Black Lives Matter
“Humans are divided between those who can still look through the eyes of youth and those who cannot.” ― Dave Eggers, What is the What
As news rolled in this week that the Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, now faces second-degree murder charges for the death of George Floyd — a black man who said “I can’t breathe” repeatedly, as Chauvin knelt on him while he was facedown May 25 — I thought of South Sudan.
I walked along the dusty paths winding through the refugee camp, studiously ignoring the gaping looks and excited chatter — the novelty of a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed woman, wearing a long skirt, T-shirt and sandals, striding through a remote outpost of northern South Sudan was fresh in 2012.
“Hello, white woman,” said one young man in crisp, accented English, as he walked toward me. He grinned. I could tell he was proud. I wondered if he’d had the opportunity to practice his English often.
I remember thinking, “Oh! I would never greet someone like that.” I’d been taught not to. But, for him, it was a fact of life. He is a black South Sudanese man. I was a white foreign woman.
There is a startling clarity in that perspective.
Do not get me wrong. I am not saying I know what it feels like to be discriminated against because of my skin color. I am not equating my experience, living as a foreigner in East Africa, with that of people of color in the United States.
But as a female sheep farmer and journalist who has covered many things, including cops and courts, I’ve been mulling over stuff for a while now. Allow me an interruption into our normally scheduled farm-y sharing to give some thoughts.
Growing up, I was a little bit “other.” We lived on a small farm between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. I started out in a private college-prep school, run out of an old manor house. My classmates lived in McMansions with pools. I was something of an oddity, living in what was believed to be a sharecropper’s house, formerly, with former hippie parents who had protested the Vietnam war, planted a massive vegetable garden every year, raised livestock and sewed our clothes.
The aspects of that oddity continued throughout my schooling, in Ohio and, later, Pennsylvania, for college. But even that kind of other is not the same. My trajectory was not set by my skin color. The very fact that I was getting my sandal-clad feet covered in Sudanese dust all those years later speaks of privilege.
During my time living in Nairobi, Kenya, I remember having a conversation with a Kenyan woman who cleaned houses for foreigners. She cleaned mine. She also became a good friend.
I told her I wished Kenyans understood that working for Christian non-profits meant I really didn’t have a lot of money. Many foreigners lived an even more “other” life than I did, as employees of non-governmental organizations, foreign embassies or private firms.
She reminded me, very gently, that I had the money to get to Kenya in the first place. There would always be an “otherness” about my experiences, regardless of how many public transport matatus I hitched rides with or how much Swahili slang I learned.
I was a white foreigner living in sub-Saharan Africa. Within that reality, I had to learn many things and un-learn others. I’m a work in progress.
In the novel, What is the What, Dave Eggers shares the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the lost boys of Sudan. Because there is no way to corroborate many of Deng’s recollections of life in his home country, Eggers drew it up as a novel.
The book is partially a retelling of Deng’s childhood and his tragedy, as well as some of his experiences in the U.S. Deng tells of arriving at a refugee camp. There, he saw white people for the first time.
They were so light-skinned, it was like they were turned inside out, Deng recalls. Someone told him the people were so pale because they’re closest to God. “They are fragile, their skin burning in the sun, because they are closer to the status of angels. Angels would burn in a similar way if placed on earth,” he was told.
It’s hard to believe that when we see what humans of all colors do to one another. But the views of otherness comes in all forms.
This week, one of my reporters wrote an opinion piece about how being rural white is privileged. While a number of people have responded thoughtfully to the piece, discussing aspects of their life experiences, others have struck out, accusing her of spitting out “PC manure” and telling her how dare she try to make them feel guilty. And so on. I’m not sure why the concept of privilege instantly puts people on the defensive.
Imagine living your whole life as the other. Many of us try so hard in the United States to pretend that the mentality of the “other” doesn’t exist, but it does. We talk of freedom to pursue your dreams and opportunity, but even in our own communities, whether they be rural or urban, people are being left behind. Policing and how it’s practiced is a reflection of a society.
This past week, while people I know all over the country stood next to each other in a peaceful protest of the killing of George Floyd, I wrangled hundreds of ewes and spring lambs. I went hiking with dogs. I got a newspaper out on deadline. I was separate, relatively removed from the pain and the emotions.
But I followed events. I watched and listened as black friends spoke out, firmly, yet winsomely. They shouldn’t have to. But for those of us who have never been the other, it’s past time.
Utopia vs. reality
I often go down rabbit trails in search of something. I have been mulling over the phrase “melting pot” — it’s used as proof that all Americans should be integrated. One big smooshing of everyone, no definition or different language or separate culture.
The phrase is found in a number of historical references. One of the earliest is in the writings of J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, in his Letters from an American Farmer, published in 1782.
He talks of melting individuals from Europeans, or those descended from Europeans, “into a new race of man, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
I stumbled across these references and tracked down his writings to read more. It’s indelibly marked with optimism. No matter what part of Europe people came from, or what their story was, de Crevecoeur saw hope and renewal in their journey when their feet hit American soil.
I don’t have a problem with that idea. This country was founded on a balance of order and idealism — the friendship between John Adams, the pragmatist, and Thomas Jefferson, the romantic, is an example of how those two things can balance each other.
But you also can’t escape the tension between that utopian ideal and the fact that a number of people came to these shores involuntarily, the victims of human trafficking, sometimes perpetuated by people of their own skin color.
If you’ve never done so, I recommend spending time in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C. Black people have been the pawns in geopolitical machinations for centuries. Take a gander at U.S. history or the dynamics of Europeans vs. darker skinned foreigners these days and you can add other people of color to that list too.
I’ve stood on the sandy shores of the Indian Ocean and looked down at the weathered boards of steep stairs and docks erected long ago, silent now, but ringing with the echoes of countless bewildered souls’ footsteps long ago, bound for faraway places.
Humans have been awful to one another, especially in regards to skin color, since the beginning of time. Barring vast overhauls of our society, which I will believe when I see it, my question to you is: what are you going to do about it? How can you be a better person?
And don’t think that just because you live in a rural area or are involved in agriculture, you get a pass. Sorry. I have had far too many conversations with folks that live around me to think that. Sure, we can change our language, but it’s a heart thing. If we’ve never been confronted with something, we may never know it’s an issue.
If the events of the past week, if not longer, aren’t a big, flashing neon sign, I’m not sure what will be.
Look, I don’t have the answers. As has been rightfully pointed out, the fact that any of us can take time to try to understand the world as it is right now speaks to privilege. We haven’t had to live it every day of our lives, by virtue of the color of our skin.
But if we’re going to turn the corner, something has to give. Last night, I watched a video, shot by local news media in Buffalo, New York, of an older, white gentleman, a protester, who had walked up to police officers and says something to them, gesturing to the sidewalk. One officer shoves him. He stumbled backwards and hits his head on the pavement. Blood seeps onto the concrete as he lay there. His fingers loosen and his cell phone slides to the ground. Although one officer called it in, no one knelt by him to lend aid.
The original report out of the Buffalo PD was that he “tripped and fell.” Following the release of the video though, the department suspended two officers without pay and announced an investigation. If not for the video, no one would have known.
While there have been wonderful reports of cops coming together with protestors in the past week or so, there are still too many reports like this. What’s happening with police is just the tip of the iceberg though. This is a heart thing.
We need to be better.
Here are some things I’ve had to learn to do over the years, when I’ve been gently chastised for my naivete.
Nothing beats personal friendships. If you are unable to get to know new and different people face to face, you can follow different people on social media rather than your normal crowd. Hear new voices. It’s easy to create an echo chamber. It’s not so easy to branch out.
Read. Here are some materials that impacted me in various ways. There are many, many more. Just sharing some that have helped shed light on different parts of history for me.
The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill
(Interestingly, in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, it was published as Someone Knows My Name. I borrowed it from a Canadian friend, and always knew it by its original title.)
The novel is based on a list of 3,000 blacks who had served the British king during the American Revolutionary War. They were given safe passage to Canada. The book follows the journey of Aminata Diallo, a girl, from Niger, who is kidnapped and sent to the United States.
What is the What, by Dave Eggers
This is a novel based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng. While the book is based on the life and experiences of one of the lost boys of Sudan, I think the commentary on his transition to the U.S. is poignant. And the very fact that he needed to find a new home came from tensions between different people groups.
Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, by Tony Horwitz
This is a non-fiction account of Horwitz’s journey into the lore of the Civil War. He began back in the 1990s, retracing the progression of the war by traveling from state to state. Along the way, he learns more about current issues than he expected.
The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson
This is a superbly researched and written account of the migration of blacks away from Jim Crow South. Mostly following the rail lines, many settled in northern cities. Wilkerson weaves meticulously documented personal stories of those who migrated with historical context.
I also highly recommend “The Danger of a Single Story,” a TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Ndichie. She is a Nigerian author; any of her books are also good reads. Adichie shares a bit about her upbringing as a middle class Nigerian and talks about her transition to the U.S. as a college student.
The more something controls the narrative, the more powerful it is. Vibrancy is found in many stories.
I also appreciate strong journalism. Pro Publica has a treasure trove of articles by people of color and about people of color. There are wonderful journalists of color everywhere. The more you read, the more you know.
“The white flight of Derek Black,” by Eli Saslow, is an article published in 2016, in The Washington Post, but it’s still a timely read. It tells the story of a young white nationalist and his change of heart, aided by the kind attentions of unlikely friends. It demonstrates the importance of being someone’s neighbor. Saslow recently released a book about Derek Black as well.
National Farmers Union recently published a thread on Twitter with recommendations for reading about people of color in agriculture. I’ve added them to my list to read.
Those are some of my recommendations. What would you recommend?