Learning to Listen

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When I was in fifth grade, my mother read Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry (Taylor, 1976) out loud to me. It was about a little girl, like me. She had gangly, mischievous brothers, like me. She had a mama who loved her and worried about her, just like me. The author even lives in Colorado, like me! But there was a difference: she was black. As a ten year old, I didn’t know why this should make a difference. I had heard words like “racism” and “slavery,” but, to me, they were articles of history, things that passed with the abolition of the slave trade and Martin Luther King Junior. Thank goodness we were past such primal sins! Could life be so very different for Cassie simply because of her skin color?

As I read, my eyes were opened to a thousand little ways that life was frustrated by the choking seed of racism sewn in our country. My country. For the first time I glimpsed the uphill battle life can be for those with a different heritage from me; I encountered my own ease. My eyes were opened to the many responses people had and have to injustice: silent submission, minimization, violent reaction, grief. As the book drew to a close I hoped for a happy ending. Those final pages left me with a hollowness and a realization that the wound has not closed.

I felt that hollowness this week.                 

A midst a hundred facebook posts and videos I couldn’t force myself to see, an echo of those condemning voices in Taylor’s book haunted me. I remembered anew that division, racism and injustice are not words associated with a bygone past. I felt in real life the complication, frustration and cloudedness I first perceived so many years ago in the pages of that book. I thought about how speeding tickets were a subject of annoyance to my teenage brothers, not of fear and danger.

One of the gifts that stories give us is the ability to see a world different from our own. They teach us not to be immune to pain we don’t understand. Clouded with our experience and preconceived notions of how life is, and how it ought to be, events like the shootings of this week become abstractions that support our already decided theses. Through stories we can imagine others pain, and let it affect us. Stories slip past our well built world views, and help us see the world through eyes that are not ours.

To live in a skin we don’t understand.

When I press my ear up against the walls of my country, I hear a wailing, wild sorrow that cannot be ignored.

I do not begin to know how to heal the wound of racial divides in this nation, and I cannot do it justice in this tiny blog post. I am not a judge. I am not a police officer. I am not black. I do not pretend to know what it is like to lose someone in the line of duty or to a broken tail-light. But, in my eternal state as a hopeless optimist, I want to believe that much can be changed through empathy. Through listening to others stories. To seeing the world through someone else’s lens, and weeping with them, because the wound of racism has not been healed. Finding in those tears seeds of hope.

My determination is that when I engage with this topic, I will not engage in it with disinterest, or preconceptions but a heart to hear stories, no matter how heart wrenching and complicated they are. I don’t want to think of statistics or platitudes, but of faces and names like Philando, Alton, Patrick, Brent, Michael, Lorne... I must imagine the people left behind. Could my beliefs stand if I had to admit them to the mothers of those who died? Surely, our facebook comments would be different if we thought that way.

When I closed the pages of Mildred Taylor’s powerful novel, I felt unsettled. It was an unsettledness that made me discontent with the weary and wounded ways of the world... a discontentedness that makes me long for a heavenly kingdom, and hunger and thirst for righteousness. We must be unsettled. Discomfort leads to change, and so to hope.

So be unsettled.

Listen closely to the stories of people you don’t understand.

Weep with those who weep.

Hate what is evil and cling to what is good.

And re-read Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry.