“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.