand their political position, but each one of them is a person: a mother, father, sister, brother, daughter, son. Each of them is carrying wounds that cannot be seen, facing fears that darken their days.

If we can't love them, how can we expect those young men in Charlottesville to put down their torches?

We cannot go backwards.

Many years ago I was at a spirituality in business conference in Puerto Vallarta. During a break I was walking down the sidewalk and a young man was walking toward me focused on something in his hands. The sidewalk was narrow and we were on a collision course. Suddenly, the thought came to me: He with the most awareness has to be the one that moves. Of course, I just stepped aside and he moved on unaware of the life lesson he had just provided.

Those of us who know and believe in love are aware of its importance and power. We have to be the ones making the first move. We don't have to accept or condone their hatred or positions, but we do need to love the person.

We cannot go backwards.

Photo Credit: The photo above comes from a newspaper article taken during a Klan march in Gainesville, Ga., by photographer Todd Robertson on Saturday, September 5, 1992.

6 comments:

  1. Well said. I'm debating about writing about being taken to a KKK rally in Louisiana in the 1960's which has had a significant impact on me all my life. Not sure yet, whether I will or not. Pretty deep stuff. I appreciate your post.

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    1. Thanks. I would so like to hear your story.

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  2. Robertson's image of moral corruption needs no explanation: hate is taught and learned. I've been to Charlottesville numerous times; to think that the UVa campus was used by those neo-Nazi torch-bearers sickens me. It's time we all take a stand against hate and begin by ridding ourselves of this administration.

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    1. That would be a good start but I'm afraid that's only curing the symptom. There's a much deeper wound.

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  3. Powerful piece... we have to hold that vibrational energy to balance out the darkness... and then to draw in the light... Thanks for this!!!!

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  4. Thanks, Tracey ... what would the grandmothers say about all of this?

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