Builders of a nation

There was one thing that happened during the NCBI training that really affected me that I didn’t get a chance to blog on, so I’ll take that opportunity now.

Joyce Shabazz, who was co-leading the training, made so many good points, amazing connections and downright life-altering statements during the training that I’d be hard-pressed to pick which one stood out the most for me…if it weren’t for the fact that one comment she made completely altered my worldview with such a dramatic and wrenching shift that it all but made an audible “thunk” as my framework suddenly hard-rotated 90 degrees.

What happened was that she was discussing the kidnapping and enslaving of her ancestors, but then added a seemingly off the cuff comment to the effect that although it was a horrible act, one of the results was that her people were in effect chosen to be the builders of the foundations of this country.


I mean, I knew intellectually that black slaves were the economic cornerstone of much of the trade that made what we now know as America possible, but the way history is taught this comes out as a dry and quickly-skimmed factoid that merits attention only as an economic footnote rather than the powerful human drama it really was.

What happened to me in that training was that the moment she said that, every black person in the room ceased to appear in my mind alongside the automatic cultural “pop-ups” of “victimhood” or “minorities” or as having a humanity or spirit or value somehow diminished through slavery or any of a hundred other disempowering associations one picks up as a white kid learning white history as taught by white teachers, and I suddenly saw them as descendants of the powerful, strong and vitally important builders of our nation, a people without whom our current political and economic success and power as a national superpower quite likely would not exist; a sensation, in retrospect, rather similar to the cache associated with the modern-day descendants of the Jews who, in the Biblical stories, built the mighty empires of Egypt from their sweat and blood or that one associates with Native Americans and their strong, unbowed spirits which ennoble them today in spite of everything white men could throw at them.

It’s a powerful shift and one I’d been trying to beat into my subconscious by brute force – with maddeningly indifferent results – during the many, many years since I first recognized the paucity and dismissive nature of the feelings I was indoctrinated with as a kid (not, I might add, by my family, but simply as a matter of having the whole issue of slavery and its results on an entire nation swept under the academic rug of a dry, minimizing and cursory historical perspective of the role of black people in America that simply wanted getting past as quickly as possible so we could move on to white folks’ happier, and less guilt-ridden, inventions and discoveries).

So there you are. One of those life-altering moments that makes a huge difference, in a sudden and palpable way, which was probably not actually intended as such at the time. And now, though I still deplore the way it occurred, I have a sudden and profound appreciation for the incredible role of those black ancestors played and the nature of the powerful spirit that lives in their modern day descendants that I simply didn’t have before. One I knew had to be out there somewhere, but which overwhelming cultural experience seemed to have barred from my reach.

Now, it’s not like I needed Joyce to tell me that black people have strength and worth and meaning in our world, as well as the fact that they were a valuable part of our national history. Duh. That’s the power of cultural memes, though – you don’t have to believe them or buy into them to have them color the way you view and think about people.

[Edit: This concept goes back to an exercise we did called “Records” where we listened to various words and tossed out the first word, phrase or image that came to mind. What you find is that many of the words and phrases that come up first are NOT what you actually think or buy into, but what you’ve heard associated with that word by the outside world. And even changes as subtle as pitch or tone completely change up the words and images you react with. For example, when I did it, my partner in the exercise had been given the concept of African American (and related synonyms) for us to work with. “African American” got different reactions than “black” or “negro,” which is hardly surprising, but what was surprising was the different results that came up from saying “African American” in different tones and pitches. Said in a confident, solid manner to me, it brought up positive images of black heritage such as kente cloth, drums and pride. But said in a low, quiet tone, it brought up thoughts of poor or overworked black people, project housing and crime. Said in a happy, chipper tone, I suddenly got Barak Obama. Said with frustration or just flatly, it brought up words related to anger, political correctness and so forth.

The thing is, we all have these records, whether we admit to them or not. And a lot of what “plays” on them when we interact with, think about or talk about other people has more to do with what we hear than what we actually feel or believe. Which doesn’t stop them from popping up and coloring our mood, thoughts and actions, however unconsciously, no matter how much we don’t want them to. It often takes a strong shock to the system like I wrote about here to clear through some of the junk.]

But it’s one thing to fight your way to an understanding of something in an intellectual way despite powerful cultural propaganda to the contrary; it’s another to have it put to you in a way that allows you to viscerally feel it, to get it on a gestalt level and at a strength that simply blows all that other crap out of the water and out of your way.

And I swear to God I literally saw my vision clear and my world expand the moment she said it, just like when you’re at the optometrist’s office and they flick that one lens into place that suddenly brings everything into shockingly sharp focus – including the stuff you didn’t even realize was out of focus. My life changed that day and I pray to God I will never lose this clarity of vision I’ve been granted.

But even if if it does, somehow, manage to fade over time, no one and nothing can take away my memory of having seen it once and with total clarity, like a breathtakingly clear dawn over a new and welcoming horizon. That, at least, is mine to keep forever.

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