We can be the better angels

The shooting in Charleston, SC brought up a lot of things today. So many. About the really nasty people I’ve known and those who’ve suffered and transcended to become people we want to be in this world. It’s reminded me of the sickness that lives in so many of us and how much we can become victims of ourselves, our stories, and our beliefs. But mostly, I’m thinking about forgiveness and transformation.

In case you don’t know, some of the family members forgave the shooter today. Such souls. Such commitment to our better selves.

*

It was 11th grade. I don’t remember the details. I went to an alternative school where the dejected, the creative, the ultra-liberal, and the blends of all three came for solace. We could snuggle in the halls instead of sit in study hall, walk downtown and drink a cup of coffee at a diner, and play guitars. It was great. And class was equally liberal.

I was in social studies class. We were watching a video on white supremacy. It was what you’d expect and you can’t remember. But then there was footage of a shooting in North Carolina. The kids across the room from me were laughing, and one of my best friends, Leah, started shaking and ran out of the room. Her best friend chased after her.

She was hysterical. “It was him,” she said over and over again. I remember the weird tile in the bathroom, the old pipes.

*

“Late morning, November 3, 1979, at the corner of Carver and Everitt Streets in Greensboro, North Carolina, forty Ku Klux Klansmen and American Nazis handed each other shotguns and automatic weapons from the trunks of their cars and opened fire on black and white anti-Klan demonstrators and union organizers who had gathered at Morningside Homes, a black housing project”

One of the dead was Leah’s father. Camera crews caught it on film and the local polite folks described it as a shootout with outsiders. No one was ever convicted. But Leah’s family received a few hundred thousand dollars. A poor consolation for her father’s death. But something to pay back for the death of a white man who’d protected black men and women.

And how many black men and women died before them and how many inherited the legacy of cruelty and negligence built into our laws, our codes, our zones, our employment preferences, our mores, our very ways of just doing what feels natural? How many?

Leah’s dad was a white pediatrician who fought the entrenched and sanctioned racism in Greenshboro and across the south. His murder and the murder of four others, the deaths during Freedom Summer, the killing of blacks for decades and centuries in the Untied States was intolerable to him.

I can’t tolerate it.

No sane person should tolerate this. While David Brooks even-handedly parses whether and how much this new murder escapade is due to racial issues, I can’t really take it. The amount of racism and quietly sanctioned racial terror in this county makes it easy for young men searching for meaning to find it in the glorious deaths of their enemies. Come on people. Read or listen to some Scott Atran. Please.
We are feeding sick young men integrated ideologies that destroy ourselves and destroy them in the name of something greater than them. Why?

We have a sickness about race in this country. It’s a horrible sickness that’s been brought home to me too many times though never to the degree that it is to my black friends nor to Leah. I’m a white guy in Central Pennsylvania.

I remember the time I grabbed my back pocket in a New Year’s Eve crowd because a black guy was behind me. I remember when the members of the Penn State Black Caucus were the recipients of racial slurs and white students were sending them hate mail and email. The Nation of Islam showed up and I was politely escorted from a room of potential helpers because I was white. That was strange to me. But I understood.

I remember when Penn State finally grew a spine and kicked Coke off campus when the pressure grew too steep for them because of Coke’s involvement in apartheid South Africa.

And I remember thinking that things might change with Barack Obama and New York and Cincinatti and Ferguson and Baltimore and South Carolina and…I don’t know anymore. Does it take mental illness (again!) to spur the better angels of our nature? Or is it cover? Or both?

What would Leah’s dad say? And why? What would her mother do?

I know what she would do. She did it. She adopted black children and loved them every day of their lives with her next husband. They were committed to love. I only know them now through Facebook but I see them dedicating themselves to us.

*

Right now all I do is go back to that classroom and think about Leah and her family. That she never knew her father. That she is a mother now with a loving husband and they do philanthropic work the world round and her mother is a woman I admired even when I was a punk shit with a skateboard who loved Slayer and Bruce Lee. T
Right now, I hope that in the face of horror we can become, maybe slowly, the best people we can become.
Today has me thinking on forgiveness.

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