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January 2012

2012 Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards

Prose: College

Third Place

Building a Brave New World
Coleman Lamb,
Senior, Creative Writing Major


On a cold gray morning last March, I visited Mt. Ararat Baptist Church with a good friend and former teacher who had returned to Pittsburgh for the weekend. Brother Ernest was the first black person I ever knew on any real, personal level. He introduced me to philosophy and theology, to Chekhov and Baldwin, to jazz and NPR; he beat the phrase le mot juste so soundly into my head that I now can’t help but pursue the right word, the just word--quotes are not quotes, they are quotations, gentlemen; slaves are not slaves, they are enslaved persons. He is a LaSallian Christian Brother, as were many of the teachers at my high school, but only he would attend a three hour Baptist service that didn’t satisfy the forty-five minute Roman Catholic obligation.

“Have you recovered?” he asked, as we arrived at Mt. Ararat a full hour early, to ensure close parking and good seats.

“From what?”

“From the shock, my brother. I know it pains you to leave the precious bubble of your vanilla-white suburb. Have you recovered?”

I laughed and said I was more worried about the fact that I hadn’t been to church in a while--since Christmas, and before that, an even longer while.

He gasped and shook his head, scolding me with a clicking tongue. “Well, I can assure you, this is not ‘church’ the way you do it in your suburb. This is worship, brother. Come along, and let us hope you are not smited upon the threshold.”

As we entered the church and took our seats, I was surprised to find that we weren’t the first to arrive--an hour early, and already people were trickling in by the dozens, greeting each other with laughter and hugs and handshakes. Brother Ernest sat back in the pew and crossed his legs.

“So tell me, brother. How goeth your faith journey?”

When I could think of nothing better to say, I finally sighed and told the truth. “It stalleth, Brother.”

I quickly changed the subject by telling him I was going down to Mardi Gras the following week, which set him off for the next half hour in praise of his hometown.

By the time the pews filled up around us, I had received hugs from two women I didn’t know, plus handshakes and warm welcomes from a dozen other folks. When the service began, the pastor invited any newcomers to stand up and introduce themselves, and, when I hesitated, Brother Ernest forced my hand--he physically raised my arm into the air until I had no choice. There were hundreds of people inside the church, all of them staring at me as I self-consciously stood and gave my name, and then even more people came over to hug and shake hands and welcome me to the celebration. That’s what they called it: the celebration. The last time I went to mass in my “vanilla-white suburb,” I slipped in late through the back corner door, blessed myself without actually dipping my fingers deep enough to touch the holy water, took exactly two steps and sat down in the very last folding chair along the side wall. I spoke to no one, made eye contact with no one except an alcoholic in dark sunglasses, mumbled inaudible prayers when everyone else did, and finally ducked out before Communion. It seemed to satisfy my obligation, but, as I recall, it did not feel like much of a celebration.

As I sat back down beside Brother Ernest I tried to imagine what would happen if a twenty-one year old black man ever to came to my church. I think many in the all-white congregation would act as if there was nothing unusual about his presence. Perhaps they would force their eyes to sweep past him in the pew, pretending not to notice his blackness. Isn’t this what we consider “P.C.?” Aren’t we told “not to see color?” But, of course, we do see color--we all do; we know that we do, and that we always will. So, one might say that what we consider P.C. is merely to pretend that we do not see color--to act as if. And thus we maintain the appearance of progress and reconciliation, while we avoid the real problem. The real problem is not color itself, but how we perceive it, what we associate with it: the bankrupt notions of inferiority and otherness, which still survive somewhere in the bowls of our consciousness, hidden miles below the P.C. surface. We try to act as if we no longer see color, and thus hide from ourselves and from each other the fact that we still see race. We see a white man and immediately recognize him as “one of us”--not because he is white, but because he is a human being--and then maybe we see him as an Irishman or an Italian or a Pole. But we see a black man and still, on the level of immediate, unconscious reaction, may first recognize him as black-- as “the other”; as “one of them,” not “one of us”--and then we must quickly correct ourselves, remember that he is first and foremost a human being; that, by some fundamental criteria ages older than color, culture, or creed, he is “one of us” no more or less so than any white man. Whether or not one acknowledges this first glance, split-second misperception of reality determines whether one accepts or denies the shame that comes with it.

We only deceive ourselves by suggesting that we do not see color, or that we can somehow learn not to see color by acting as if. Suppose that all the white suburban churchgoers do, in fact, pretend not to notice that there is one long young black man among them. By consciously acting as if they do not see his color, they fail to see him as he is--they probably fail to see him at all. For fear of outing themselves as racists, they might willfully look past him as if he were invisible, as if he did not exist. But imagine what he thinks. P.C. doesn’t fool anyone; we never succeed when we act as if--we maintain plausible deniability. He knows he is the only black person in the church, and he knows everyone else knows it, just as everyone knew I was the only white person in Mt. Ararat. But at Mt. Ararat they didn’t try to hide it, because if you see things as they truly are--if you plainly perceive color as color, and human beings as human beings--then you have nothing to hide. I cannot say whether or not this young black man would prefer to be invited to stand up and introduce himself, or to have white strangers walk right up and hug him--I am reluctant to hug my own mother, let alone a few black women I have never met. But Brother Ernest got me to stand up and say my name, and those women hugged me whether I liked it or not, and all the hundreds of people in that church actually made me feel welcome every single moment I was with them--almost as if they really meant it, and were not simply maintaining the obligatory appearance of inclusion. Somehow, it might not have felt so genuine if they had all stared straight ahead and pretended not to notice that I was the one lone awkward, inhibited white guy in a church full of singing, dancing black folks.

# A few years ago I had the opportunity to hear the theologian James Cone speak on Martin Luther King Day. He mentioned that he had heard a television commentator talking about how proud Dr. King would be if he were alive to see how far we have come. Mr. Cone then paused and faced the audience with a look I have never forgotten--a look that said he need not even comment on the absurdity of such a suggestion. That’s what stuck with me when I left that room, what hounded me as I lay in bed that night. Not the fact that American society remains grossly unjust--but the fact that it was a fact; the fact that it was so obvious; the fact that, if I didn’t see it as plainly as James Cone did, I must be trapped in a thick web of denial, feed for the spider of self-deceit.

Someone recently told me that self-deceit should have been included as the eighth deadly sin. The more I thought about it, the more certain I became that self-deceit could constitute a class all its own, a class from which flows not just the seven deadly sins, but sin itself. Because it is self-deceit which allows the ego to construct its own vision of reality and truth, in order to justify the departure from what the unconscious knows to be real and true. It is self-deceit which has paved the roads of racial injustice in America, allowing whites to pretend that blacks are something less, something worse--or even something different--to justify the spirit of privilege and entitlement white Americans have created for themselves by subjugating one portion of the population. And it is self-deceit--a willful denial of objective reality--which allows us to pretend that this is no longer the case. To see why Dr. King would not be satisfied with the state of American society, one needs only think of his dream. Think of what might be the most recognizable image in his dream: little black children and little white children joining hands as brothers and sisters. Is this reality as we know it today? For some, perhaps, in some neighborhoods and some schools. But those are the exception, not the rule. The rule--the reality--is that we remain starkly segregated--not lawfully, but geographically, interpersonally, and spiritually. I did not really know a black person until I met Brother Ernest, the lone black teacher at a school with a ninety-percent white student body. Between white and black students there was friendliness and camaraderie, but still a lingering, ever-present awareness of otherness and distance: after school, after practice, after the party, we still went home to different worlds. They returned to neighborhoods I had never even seen before, little pockets of the city I had learned to avoid, as if there were sentries standing on those sidewalks, scouring the streets for a white intruder.

Like many children, I was taught that we are all equals, that black people are human beings whom I should love and respect just as I would any other. But we must consider how children actually learn, and how abstract such lessons seem to a child who has never had more than a passing conversation with a black person. A child learns more from what he himself sees than from what he is told. A child who is taught to love and respect black people as equals does not fail to notice when his mother frantically locks the car doors while driving through a black neighborhood, nor the tension that seems to grip her when the loud voices of young black men rip through the quiet of some public space without regard for her standards of propriety--the same standards which her own child likely finds over-bearing, unnatural, wildly inconsistent and circumstantial.

People often ask why the child must pay for the sins of his parents--“My great- grandfather was an immigrant, not a slave-owner. So how am I to blame for racial injustice in America?” But the truth, if we care to see it, is that we are guilty of our own crimes. I never whipped a man on a southern plantation, but I have whipped many men in the fields of my own mind. I whip a man every time the quick trigger of my unconscious reactions equates blackness with otherness. I whip a man when I choose to take the long way home to avoid driving through the black neighborhood. I whip a man when I’m surprised to see black hands steering the wheel of a car with ivy league bumper stickers. It may have been history that drove this spike of fear and self-deceit so deep into my mind, but it is I who lets it live there still.

Removing that spike is the individual’s responsibility--if for no sake but his own. When I whip those men in my mind, really I whip myself: I chain myself to a misperception of humanity. In America, an argument for empathy might get you spare change, but an argument for self- interest brings in the big bucks. So here it is: we need this, white America. Imagining that racial progress is some favor we’re doing for black people only deepens the disease of white supremacy; it allows us to go only halfway, to meet the P.C. standard while still protecting the status quo of our illusory white world. The wrong that must be corrected is not merely the marginalization of black folks, but the self-deceit used to justify the marginalization of anyone. If you see a black person as “the other,” then you see him as something other than who he is: a human being. You see him through the eyes of an ignorant intellect and an impoverished spirit. If, intellectually, you know that a black person is a human being, your equal, your human brother just the same as any white person--if you know this, and yet even for a fraction of a second you see him as anything other than your human brother, your equal, then you do not see what you know to be real and true. We, as individuals and as a group, must now strive for a future in which we see no “us and them,” but only “us.” That is reality--the reality that existed before the borders were drawn, before continents and nations, before religion and ideology, before any notion of a color line. That is reality--the only question is when we will choose to accept it. We cannot get rid of all worldly divisions and clear the way for the unrestricted brotherhood of man, but we can do precisely that within the lines of our own country. We can and we must. The future of mankind starts with the marriage of white and black America. It is one thing to coexist, but it is another and far greater thing to join together as one--one body comprised of two distinct, autonomous entities. That cannot happen while whites cling to the patriarchal fiction that suggests we are accepting “them” into “our” world. Rather, we must, collectively and as individuals, destroy our notion of the white world. We must destroy the white world and shed no tears, for it is not real; it is a wicked, self-spun delusion which obstructs our view of truth and beauty. We must destroy the white world so that we can build right here, right now in America a new world, a better world, which is as black as it is white. We need it that way, so we better start to want it. Because that is humanity: black and white and every shade in between. That is reality and that is truth and that is beauty. That is the only world in which we can know and love each other for who we truly are: the world in which we see color in all its beauty, but see no “other.” Where once we saw an “other” we will only see a brother. Where once we saw “us and them” we will only see “us.”

This is our task. This is our duty to ourselves, to each other, to our country, and to all of humanity. It starts in the heart and mind of each individual--that is where it must start, if we want it to be real. Because if we think that real reconciliation and unity will happen on its own, without the active choice of the free individual, then the deceit will only strengthen its hold, and the great gulf that divides us will only grow wider. As Dr. King once said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” It is time for all of us to join the struggle. It is time to build ourselves a brave new world in which we recognize humanity in the face of the stranger, and respond with unconditional love like Miranda in The Tempest: “O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is!”

View the complete list of the 2012 Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Award winners.

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