A Long, Long Road to Freedom
“I have walked that long road to freedom… I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”
The week following August 11, 2017, I was visiting Cape Town, South Africa with my family. We explored the city, took pictures of everything, and weighed ourselves down with souvenirs. Cape Town is a fascinating city with a diverse history and a variety of different people groups, all with a different story. But one character made it into every story – Nelson Mandela.
If you’re unfamiliar with Mandela, he was a black South African who stood against the apartheid regime founded upon institutionalized racism. He became the first president of democratic South Africa in 1994 after spending 27 years as a political prisoner. Cape Town is full of traces of Mandela. Even a gem museum showed a timeline South Africa’s history with gemstones, noting the life of Nelson Mandela as “South Africa’s greatest gem.”
In Cape Town it seems that apartheid is part of the collective narrative. Mandela is a hero for reconciling the country– a process that is far from over.
Meanwhile, in my home country, something very different was happening. On August 11th and the days that followed, the white supremacist group Unite the Right was taking a stand in Charlottesville, VA, to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. The people in this group carried Confederate and Nazi flags, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim banners, torches, and semi-automatic rifles. As the 250 marched they chanted “White Lives Matter,” “You Will Not Replace Us,” “Jews Will Not Replace Us,” and the Nazi slogan, “Blood and Soil.” 14 people were physically injured. One woman died. And we wonder why.
I think it has something to do with our collective narrative in America.
The Civil Rights Movement in the United States was never a part of my narrative. I was never told that Martin Luther King, Jr. had anything to do with me outside of a day off. Because MLK was for other people – black people. I never heard about the long struggle for Civil rights, or how the movement was something initiated in his time – but not completed.
We read books about black struggle before and during the Civil Rights movement. We talked about legislation that was passed, allowing blacks and whites to drink water and learn and vote together. We talked about how black people aren’t separate but they are equal. We talked about how black people and white people are the same. The intention, most of the time, in this teaching was to remind us that black people are not less than white people. But it also taught us to be colorblind.
Perhaps because being colorblind allowed me to safeguard beauty in my narrative.
I grew up just outside of Nashville, TN, and lived among lovers of the South. I love the South too. There’s just some things that the South does well that you don’t get much of north of the Mason-Dixon line. We celebrate conservative Christian values, Southern hospitality, people who fought and died for our land, ancestors who worked hard to keep the land, and food with a lot of butter. There’s an infinite number of country songs that teach us this truth.
Perhaps Alan Jackson’s “Where I Come From,” which says, “Where I come from it’s cornbread and chicken; where I come from a lotta front porch sittin’; where I come from tryin’ to make a livin’; and workin’ hard to get to heaven, where I come from.” Or Tim McGraw’s idyllic “Where the Green Grass Grows,” – “I’m gonna live where the green grass grows; watchin’ my corn pop up in rows; every night be tucked in close to you; raise our kids where the good Lord’s blessed; point our rockin’ chairs towards the west; plant our dreams where the peaceful river flows; where the green grass grows.” And I could go on for the rest of my life.
Because it’s a good story. It’s a beautiful and simple life uncorrupted by modernity. And, to me, growing up, that’s what the Confederate flag represented.
But that’s not the whole story. And there was no one to challenge me on it. Most of the people I grew up with were just like me. I had very few black classmates. I didn’t have black teachers. I didn’t go to church with black people. And it didn’t matter – because, after all, we’re all the same.
No one ever asked why there were no black people at my church. No one asked why there were so few black students at my private school. I never knew that Southern hospitality doesn’t always extend to black people, because I didn’t interact with many black people.
No one ever spelled out that my ancestors didn’t exactly pull themselves up by their own bootstraps – they built a country on the backs of African slaves. No one ever told me about the longstanding implications of Jim Crow.
No one ever told me about the GI Bill that enabled white people to afford nice housing in nice neighborhoods in the 1940s that would pass wealth down to future generations while African Americans were not afforded the same loans or financial support, robbing the ability to pass on wealth.
I didn’t realize that people were still using the Confederate flag for overtly racist purposes. I didn’t realize that racism still existed. Because we’re all the same now.
And maybe that’s why people like me get so defensive when we talk about racial injustice. We’ve been living this narrative that has been affirmed to us over and over again. We take pride in it. And when we talk about racial injustice, we’re saying that our narrative – our identity – might be wrong.
But if people like me start listening, we’ll hear another story. One with different colors.
When I’m colorblind and assume we’re all the same, I don’t empathize with black people who say they are permitted fewer opportunities and are more often victims of injustice than white people.
When I accept my narrative as absolute truth I do not hear facts about black people more often being unable to break cycles of poverty; being trapped in dangerous neighborhoods; being abused by government systems dumping chemical wastes in their water supply; and being abused by some members of the police force who arrest, incarcerate, and sometimes kill innocent or low-level offender African Americans.
When I am colorblind and assume nothing is wrong because we’re all the same, I aimlessly perpetuate systematic racism that goes unnoticed because I never look up from reading my own book.
But how can I not look up when there’s a parade of people like me walking through the streets with torches?
I grew up with a good story. But I’m not always the hero of the story. Sometimes I’m the villain – even when it’s not on purpose. And I have to accept that, because that’s the only way I can start writing a better story.
See, we’re not the same. And when we start reading just one story, we lose some vignettes that are beautiful pieces of the metanarrative of humanity.
How much more confident would my story be if I, like Sojourner Truth, drew my identity from something greater than myself.
“Sojourner Truth, why, I said, thank you God, that is a good name. Thou art my last Master and thy name is Truth. So shall Truth be my abiding name until I die.”
How much more faithful would my story be if I lived out MLK’s sermon, “There is a Balm in Gilead”?
“…sometimes I feel discouraged, having to live under the threat of death every day…But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. In Gilead, we make the wounded whole. If we believe that, we will build a new Memphis, and bring about the day when every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill will be made low… the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
How much greater would my commission be if I didn’t merely seek to make America great again, but rather joined Langston Hughes in making America again?
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose –
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again, America!
O, yes, I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath –
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers
The mountains and the endless plain –
All, all the stretch of these great green states –
And make America again.
- Excerpt of “Let America Be America Again”
How much more empowering would it be if Harriet Tubman was a lead character? How much more courageous would it be if Frederick Douglass was reporting? How much more just would it be if I followed in the prophetic tradition of Howard Thurman? How much more creative would it be if I crafted it like Maya Angelou? How much better would it sound with a Miles Davis soundtrack? How much funnier would it be if Madea was in it?
The African American narrative is a beautiful, inspiring, and difficult. But too long I have been a part of degrading it. Too long have I been a part of subjugating it to a realm of things I don’t need to understand. Too long have I been a part of incarcerating it. Too long have I been a part of sentencing it to death. Too long have I spent in my own story, afraid of what another story might say.
But when we put our stories together we have something all together better.
Yeah – it’s a lot more complex and difficult to read. But it’s so much more beautiful. There’s so much more life. There’s so much more color. Let us join together in the work of God and write our stories together.
Let us first listen to the other stories that have already been written. May I listen better to the men and women who sacrificed themselves to write the stories I have not heard.
May I not immediately jump into defenses saying, “No – that’s not the right story!” and post something on social media to receive affirmation from my tribe. Let me hear them say, “Yes, we all know your story and that it matters. But you do not know ours and you do not think it matters.”
May I listen better to the story of the people protesting in the streets. May I listen better to those kneeling on a field. May I listen better to those taking down a memorial.
Let us listen. Let us share. Let us be storytellers and story listeners.
Then let us dictate the rest of our travelogue on the long road to freedom together.
We must go hand-in-hand – people of all colors, all genders, all religions, all political stances, and all socioeconomic backgrounds. We are all part of this story. We are all walking down this road together, but we most assuredly won’t get anywhere running at each other. It doesn’t mean always agreeing. It means loving one another and protecting each other from the things that threaten our journey.
As a follower of God, love is the only way I am to operate. Because God is love. I worship love so that I may become love. I mimic the love that was made flesh in Jesus – a non-white Jew who was throwing open the doors of the Kingdom of God and inviting prostitutes and lepers and women and foreigners and soldiers and religious leaders. The trademark of this inclusive man’s followers: love.
Love is a long road to freedom. It’s the motivation and the goal. To walk I must throw aside every weight. I must lend a hand to my weaker brothers and sisters, and accept their hands when I am weak. I must be an advocate for those among us who are oppressed. I must at times be the person who stands in between, who pushes back against obstacles, who takes the brunt of the assault. I must be a humble listener, allowing myself to be convicted of my own shortcomings, my own biases, and my own oppressive system that I overlooked in my story. I must learn to laugh with those with those with whom I go.
“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers and sisters. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates their brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in them.
By this we know love, that Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers and sisters. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees their brother or sister in need, yet closes their heart against them, how does God’s love abide in them? Little children, let us not love in word or talk, but in deed and truth.” I John 3:14-18
O come, O come, Emmanuel.