It’s a strange Thursday afternoon when I am home early with no appointments on the calendar. Admittedly I hadn’t opened my calendar so my open evening may be reflective of neglect more than availability. Regardless, I took it and began the weekly exhale as I begin to ponder. I realize that we are constantly drawing conclusions based on partial facts (like that of my open evening) and often they are valid, but not always. I’m pondering the benign assumptions and the more catastrophic ones when I get a quixotic text: “want to see a movie?”
What you must know is that I like movies a lot and popcorn even more. But what I most love about movies is sitting in the dark, holding hands. So this was a no brainer. Except that when I finally found the destination, it was a classroom at UMSL not a theater, the flick a hard-hitting documentary not light-hearted entertainment, and the popcorn wasn’t exactly the butter dripping theater variety. But I did get to sit close to my beloved in the dark and hold hands. Happy me.
The film was #4 in the “Eyes on the Prize” (PBS) series and looked at the Civil Rights Movement from 1961-1963. It was riveting, filled with information that was largely familiar but insights that were striking and new. Given the educational venue, there was a discussion after the film and the question, “what will you take home?”
The closing scene with the coffin of a child killed on Bloody Sunday was the source of the tears that filled our eyes, and certainly provided a haunting invitation to tell the story in it’s fullness. But there is another piece, another hidden in plain sight nothing new piece, that was striking for me. It was the broad and diverse base of leadership introduced in the film, all black men. We give lip service to MLK being one among many, but it is both poignant and powerful to hear from a diverse group of men who share their stories both as they converge with and also diverge from King’s message. There was not one movement but rather a convergence filled with diversity that at once inspired and also conspired. There were vulnerable moments that were integral to what would become an incredibly powerful period.
Watching these diverse individual leaders, I was struck by the place of white allies. Significant though white allies were in the movement, they were significant and helpful only inasmuch as they were following those whose freedom was on the line.
I heard in a way that I hadn’t before how white allies were the first to say “wait”; how poignant and true King’s reverberating challenge that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” Vulnerable though it may be to stand as an ally, an ally goes home to the privilege that is denied to the freedom fighter. Allies may be valuable in that they are often more welcome at the seats of power than the freedom fighter; likely because the relative safety of the ally affords space to be ‘nice’, those whose freedom is defined in the struggle cannot afford to make the nice concessions. (Read: Nice is over rated if justice hangs in wait.) If allies are to be of any service, their service must be in following; true allies must relinquish the head of the table and the microphone.
Seeing this truth anew reminds me of both the power and the importance of my own authenticity. I am a white woman, a place of remarkable privilege in our culture. For the most part I raised my children as a heterosexual white woman and have been truly stunned by the privilege removed as I have named my place as a lesbian in our culture. Painfully I see now how, as an ally still cloaked in the privilege of heterosexual marriage, too often I said, “wait.” I realize how differently the issues of freedom and justice feel when they are no longer one step removed. As an ally I had only a part of a story, today I see so much more.
To be sure, we need allies. Lots of them. But we need to lead from places of authenticity and as allies we must follow those doing likewise. Our assumptions may be good as far as they go, but never should we pass on an opportunity to respect the fuller truth.