Every other Wednesday in Cool Takes, S. D. Kelly offers a fresh reflection on hot topics by exploring the intersection of faith with high and low culture.
This week in whiteness: a huge storm pummeled the mid-Atlantic states, blanketing several cities in snow, and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis released White Privilege II. Between the two, it was the latter event that was a real head-scratcher.
White people know how to shovel snow, among other things, and how to stock up on milk and wonder bread, so the snowstorm was handled in a professional manner. But Macklemore’s song is another matter.Sometimes, an insistent desire to let black people know how much we care begins to look like an insistent desire to rid ourselves of the burden of caring.
I can appreciate Macklemore’s effort. A ++ for trying. Beyond that, I don’t know. The question lingers about whether or not Macklemore qualifies as a decent rapper. I won’t speak to this (though I see the value in a homage to a thrift store, even one that plays like a parody), but leave it to Eminem to judge, who I trust to be the aesthetic stand-in for white commentary on hip-hop. Maybe this, too, is a bad idea.
A recent issue of Boston College’s quarterly magazine featured an account of the appearance of author and Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates at the school. The event was depicted with a depressing sort of realism; no sugar coating here. When one activist stood up at the beginning of the Q & A period as part of a planned protest, Coates just stood, motionless, and listened. The student’s speech finally wound down and petered out after a while, and Coates moved on without comment. Other than this moment, what stood out to me in reading about the event is Coates’ contention that “white people shouldn’t care about what blacks think of them”. Coates made this statement after one student’s question about the obsession with “personal exoneration” for racism, and another student’s question about how to contend with the white people who tend toward “performing ally-ship”. I don’t know what performing ally-ship looks like, exactly, and I don’t plan to find out, but I do know a whole lot of white people who are anxious to purify themselves of racial prejudice, who are in need of some sort of black absolution.
Sometimes, an insistent desire to let black people know how much we care begins to look like an insistent desire to rid ourselves of the burden of caring. It’s not that a number of white people are not sincerely affected by all that we are learning about the depth and breadth of systemic racism, but when we sidle alongside and offer ourselves as allies, somehow, before long, we seem to be the ones doing all the talking.
Maybe I’m wrong about this. Maybe Macklemore banging on about this same sort of confusion — his place in the Black Lives Matter movement, about the debt he owes, creatively and otherwise, to the people from whom he’s borrowed his self-expression — is exactly what needs to happen, culturally. Maybe something is better than nothing. A++ for effort, and so forth.
I want to take a stance cause we are not free
And then I thought about it, we are not we
Am I in the outside looking in, or am I in the inside looking out?
Is it my place to give my two cents
Or should I stand on the side and shut my mouth for justice? No peace
Okay, I’m saying that they’re chanting out, “Black lives matter”, but I don’t say it back
Is it okay for me to say? I don’t know, so I watch and stand
In front of a line of police that look the same as me
– Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, White Privilege II
I look to the examples of whites participating in the great marches of the Civil Rights era, and see good things. But this is from a distance of many decades, when the past takes on a rosy, inevitable hue, and no image can be trusted. The truth about where whites fit into the picture is a puzzle piece that remains on the table, unable to find a spot where the edges match and it settles into place.
And I can’t shake the image that plays in my head, the one that comes from reading about Coates at his Boston College appearance, his head bowed, listening as the student activist talked on and on — Coates listening until the man was done. Listening to his testimony and allowing it to be entered into the record (in a manner of speaking). Listening without comment.
In all of this I keep returning to the idea of story. Story (unmoored by any modifiers, the word now stands alone) is having a moment. A legion of podcasts, along with radio shows like The Moth Radio Hour and This American Life have propelled the idea of listening to someone’s personal narrative as an art form. Maybe the dominance of personal narrative can serve the conversation about race. Maybe it needs to be less of conversation. Fewer dialogues and more monologues.
Stories have their limits of course. At some point you have to hoist yourself out of the rocking chair, move away from the hearth and start moving. Regulating, legislating, activating — they all have their place, and maybe this is where the current foment is headed. But for the first time in a long time, it seems as though some people are listening to the reality other people live with — personal experiences that are universal in the sense of their shared humanity, made powerful by the fact that they are very, very particular.
A particular death, a particular body, a particular neighborhood. Shhh. Listen.
Years ago, during the height of the revelations of the Catholic church’s coverup and protection of priests engaged in the sexual abuse of children — abuse that spanned generations — I used to read the Boston Globe. The Globe led the investigation into the abuse and the coverup, and stories appeared every day detailing the scope and sweep of the evil the Church allowed to happen before becoming complicit in this same evil. As I read the accounts in the newspaper, I would stop periodically to pound the paper where it lay on the table. I beat it with my fists, I lamented, I cried, and I listened and heard the stories.
In my impotent rage I saw the bread and the wine before me, the sacraments of suffering, and I partook. But I was only able to drink the dregs, since those who were abused had already drained the cup. It was, and is, the only absolution offered to me, an outsider to this kind of suffering. The suffering of the sins of the world, my sins, borne in the body of Jesus Christ.
One of my favorite expressions, which I try to use sparingly in real life as it tends to make my kids cry, is the phrase shut your piehole. Besides being inherently lyrical, it is evocative, reminding a person of the mouth’s tendency toward yapping, and of the great necessity of shutting it now and then.
Tear your clothes and lament. Tear your clothes, cover yourselves in ashes, and shut your piehole. This strikes me as a good idea, solid advice for this particular moment, extending back to the days of Job himself, one of humanity’s great sufferers. Advice that his friends and advisors could have used, as they explained to Job all the ways in which he had brought this suffering on himself.
Speaking of blinding whiteouts, of snowfalls that obscure the reality of all those city streets, speaking of cultural appropriation, the time has come to drop a gospel song. This is one of the best, written by Curtis Mayfield and popularized by Rod Stewart, a man whose whiteness extends to a fulsome head of bleached hair.
People get ready
There’s a train a-coming
You don’t need no baggage
You just get on board
All you need is faith
To hear the diesels humming
Don’t need no ticket
You just thank the Lord
People get ready
For the train to Jordan
Picking up passengers
From coast to coast
Faith is the key
Open the doors and board them
There’s room for all
among the loved and lost
There ain’t no room
for the hopeless sinner
Who would hurt all mankind just
To save his own
Have pity on those
whose chances are thinner
Cause there’s no hiding place
From the Kingdom’s Throne
So people get ready
for the train a-comin’
You don’t need no baggage
you just get on board !
All you need is faith
to hear the diesels humming
Don’t need no ticket
you just thank, you just thank the Lord
Amen and that’s it. For now.
Photo Credit: Jonny Firecloud, Crave