“Of all the races, there is no better stage for heroism than a marathon.” George Sheehan, physician, athlete and author
For years, I’ve heard the expression, “It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon.” That statement is typically voiced, as a reminder, to anyone working for social change. Change takes time.
Over the last five years, as I’ve worked in a concentrated and ongoing way on racial justice, I’ve learned that racial change is not just a marathon. It’s a marathon-length relay.
In my short leg of this race, I’ve learned this work is emotionally exhausting. Right now, I can’t read another racially charged news story about a persecuted, hurt, or killed Black person. I can’t watch another documentary shedding light on a little-known incident of racial terrorism. I still haven’t seen Judas and the Black Messiah. Even with Daniel Kaluuya’s Oscar-winning performance, I can’t watch a reenactment of what happened to Fred Hampton. And, as much as I admire the brilliance of Ibram X. Kendi, I haven’t read his collective assemblage, with Keisha N. Blain, of Four Hundred Souls. I just can’t right now.
Soon after the murder of George Floyd, Dax Devlon Ross, teacher and journalist, wrote A Letter to my White Male Friends of a Certain Age. In it, he said,
“You experience black death as repugnant, but not as a visceral, perpetual threat to your own existence and violation of humanity.”
That’s it. Ross captured my feelings. Not always, just sometimes.
As I read and watch representations of 400 years of degradation, torture, and the murder of my people, I hurt. My existence and that of my immediate family and friends are constantly threatened. This is not a historical incident or a philosophical conversation. It’s a real… today… every day… life and death possibility.
Sometimes, I can continue my learning (I finished The Sum of Us a couple of weeks ago, right after reading Caste) or discuss history with friends, without pain, as we stand before a graffiti-redefined statue of Robert E. Lee in my hometown. But right now, my soul feels bruised, though nothing specifically happened.
I sometimes wonder if my white friends hurt, too, in a significantly different way. Is it painful to learn what your ancestors did or what people who look like you did? Is that part of what stops some white people from wanting a comprehensive history of America taught in our schools? I’m not only talking about a historical reckoning and reality check about how we got here but a today in real-time acknowledging of how the racial disparities in America are maintained. Do you turn away from the truth because the pain of complicity is too much to bear? That’s part of your privilege. I can’t turn away. We must all face this pain.
Those and other questions sit heavily on me, even without the weight of any answers to them. They’ve become a heavy baton to carry in this relay. I’ve heard that there’s a stage in many track workouts where coaches and trainers admonish you to: “Run the straights and walk the curves.” The straights, they say, stress you, building your wind and sprinting burst… the curves give you a moment to recover. I feel like I’ve been running the straights for a while, and now I must catch my breath—walk the curve—and take a break.
This month, instead of immersing myself in the pain that we—Black people—have experienced and still experience, I’m focusing on a musical celebration. Ever hear of the Harlem Cultural Festival or The Summer of Soul? No. I hadn’t either. Questlove, DJ, producer, and co-founder of the hip hop group The Roots, discovered footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Forty hours of film from six free events featuring performers as diverse as the Fifth Dimension, B.B. King, Nina Simone, and Mahalia Jackson. But even as I anticipate sinking into this happy space of the Black music of my youth, questions of racial justice still emerge.
Music festival. Thousands of attendees.
Any bells ringing? I bet Woodstock came to mind. Everyone over a certain age has heard of Woodstock. Yet, the Harlem Cultural Festival, happening that same year with a similarly esteemed musical lineup, received no widespread attention for 50 plus years. History, even pop culture history, is written from a racially white lens. That’s what we still have to see… the pervasiveness of the white worldview.
So, now I’m off to watch The Summer of Soul, and I’ll try to keep racial justice from consuming me. My part of the marathon relay race is over for now. Just for a bit, I’m passing the baton.
14 Replies to “Time to walk the curve”
Love this, Tamara. And please enjoy the break and moment the ‘curve’ gives you.
A great piece and exhausting, yes! We all need to take breaks and walk the curves, but only temporarily. The marathon demands us to take up our batons and keep running. Looking forward, too, to the Harlem festival!
Tamara, thank you for running this exhausting marathon-length relay for racial justice. Enjoy The Summer of Soul.
It’s time for some joy and rest after a job well-done. You’ve done your part for now.
Thinking of it as a relay is a wise choice. Handing off the baton in a relay gives even the fastest sprinter, the most seasoned runner, the opportunity to rest briefly and regain power and strength. You will do your part, but allow yourself some breathing room. Maybe it’s time for some of us who didn’t see ourselves as having a place on the team before to step up and do some of the work, too!
When I read, “I’ve learned that racial change is not just a marathon. It’s a marathon-length relay,” that hit me deep in my soul. I grew up in NY and wondered how I hadn’t heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival. I checked with a friend who grew up in Harlem about 10 blocks from Mount Morris Park who also did not remember it.
This is why I never come down hard on social media, I recognize that for all of the negative ways it is used it also spreads the good word and the good news. Darnella Frazier could post a video to Facebook and truly the rest has been history. History in a way that took Questlove’s capital and vision to bring light to “The Summer of Soul.” Like you, I have felt weary and guarded about what I read and view. Caste overwhelmed me, Four Hundred Souls nourished me and Summer on the Bluffs, a great beach read full of Black people gave me the good escapism that my spirit needed.
Give yourself that good “curve” time unapologetically.
Your blog is very powerful, and yes, it’s time for you to rest and reflect on all that you have done.
These words were significant to me, “I sometimes wonder if my white friends hurt, too, in a significantly different way. Is it painful to learn what your ancestors did or what people who look like you did? Is that part of what stops some white people from wanting a comprehensive history of America taught in our schools?”
From one of your White friends: Yes, it is painful to see how racial inequity has affected and hurt my Black friends, and continues to do so every day. In studying my family’s history, I was relieved to recently learn of ancestors who stood up and helped the enslaved, but as a southerner, I will no doubt learn of other ancestors who kept slaves. It’s all history, the good, the bad, the ugly, and not to be avoided.
As to the people who don’t like accurate history taught in schools….that’s a tough question. I have no idea of their motivation. Truly they are helicopter parents who have gone to extremes to “protect” their children from….I don’t know what.
Excellent and thought provoking blog. Thank you.
Tamara, as you know, I believe, rest is imperative for a healthy being. Not necessarily sleeping rest, but, stepping back from an issue, a job, and/or a person(s). You deserve a rest from this work.
Rest, refresh and replenish – it’s what allows us to keep going in this “marathon-length relay”.
Tamara – thank you for simply saying what I’ve tried to come to grips with the last few years. Thank you for giving permission for self care to win! Thank you for being my sister/friend.
Hey teacher-warrior-racial-racial justice friend. As you say, recalibrate.
Tamara, I hear and feel you. Well said. I was recently watching a segment on Eyes on the Prize which I have seen before and if the segregationist & confederate statue lovers can keep something around for decades to remind them than it is important that we are reminded of our oppressions to strengthen our future.
Tamara, I’ve been thinking about you and how blessed I am to have you in my life. Sending a big hug and love to you.
Thank you Mark. I’m so glad that fate brought us together. Be well, my friend.