I had a strange phone call this morning at work. I work for a small business, so it isn’t too often that we get an inbound call from a potential client who wants services. I’m always skeptical when I get these calls because they are almost always not a good fit for our services or a scam artist. I skeptically answer the line, and I begin a conversation with a woman who was trying to sort out some tax trouble. I listened carefully and promptly asked,
“And what CPA are you working with now?”
This question launches an unexpected 30 minute conversation. This woman explains in maddening, raw, and emotional detail about a racist experience she had with her current vendor. The details were sporadic, out of order, and frankly didn’t sound believable. I listened, waiting for my time to tell her that we couldn’t help her, but I was sorry for her experience that she had endured.
It is not our prerogative to judge whether something traumatic did or didn’t happen. If a victim steps forward with an outlandish story, it is our duty to first get that victim to safety. We ask rational questions later. So often our society tends to disbelieve the victim. We are prone to think an incredulous, shocking thing like they are claiming could have never happened. You are right of course, that the abuse should not have happened, but our world is full of victims who have died or barely survived the should nots of abuse and trauma.. We lament grief and experience profound shame when we found out that the victim was in fact telling the truth and we failed to further protect them from further abuse.
Even as I listened to this woman, with all of my professional instincts telling me to get this woman off the phone, I could not.
I thought about her experience all day.
I tried to imagine what I would have done, had a vendor of mine done those things to me, used those racial slurs against me. I wonder what I would have done had my momma, my sister, or my best friend called me with this particular story.
I know in those instances what I would have done.
I would have come to their aid.
A few weeks ago, Kevin and I visited an art museum. One of the paintings which we both found intriguing was a piece titled, I am Somebody, by Glenn Ligon. The piece draws inspiration from a poem written by the Reverend William Holmes Border, Sr, who was a senior pastor and civil rights activist in Atlanta during the 1930s through the late 1980s.
If you’ve never seen the piece, it is a large vertical stretched canvas with old newsletter type font that reads,
scrawled all across the canvas in consecutive horizontal lines. Over and over again, we read the words
Line after line, sentence after sentence you read the words,
As you trace the sentences down the canvas, the type font begins to blur and darken until the text at the bottom is barely legible.
I stare and stare at those simple rows of simple words at that piece in the museum trying to discern the artist’s meaning. I study Ligon’s piece for awhile before concluding that the artist is either saying the words are insignificant themselves or the message behind them has lost it’s true meaning.
The words, I am somebody, slowly over time, have proven less meaningful to us. The truth has become so cliche that it is no longer impactful. The words don’t pack the same punch they used to. I am somebody, like the words, I am a man, which were once pillars of profound truth and meaning, seem to have lost their wings. I do not believe the words themselves are devoid of meaning so I’m forced to conclude.
The message has become darkened, cloudy, and illegible.
We remain unaffected.
Just this evening, as I drive home, thinking about this woman who has been subjected to racial trauma, I decide to call her. I do the hard work, no, the awkward work of pressing her numbers into my cell.
“Hey, I know this is crazy, and I’m sorry for calling you so late, but the story you told me this morning, I just can’t let it go.”
She and I have another half hour conversation. No, we didn’t come up with a big plan for legal action, or social action, or even therapy, though we discussed all of those things. I share a few words; I listen to her experience, and I say what I should have said this morning.
I believe you.
That was traumatic.
You should not have endured that.
I am sorry.
Let’s try to make it right.
I fear that so many white people around me hear the words, Black Lives Matter, and are immobilized or triggered by them. If you are triggered by them, you probably haven’t made it this far in this piece, but if you have, and you feel a need to shut down, defend, or shut it out, I’ve been there too. There’s grace for you, but you can’t stay in that space.
God forbid it, friend, don’t stay in that space.
But if you’re more like me, I imagine you feel a bit out of place, unsure what to do, afraid to misstep, to hurt your black friends, or to say the wrong thing on social media and get blasted.
I don’t have all the answers for the whys, hows, and the whats of how to go about racial reconciliation in our churches, our government, our policies, and our communities.
But I can tell you this. When I come face to face with a
Black Life telling me that Something Is Not Right,
I am going to do everything in my power to get them to safety. I can listen, I can take action on behalf of them, or I can save their number in my phone and make a point to call back in a few weeks.
I remember Glenn Ligon’s artwork, all those lines at the bottom so blurry I can barely read them. Even though I can’t always see them, I must not let the words become nugatory.. Keeping them close to my heart, I will carry them, and remind myself of them so I can be ready to take action.
Won’t you, white brother and sister, rise up and do the same?
“I am Somebody!
I am Somebody!
I may be poor,
but I am Somebody.
I may be young,
but I am Somebody.
I may be small,
but I am Somebody.
I may have made mistakes, but I am Somebody.
My clothes are different, My face is different, My hair is different,
but I am Somebody.
I am black, brown, or white.
I speak a different language but I must be respected, protected, never rejected.
I am Somebody!”