Through the Prism of Nonviolence
Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2015-2016
By John Heid
It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscles, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this.
—Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me
“Don’t all lives matter?” yelled an off-duty police officer to me over the din of idling traffic. He was stopped at a red light during rush hour in downtown Tucson where I and other members of Stand Up For Racial Justice were holding signs that read “Black Lives Matter.” I hollered back “Of course they do; no one here is saying they don’t…” Then the light turned green and he drove off leaving me in a fog of exhaust and frustration. He was not the only commuter that evening to shout out that hollow query. These drive-by moments are more theatrical than productive. The matters at hand can hardly be addressed by volleying sound bites and clichés. I understand. Just a few months earlier I was asking aloud the very same query: “Don’t all lives matter?”
For years I believed that I was pretty well attuned to racial injustice despite the efforts of some who sought to disabuse me of my self-assuredness. I considered myself to be a nonviolent activist as if that moniker somehow granted me automatic immunity from the social disease of racism. How could I be so flagrantly presumptuous? Privilege! It is as soft and seductive as silk, and nearly as impenetrable as teflon-coated chain mail armor.
In the mid-1960s my mother took my brothers and I to civil rights marches. She preached that all people are equal in the eyes of God. She spoke with admiration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Mom introduced me to John Howard Griffin’s best selling book Black Like Me. When I was 14, I went to a lecture Mr. Griffin gave and came out dizzy. How could the lives of black and white people be so different? How did I mange to ignore my childhood observations of people of color sitting in the back of the city bus while whites sat in the front? In my hometown, Erie, Penn., at 15, I went to hear Dick Gregory. How clearly I remember being puzzled. Why was this man so angry?
Any exposure I had to race relations during my adolescence was extracurricular. Nothing in my classroom textbooks ever invited me to explore, let alone challenge, the dominant cultural assumptions about race. The only book in my school desk that mentioned the word “privilege” was the dictionary.
In jails across the country from the mid-1980s on, I shared cells with many men of color. Some shared their stories. Their road to incarceration, their life’s journey, was categorically different than mine. I presumed we were in the same predicament—incarceration—but I was wrong. Their consequence was my choice. Our lives’ trajectories were not the same, even as we shared the same address. I now recall Malcolm X’s quote: “If you’re black, you were born in jail.” The guys were patient with me. I was a captive student, they my professors. In fits and starts I was learning on the job, or rather, I was un-learning.
Throughout the 1990s I attended lectures by Dr. Cornell West, Diane Nash, Angela Davis, and Jim Lawson. I read Audre Lourde, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Edward P. Jones, author of The Known World among others. Dr. West’s seminal work Race Matters stopped me in my tracks. Gradually, our understanding moves from the cerebral to the visceral. The entrenched edifice of privilege erodes much like a stone under drops of water. Now comes the latest drop, Ta-Neshi Coates and his short, powerful book, Between The World And Me. These writers and activists have been like bridges across the great divide of privilege; they invite me to cross over and examine my own journey, as much than theirs. What stereotypes do I carry deep within? How do I come to see the mirage of my cultural endowed privilege for what it is? And furthermore, how can I begin to transform the destructive consequences of this privilege into constructive ones?
The road comes without a map or dictionary. I stumble over terms, let alone ideas. What does Ta-Nehisi Coates mean when he writes: “But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy.”
What I write is not so much a confession as my acknowledgment of a reality that has been palpably evident to my friends of color—for years. Now, step by step, I’m coming out. I don’t feel guilty so much as liberated, or at least walking on the rocky road to something more real, more human than what my Eurocentric culture has taught and that I had bought hook, line and sinker these many years.
Frederick Douglass wrote: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” I would add: Nor does the privilege that undergirds it. I now believe that for our nonviolence to be authentic and consistent we must work to dismantle systemic and personal privilege in its myriad and insidious forms—starting within ourselves. Black lives matter.
—John Heid lives and works at the Casa Mariposa Community in Tucson, Arizona.