Like those who say of themselves “I was born to sing” or “I was born to dance,” speaking of an innate desire or ability, I can say of this work that I was born to do it. My reponse to race has remained consistent though only recently have I come to understand why. This fascination began as a child with the creation of montages using images and words surrounding American slavery, Jim Crow segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. I was drawn to the stories of Emmett Till, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair and Cynthia Wesley because of the grotesque means by which they died and their ages. Later, my interest turned to the three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. In college, I became intrigued by lynchings. Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America was both amazing and jarring. So, this was the fruit of a belief in supremacy? I also read all 466 pages of Philip Dray’s At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, an in-depth record of lynchings. But, unlike so many others before me, my response to learning about this deeply entrenched hatred of others— the collection of body parts as souvenirs, the postcards that documented the celebration of mob justice and the promotion of these events as if circuses, county fairs or town parades— did not spur me to hate but further captivated me in that race could so far remove us from ourselves.
Race has always been of interest to me and I find myself drawn to anything racial. In fact, I am certain that all of my past moments are but a collection of compulsions designed to push me to this awareness. My passion for a race- less life is not the defeatist position of one who has given up on a conversation about race or evidence of naiveté as to the troubling history of hurt shared by Americans. Instead, I believe, like Albert Einstein, that “no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” So, no, I am not “black and proud.” A deliverance from the snares of race will require that we not set the trap for others and that we step outside of it.
I concur with Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and race is one such example. For me, the racialized life is not worth living as my life as a black person has already been figured out. Everything, down to the name of my hair has already been experienced and given. There is simply no newness in the racialized life and I will admit that the steps taken toward accepting this spiritual truth are painstaking and frightening as one will have to discover who they are a part from race as its social truths have done much to shape our perceptions, determine our interactions and define our relationships with ourselves, others and God. It is no small step.
But, Thomas Merton in The New Man says, “Meaning is not something that we discover in ourselves or in our lives. The true meaning has to be revealed… To find the full meaning of our existence, we must not find the meaning that we expect but the meaning that is revealed to us by God.” I understand that this race-less life is not something that persons have run toward but I do believe that race is a meaning that we expect. It is not something that we are born to be or that God has revealed to us. This deeper and truer meaning takes time so pace yourself.