I didn’t move for a long time this morning after listening to the Letter From A Birmingham Jail.
I’d read it before, but this was the first time I’d plugged in my ear buds and let the words roll in one by one, slowly enough to saturate and pool beneath my ribs. This is the first year that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has felt to me more like a movement than a memorial.
I have struggled with, and ultimately abandoned, many versions of this post over the last six months. The truth is that I’m a white girl from the South, and if I can speak about racial inequality from experience, it’s only because I know what it is to be on the pedestal. I was born onto it, as many were (and many more were not). I grew up so accustomed to its perimeter that I didn’t see it as anything out of the natural order of creation until somewhere much closer to adulthood than not.
After Ferguson, I listened like it was my job. I heard the chorus singing Look! Listen! This is real!, and I felt like I’d suffocate from the enormity of the truth I was hearing if I didn’t push it back out into the world with my own voice. Others were suffocating in real life though, and the last thing I wanted to do was to make #icantbreathe about myself. I couldn’t find a way to advocate that didn’t feel like trying to reclaim my pedestal.
Silence hasn’t sat well with me either though. The Letter From A Birmingham Jail was written to white moderates who were sympathetic to social justice issues but ultimately more concerned with not ruffling feathers. Meanwhile, the group being discriminated against by society were “so drained of self respect and a sense of ‘somebodiness’ that they [had] adjusted to segregation.” How a human soul can disintegrate in the silence of those with good intentions.
I know what it is to grow up on the pedestal, to be told that nothing stands between myself and the stars. Somebodiness is woven into the bedtime stories we tell our children. It’s as much a part of our vernacular as are confidence and constitutional rights. When I hear that kids are growing up absent of it or feeling their sense of personal relevance leeched from their bones by the same society that supported me, I want to push a refresh button until it all starts making sense. How can there still be inequality in 2015? How can “a negative peace which is the absence of tension” still be considered more important than putting wrongs to right?
It all swirled in the air around me after I finished listening to Dr. King’s words this morning, a complicated and deeply sobering nebula of past and present truths. I had no influence over the circumstances of my birth—the DNA braided into the pigment of my skin, the culture poised to catch me. Even now, it’s easy to think that I’m just a product of my environment, just a white girl with white privilege guilt who is no more capable of changing the world than she is of bustin’ a rhyme.
I know what a sense of somebodiness looks like though, and if Buechner is right about God calling us “to the place where [our] deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” then maybe this is where I can be the change—noticing where the lie of “nobodiness” has latched on in the environment around me and starting there, staying small, being willing to ruffle feathers at my own expense, giving up the comfort of silence if it means gaining even a millimeter toward a more just world. It’s not much, but it’s a start toward one of the truest portraits of heaven-on-earth I’ve ever heard:
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. (from the end of his Letter From a Birmingham Jail)