My heart has been heavy this week, along with the hearts of most Americans. The shooting of two black men by police officers, followed by the massacre of five white policemen in Dallas and the wounding of several others, has brought to the forefront the problem of racism in this country. I have so many thoughts on this issue, and will write them all eventually, as writing is the way I turn thoughts into actions. I’ve been doing a lot of research and writing about slavery in America, and I have never been so heartbroken and sickened by anything in my life. I couldn’t even enjoy the 4th of July this year, knowing all that I know now about what this country has done, and sadly continues to do in many ways, to African Americans.
But as I’ve been trying to make sense of the heaviness inside me, God has been with me, whispering to my heart. Last night, He gave me a dream that was so profound, it had to be shared.
I dreamed I was visiting either a sort of Holocaust museum, or an actual former concentration camp, I’m not sure which. I was with a small group of people. As we walked around, several times I saw a young black man who was working there. He was quiet and hard-working, friendly with those who had questions, but mostly focused on his work. I felt drawn to him, like I wanted to speak to him, but felt unsure of what to say.
There was an area where you could go into an actual gas chamber, where millions of Jews were massacred during the Holocaust. I went into this chamber, and I saw terrible things. I don’t know if it was a movie they were showing, or if it was just my very vivid imagination (I have a way of being able to clearly picture things that happened in history), but I saw the mass of naked, emaciated bodies being herded into this large, cold room. I saw their confusion, and then their faces contorting with pain and fear as the spigots turned on and the gas began to rain down on them. I imagined the horror, and along with them, I hoped it would end soon and they would find mercy in death.
As I was experiencing this, I could not take my mind off all the recent events surrounding racism in my own country. I couldn’t stop thinking about slavery and all the unimaginable horrors it brought to millions of people. As I watched scenes from the Holocaust being played out, I thought, this is what we did to them. Not in the same way, and over a much longer period of time, and in a (sadly) much more societally accepted way. But slavery destroyed the lives of millions of Africans and African-Americans. It brought poverty, disease, hardship, fear, and death.
I know…it’s in the past. Stop living in 1862. Move on, we abolished slavery and black people now have equal rights and opportunities with whites.
I used to believe that, too.
I grew up in the South. I drank the Kool-aid. I lived with my head under a rock and ignored racism all around me because it was uncomfortable. I argued with people that the Civil War was fought over states rights and that in many cases, slaves were like family to their owners and they chose to stay even when they didn’t have to. Now that I’ve researched–really researched–what slavery was actually like in America, I am embarrassed at how willfully ignorant I used to be.
And it doesn’t end there. The abolishment of slavery was followed by a full century of mistreatment and poverty for African Americans. Then came the Civil Rights Movement, which exposed all the horrors of life for so much of their population, and change slowly started to happen. But I can tell you from experience, we are still a far, far cry from equality in this nation. Some places may have figured it out, but not my city. Not my state. And I live in the North now, so we can’t blame it all on Southern history. America has badly mistreated black people, simply because they are black.
Back to my dream… As the heaviness of all these thoughts weighed on me, I could hardly fight back the tears. I followed the group out of the gas chambers and back to the museum area. And then I saw the young black man, still going about his work. I went to him with tears in my eyes, and asked him if he would step aside with me so I could talk to him. He agreed, and we moved to a quieter area, away from the crowd. A young, wealthy-looking woman, who I didn’t know, and her three little girls saw us, and for some reason decided to join in our conversation. I felt awkward with them there, so we small-talked for a few minutes. Then I turned to the woman, and said “What I’m about to say could get graphic, so if you don’t want your girls to hear it, you might want to step away.” She looked alarmed, but before she could hurry them away, I turned to the young man and began to speak. Suddenly, as dreams go, we were alone.
The tears I had been struggling with couldn’t be held back anymore, and they spilled over with my words. “I just want to tell you I’m sorry.” I said. “I’m so sorry for what my country has put you through. I’m sorry for your ancestors and the horrors they experienced in slavery. It’s shameful. It’s so shameful, and I’m so sorry.” I went on for several minutes, apologizing in detail for all the various wrongs committed against black people in this country, starting with the slave trade in the 18th century, moving on to the Civil Rights Movement, and ending with the current wrongful violence and prejudice of today.
I cried openly, and as I spoke, he cried with me. It was healing– deep, soulful, heartfelt healing. Even though we were strangers–I not racist, and he perhaps not a direct victim of racism–we represented our two races. I represented the white Americans who have done so much wrong, and he represented the black Americans who are living with the consequences of our sins. When I was done speaking, we hugged tightly, and cried together. Even in the healing, there was a deep sadness and mourning.
It wasn’t until several hours after I woke up that I realized I distinctly recognized the face of the young man. He works in the produce section of our local grocery store. He is quiet and hard-working, friendly with those customers who have questions, but mostly focused on his work. I saw him the day of the Dallas shootings, and my heart went out to him. I wanted to give him a hug and say I was sorry for all that he must be going through in this time. I wanted to ask how he is doing, and ask if he encounters prejudice in our mostly-white town, where he is most likely the only African-American working at that store, and probably gets rude stares from kids now and then. I wanted to extend words of grace, to say that I am proud of him for working hard, that I am always impressed by his kind spirit, that the color of his skin is like gold to the God who created him.
But I didn’t. Instead I awkwardly looked at a bag of lemons I didn’t intend to buy until he looked up and caught my eye. I smiled and said hello, then walked away. Why? Fear, probably. Fear of not knowing what to say, or of saying the wrong thing. Fear of offending him, because goodness knows there’s a lot to be offended about these days. So I walked through the grocery store, bearing my heavy heart, and wishing I could do something about it.
What can be done about it? Where can we begin healing the breach? I wish I knew. I wish I could end this post with a brilliant revelation of how to fix all our country’s problems. But God didn’t reveal that to me in my dream. He just showed me, in a deeply profound way, how to begin making things right in my own heart. How to root out the traces of racism I know are still embedded in there. How to see others as He sees them.
I can’t make right the wrongs of hundreds of years of oppression. But I can be kind to everyone I meet. I can get over my fear and start having conversations with strangers about what life looks like for them as African-Americans in today’s society. Maybe, if the situation warrants it, I can even say I’m sorry, deeply sorry, for any pain they’ve gone through. And I can continue to let righteous anger burn in my heart, as long as I don’t simply sit and be angry. I need to kneel and pray, and then stand up and do something, anything, to help move this nation forward to a future where all are truly equal.