Our country is like a really old house. I love old houses. I’ve always lived in old houses. But old houses need a lot of work, and the work is never done. And just when you think you’ve finished one renovation, it’s time to do something else; something else has gone wrong. And that’s what our country is like. You may not want to go into that basement, but if you don’t go into that basement, it’s at your own peril. And whatever you are ignoring is not going to go away. Whatever you’re ignoring is only going to get worse. Whatever you’re ignoring will be there to be reckoned with, until you reckon with it. I think that’s what we’re called upon to do, where we are right now.
“On Being” interview, Jan. 11
Oak Parkers understand old houses. They live in them, prize them, and sink lots of money into maintaining them. They’re also familiar with interracial dialogue, value it, and invest a fair amount of emotional energy attempting it. We also recognize a good metaphor when we hear one.
Wilkerson lived in one of Oak Park’s old houses when she was writing her landmark book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which tells America’s greatest untold story, the “Great Migration” of African Americans over the past century from their virtual prison in the South to the cities of the North in search of freedom and a better life. Wilkerson was the New York Times’ Chicago Bureau chief during her time in Oak Park. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of Mississippi River flooding, and then started this book, which took 15 years to write. By the time it was published in 2010, she had moved to the Northeast and entered academia.
Wilkerson probably has an interesting perspective on Oak Park’s ongoing efforts to broaden our understanding of one another. I’ll bet she could be coaxed here to speak — about her book and her Oak Park experience. Until then, we would all do well to read this book because broadening our understanding of one another is the missing element in our conversations on race.
For the most part those conversations focus on identifying what forms racism takes — in ourselves and our institutions — and how to eliminate it. But we can’t eliminate it until we change our hearts, experience a genuine conversion, and that can only be achieved by broadening our understanding.
Reading The Warmth of Other Suns would be a good first step, an excellent choice for One Book, One Oak Park, the Public Library’s occasional series of community-wide events centered on a single book. Some of those events could be held in the high school and involve the student body, but they also need to include the adult community.
The CAST program at Julian Middle School, by the way, is already doing this sort of thing — a series of ambitious plays about race, titled “Black and White.” Their season runs through April.
“If you haven’t read it, try and find a book called ‘The Warmth of Other Suns,’ by Isabel Wilkerson. It is, hands down, the best work of nonfiction I have ever read. When I was reading it, I kept saying over and over again, ‘I had no idea. I had no idea.’ We may be clueless and awkward around the subject of race, but we know what the Gospel demands: that we keep working at being better neighbors.”
From “Faith in the Ordinary,” a blog written by a (white) New Hampshire minister
I suspect those of us who enjoy “white privilege” (consciously or unconsciously) will know we’re making progress when we find ourselves, like this minister, saying, “I had no idea,” the tell-tale sign that our understanding has broadened and deepened.
I’ve experienced such moments in the past — when I read Roots and watched the TV series back in the 1970s, and when I read Alex Haley’s other great book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (in high school and again as an adult).
Do our local high schools (OPRF, Fenwick and Trinity) include The Warmth of Other Suns on their reading lists? At 500 pages, I’m guessing not, but it would be well worth their while.
People often say, “Why is it that those people do that thing?” The only answer to that question is, “Why do human beings do what they do when they are in that situation?” It calls for radical empathy in order to put ourselves inside the experiences of another and to allow ourselves the pain, allow ourselves the heartbreak, allow ourselves the sense of hopelessness — whatever it may be that they’re experiencing.
Great books provide the greatest education because they allow us to enter others’ minds and hearts, to see the world from another’s perspective, to experience radical empathy, to make us more fully human — to recognize, finally, that we are the same people.
It works both ways. Hillbilly Elegy sounds like an excellent book to better understand the experience of poor white residents of Appalachia.
At the front of the signing line was this very diminutive, grandmotherly figure. Her arms were filled with books that she had bought; she wanted me to sign them. But her eyes were red. She said, “I just cannot talk about this book. If I start talking about the book, I’m going to cry for sure because this book is my story. I’m an immigrant from Greece, and this is my story.” She said she was going to have the rest of her family read it. That was within my heart, my hope — that [this book] could cross boundaries.
Opportunities abound. Steve James’ new documentary series on a year in the life of OPRF High School could be viewed and discussed — as a community.
All with one goal: understanding one another better, being better neighbors, becoming one people.
And blossoming under the same sun.