Don’t Wait to Engage with Black Stories
Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
I have for many years now considered myself “woke” while simultaneously avoiding the stories, artwork, and history of the Black community in America. Beyond the slavery narrative I learned in school and a handful of Martin Luther King Jr. quotes from a brief Civil Rights unit at some point in my education, my exposure to the Black experience has been extremely limited. I read The Narrative of Life of Frederick Douglass for a college class in the early Aughts. But between that and the release of Black Panther by Marvel Studios in 2018, I can honestly say that I can’t think of any other notable works of Black culture, history, or narratives that I have intentionally engaged with. This is my confession: I didn’t want to.
I realized I’d been looking away from the Black experience in America for my entire life.My excuse was always one of personal comfort. For many White Americans like myself, Black culture in America is uncomfortable because it takes the world we inhabit and forces us to view it through another lens—and we are often not the heroes when taken through that lens. For years, Black and White friends alike have recommended to me excellent documentaries, TV series, movies, and books by Black creators that tell the stories of the Black experience in America, and I have consistently put off engaging with them. Because I thought nothing about those stories impacts my daily lived experiences. Because my life is hard enough as it is. My emotional bandwidth is just full-up. I’ve said “I want to” and “I will.” But I didn’t. “Not now.” Or, “I need something light to take my mind off the stress of life.” I thought I’d learned enough and seen enough during the election cycle of 2016 to come to believe that racism is still alive and well in this country (and in my own heart). I thought I’d done my reckoning with God.
But then Ahmaud Arbery. And Breonna Taylor. And George Floyd. And when I found myself looking away, thinking, “I cannot watch another Black person die on camera in this country,” I realized I’d been looking away from the Black experience in America for my entire life. And when the protests, and then the riots, began, I realized that what is happening in this country is not just about Ahmaud, Breonna, and George, and if I’m going to follow my God’s command to love my neighbor as myself, then I must learn who my neighbor is.
Because of this, I’ve spent the last couple weeks getting started, right away, on the process of engaging with stories I’ve never listened to before: stories by Black creators that tell history I’ve never learned, stories by Black creators that tell of injustices in our system, stories that have already realigned my thinking in radical ways. I feel cheated that I’m only now—at age thirty-seven—learning massive portions of American history that should have been taught to me in school. But I am also filled with humility and remorse at the realization that the only person I have to blame for my ignorance is myself.
And when life seems to go back to normal, those of us who never see the injustices that are systemic in this country against Black people will get bored of this current crisis and will inevitably move on to the next one.Immediately following the death of George Floyd, my social media feeds were filled with White people saying things like, “I’m listening now. I’m ready. What should I read/watch/learn?” I was so happy to see these responses! And I don’t come before you with judgment—I am coming to you as one of you. But as the weeks have passed, I’ve seen fewer and fewer of these pleas to learn. The messaging surrounding his death has become predictably politicized, and I worry that people are falling back into their usual camps, and into an apathy that will stagnate change that is much needed. Please don’t—I implore you. Sit with the lament and grief of our Black brothers and sisters. Follow through on your desire to learn. Engage with Black stories. Do it now, even when what you learn makes you feel uncomfortable (and sometimes it will). Be willing to come second in narratives where you are used to coming first. Pursue the truth, because the truth matters, and what is happening in this nation right now should tell us all that there is truth that has been suppressed for a long, long time. Does that make you curious, sorrowful, angry? There is such a thing as righteous anger, and this is the time for such anger. The blood of our Black brothers and sisters cries out from the ground.
“Not now” has to become “now.” If not now, when? If we are filled with conviction, we must act on that conviction.
We do not need temporary peace in this struggle we are facing, but lasting change. That is not going to happen via a few cops taking a knee and hugging it out with protesters. It’s not going to happen if all you and I ever do is post how much we want to learn—if we only ever make one fumbling attempt to ask our Black neighbors how they’re feeling this week. It’s not going to happen if we have a few conversations with people in our community who don’t look like us and stop there. Those are good first steps. But we must also educate ourselves, immersing ourselves in the stories and experiences of the Black communities and individuals in America. We have to build empathy to build trust in these narratives or nothing will ever change. We can pat ourselves on the back all day for smiling at the Black lady who checked us out of the grocery store, but if we go home and deny the existence of systemic racial inequality in America, then our smiles are as filthy rags. And we must start now while our motivation is highest.
The protesters will eventually go home. The riots are already calming. And when life seems to go back to normal, those of us who never see the injustices that are systemic in this country against Black people will get bored of this current crisis and will inevitably move on to the next one. We may even remember we’re still in a global pandemic. To paraphrase the words of a Black friend of mine, we (White people) don’t get to be tired of fighting for racial justice right now. Our Black brothers and sisters are tired of what we do not know and what we’ve never cared to learn about a history and culture that is as shared as it is racially divided. It’s time to stand in the gap for them and relieve them of a burden they have carried alone for far too long. Roll up your sleeves, don’t wait—the work is just getting started.
The following is a list of the stories I want to recommend that I have engaged with since the protests began, as well as a few other helpful links and resources:
- 13th by Ava DuVernay
- When They See Us by Ava DuVernay
- Just Mercy by (Book by Bryan Stevenson / film by Destin Daniel Cretton)
- “This is America” by Childish Gambino
- “Racism Isn’t Getting Worse, It’s Getting Filmed,” by Timothy Thomas
- The Color of Compromise (Book and Video Series by Jemar Tisby)
- Be the Bridge
- “The Role of Black Women in the Church: A Wakandan View of Flourishing” by Kathryn Freeman
- Melanated Faith (podcast)
- The And Campaign
- Pass the Mic (podcast)