Last week I had the privilege of seeing the movie, Hidden Figures–a perfect movie to see during Black History Month. Featuring the groundbreaking work of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, three heroic African-American women whose mathematical and administrative genius played crucial roles in NASA’s quest to put a human into orbit, Hidden Figures is a must-see movie for every American. Before I get to my main point, let me say that the movie depicted with masterful verisimilitude the warm blend of work, faith, and family life in African-American culture that has so effectively supported black success ever since the beginnings of our nation.
In an early scene, the beautiful and compelling actress Taraji P. Henson, playing the role of Katherine Johnson, walked for the first time into a room full of mathematicians, engineers, and staff only to be instantly chilled by the icy, contemptuous, unwelcoming stares of a previously all-white team. Having met that morning with an African-American student who testified of the same feeling, the scene went through me like a bullet. As compassion filled my heart for Katherine Johnson and the millions who have met such receptions over the decades, I realized that many African-Americans still feel the same sense of crippling alienation when they walk into an overwhelmingly white environment.
Like most other white people, my first reaction to such a feeling might be that it is no longer justified. I believe most people today, especially young people, are delighted by racial diversity and especially desire to see black people succeed. At Northwest I can say we have spent literally millions of dollars over the years in financial aid to try to sponsor black success. But such a reaction–that black feelings of alienation are no longer justified–misses the mark.
No one should be told what they should feel.
After the movie, I reflected that every black person in the theatre, especially the black man who sat beside me on the right, identified with what Katherine Johnson felt in that scene. For a moment, let’s grant that white people truly want black people to succeed in the communities we share. That would not erase the fact that there are still knowing and unknowing racists among us who have shot stares and remarks ranging from “unwelcoming” to outright vicious at every black person in America. None of us live completely in the present, and African-Americans take their past and their community’s past into every situation they enter–just like everyone else does. It doesn’t matter what other people in the room may feel; many black people enter majority-white settings with one foot in an emotional hole.
I reflected on the words Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote to his son in Between the World and Me: “I am afraid . . . When I was your age, the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid. I had seen this fear all my young life, though I had not always recognized is as such. It was always right in front of me.” When I first read those words, sitting in my car in a parking lot while my wife was in a mall shopping, I broke down weeping in the car. I had never realized before that many black people–all of them in Coates’ view–live in fear of what white people might do to them.
So what can we do?
I may be wrong, and I welcome the correction of anyone who understands interracial realities better than I do. I need help to address our shared problem, just like everyone else. Humbly, and with a mix of sorrow and hope, I offer the following ideas and invite readers to comment below.
- Recognize that black people have real justification to feel alienated, despite the desire of many white people to welcome them.
- Accept that everyone has a responsibility to heal the wounds of America’s past, even those who may be first-generation Americans who share no blame for the shameful legacy of slavery. When anyone in a community is hurting, everyone has a duty of care.
- Realize that if some black (or white or other) people “cop an attitude” or act in a pushy manner, it may result from the feeling that “being nice” has historically enabled those who would ignore or suppress them.
- Reject any feeling of resentment if African-Americans prefer each other’s company instead of first mixing socially with white people. Finding empathy from those who immediately understand can offer them the extra measure of solidarity that sustains them when thoughtless and even hostile people try to exclude them.
- Go the extra mile to befriend African-Americans, not just as other members of the group, but as close friends. Be willing to hear them out without judgment or dismissal of their true feelings. Go out of your way to include them in your close circle, even if your first several attempts don’t meet with acceptance.
- Rejoice in the fact that African-Americans always enrich every community they truly join, and that initial awkwardness can set a prelude for eventual advance for everyone.
- Celebrate Black History Month by remembering the remarkable contributions of African-Americans in our shared society since the very beginning, and expect great things in our future.
We have not mastered the issue of interracial relations at Northwest University, nor in any other context I know of, but we are committed to working hard to build a diverse community of learning, worship, and friendship. Dignity comes from effort, effort comes from care, and care comes from sincere love.
And do go to see the movie soon, since it is starting to fade from area marquees.