I Am Uncorked
Listen for the pop of the cork.
I was talking with a group of friends, recently. Three of us are Black, two are White. We can rap about almost anything. We’re all engaged in our local community, and all of us are currently or recently engaged in entrepreneurial pursuits.
In talking about the events of the past few weeks, we were drilling down on the experience from an African American point of view: what it felt like when White people finally started to understand – beyond those who were already aware, supportive, vocal and action-oriented – what it felt like when new White people were showing up to the party. And. It. felt. Strange.
Strange because it drove conflicting emotions in us. I described the conflict I felt personally, and it was a mix of gratitude, suspicion, relief, resentment… but overall, it was an uncorking of the grief and pain I had suppressed or even not felt for decades. One of my Black friends immediately concurred. “Yes, uncorked,” he said. “That is what I feel.” I knew from his own posts, he was relating to issues from years ago, in this present moment.
The trauma of racism is lifelong – in every single way, starting with how we process it emotionally over time. When we bury our pain for so long, it eats at us in ways you can’t understand if you haven’t lived it. And when we don’t bury it and give it voice, sometimes people ignore us or call us too Black, too angry, too proud. That is a form of emotional trauma, too, that many of us still bear.
All of it is being uncorked now.
To my Black people: whether you held it in because you felt you had no choice, or you let it out and people despised you for it, either way, racism has taken its toll on you.
And I am here to say we are uncorking. We can now begin the process of releasing the pressure of the trauma. My Black brothers and sisters, anti-Black racism is not our fault. No, it is a failure to value our Essence, our Blackness, our Gift to America. Because we, like all people from all communities, make America stronger, when America lets us. Yes, we are doing it cautiously, because our ancestors would have us know, “we” have been here before. And we are struggling to honor their admonition at the same time we embrace their faith, all while acknowledging that something about the present feels different.
White people, I want you to pay attention to and hear these stories of the Black experience. Not just mine. The tens of millions of stories all around you. If you find them uncomfortable, stay there for a while, because that means you are starting to feel something related to another person’s experience that you are not familiar with, and that is beginning of empathy.
Here is what I have started to uncork. Some of these are long-ago traumas. Some of these are very fresh. This is what many of you have not seen or heard, but this is what I deal with, almost daily:
- Having a father who went to Morgan State University as an escape from his abusive stepfather in Philadelphia, whom he thought was his father until the age of 40.
- Having the Klan terrorize my family when we lived briefly in Jackson, Mississippi. I was three or four, I think. This should never, ever happen to anyone. And yet white supremacists still terrorize Black people on the regular. You know, like, when they march or rally to protect and preserve confederate statues and flags, while armed.
- Living in a country that in many places still views me as other, as less than; and the humiliation that comes from sometimes trying too hard to get people to accept me that never will. This is a daily struggle on both sub-conscious and conscious levels.
- Having the White MPs come to our residence when my dad was a doctor at Fort Hamilton and being scared of them but not knowing why – they were there to protect us, right?
- Experiencing homelessness, briefly, with my mother and sister, and seeing only Black and Brown residents at the shelter, and largely White volunteers. And wondering why.
- Going to an all-White Christian school where people made fun of the size of my lips.
- Hearing my mother sing gospel for the first time in a largely White church and having my friends tell me she sounded funny (because it wasn’t the typical contemporary Christian music they were used to). However, the pride I felt when she sang gospel decades letter at my company Black History Month Event in the Whitney Museum in Manhattan certainly ranks up there.
- Being asked to play the bongos for a youth choir that was largely White (even though I could sing, play the clarinet, etc.).
- Being so only in high school (there were only 2 of us in my class year), I started to wonder where the Black people were – and being ashamed of myself for wondering that.
- Going to largely White schools and worrying they thought I wasn’t White enough for them. Later, going to largely Black schools and feeling I wasn’t Black enough; not because of how other Black people made me feel, but because of how I had been made to feel about myself in predominantly White environments.
- Being expected by White people to be a basketball player because of my race and height. And being neither terribly interested in playing it nor being particularly good at it, like MILLIONS OF OTHER BLACK PEOPLE, I somehow felt like I had failed to meet some crazy expectations. This is because of the imagery we see in the media.
- Doing my high school report on Nat Turner’s Rebellion and wondering if that made me too radical. Many had never heard of it, or only read the few paragraphs in the history textbook.
- Being called a porch monkey in high school and getting into a fight over it – and feeling conflicted as though somehow it was up to me to be the bigger person and not risk getting myself into too much trouble, because I had a scholarship there and because my mother raised me better than that.
- Having a father who was a genius but could not overcome what he grew up surrounded by: alcohol, gambling and domestic violence.
- Going to the homes of some of my White friends and classmates from an early age and realizing how different our lives were (and generally speaking, we were solidly middle class most of the time) in terms of the level of experiences they were memorializing in their photos, the quality of furnishings in their homes (lots of “accessories” vs. just “necessities”).
- The joy I felt at arriving at Princeton and finding there were 300 or so Black people, when I was used to just a handful.
- Having a college teammate oh-so-casually use the word nigger in a story he told to another white person in my presence, and then say, “I didn’t mean you.” I have forgiven him, but he may still not know the pain he caused me. And I am finally letting that go. (I think.)
- Never meeting either of my maternal grandparents who both died from heart conditions, if I’m not mistaken, while my mother was an opera singer in Europe in her 20s (the fact that I am not clear-eyed about this is a problem that I am still uncorking).
- Going to all Black churches and wondering if any of my White friends would come with me or feel comfortable there. (I knew they would be welcomed; but would they feel comfortable? I had one dear Jewish friend who I felt confident enough to ask, and he did come with me to our mixed church. We became one another’s cultural and religious educational resources.)
- Going to mixed-race churches led by White pastors who were very comfortable with having Black ministers of music, “associate” and “assistant” pastors, but could never bring themselves to drop the qualifiers and just treat these people who led the congregations just as ably as they did, as equal pastors.
- Being invited as the only Black guest to a White family dinner in Louisiana, and then having the wife/mother throw away the plates and silverware I ate off of, but putting everyone else’s in the dishwasher.
- Feeling at times I wasn’t a “Black enough” man or father because my first marriage to an African American woman ended in divorce, and years later, I married a woman who is White and Jewish. (My first wife and I are fantastic friends and co-parents, by the way. But all of us were affected by our divorce.)
- Having to drive circles around a fast food restaurant in Alabama during the cross-country trip to move my wife from Arizona to Virginia, when we stopped for a bathroom break, because she is Jewish and White and I did not want either of us to get harassed, her to be assaulted, or me to get shot.
- Praying the Black DJ at my first work event as a department director with a majority White organization wouldn’t play hip hop with “nigger” or “nigga” in it because I couldn’t bear to see a bunch of white people saying the word out loud and feeling entitled to because it was “hip hop”. (I actually told him he needed either radio edit versions, or I was counting on his supreme cross-fading skills.)
- Having to explain to White people why they can’t say “nigger” or “nigga” even if it’s in hip hop.
- Listening to or reading what White people say when they deflect and deny the effect of slavery by saying stuff like, “I didn’t own slaves and neither did my parents.” That hurts and it misses the point.
- The weight of so often having been the only, or one of the few. It’s why some Black people say, eff it, let’s just stick to our own, they don’t want us here.
- At times feeling like there was practically no hope for White people and Black people to worship the same God and finding that both reprehensible and depressing.
- Explaining to my Black son and his Black friend that going out so soon after another fatal police shooting was risky, because I thought police would be on edge: I was preemptively worried that they [the police] were preemptively worried about how Black people would see them after a fatal encounter. How crazy is this?
- The time my Black son told me he had been out drinking with his White classmate in high school, and he was parked in a White neighborhood waiting for his friend to finish talking to his girlfriend, and my first thought was, you need to get out of there.
- Internally debating every time I see a squad car near me whether I should smile and look proactively at them, or look way – and wondering which makes me look the least criminal or arrogant.
- Knowing there were probably only a few White people who I could ever safely invite into our Black world, but knowing that virtually all the White people I knew expected me to enter their world, on their terms, without so much as a puzzled look upon my face. This is real, y’all. A lot of White people are so used to the world they live in being theirs alone, they really don’t know how to process difference.
- The inherent fear I feel when I see White people with guns in public.
- Changing my posture when I talked to White people in retail or restaurant settings. I always had to make sure I was up straight, not slouched over, for fear they would see me and treat me differently than they would their White paying customers.
- The first, second, third, and nth time when I experienced financial hardship but was denied relief, when others who I happened to know were in the same situation I was in, and were White, were granted exceptions, forbearances and forgiveness.
- Changing my voice – the level of bass, my tone, etc. – when I talked to White people in professional settings so they wouldn’t fear me. While I found a White colleague who was taller and bigger than me who said he did the same thing, the vast majority of White people don’t understand why or how Black people need to do this.
- Learning that the prep school experience I wanted to give one of my sons, to give him more opportunity, resulted in unnecessary pain due to encounters with people there he can only describe as racism.
- Realizing my sadness and anger, and the bitterness I felt towards White people who had not accepted me as I was, but instead despised me — sometimes to the extent of ignoring my very presence, physically; some of these were people who would later profess to love me.
- Having White people look at me funny when I take my younger, biracial children into the store with me, as if I am somehow abducting them. (They look at us with such a mix of confusion and disgust, I can only imagine they are wondering, “How could these two children belong to him?”)
- Realizing that many White people have a really hard time saying I’m sorry, when it comes to matters of race. (Trust me, it goes a long, long way.)
- Listening to White people who dismissively equate the hard lives of Black people in America with their own, failing to understand or accept the inherent privilege that comes with the color of their skin.
- The fear and anger I feel every time I see a confederate flag bumper sticker or license plate holder; I know who I can’t turn to if an emergency happened at that moment.
- Patiently waiting for well-meaning White people to understand that sometimes their uninformed and occasionally ignorant words and attitudes hurt the Black people they want to support.
- Not being able to tell many White people about these things for fear they would judge me, as if these things were entirely my fault, and either inadvertently or intentionally bring harm to me, my family and my community as a result.
So that is my unburdening, my uncorking. But that is only part of what I am uncorking.
I am uncorking that I am and always have been a beautiful, marvelous, wonderful Black man, born to Gwendolin and James Senior, with wondrous gifts to offer this world. I am uncorking forgiveness of self. I am uncorking the release of misplaced shame. I have been on this journey for a while now, but I’d be lying if I said the past few weeks had not accelerated the transformative experience. But I am here for it.
I feel like I can finally say the things I’ve always felt but didn’t think were okay to say.
I feel like I can finally speak openly about the hurt I’ve experienced most of my life because of the color of my skin, and at least a decent number of White people won’t just dismiss it out of hand. (Hopefully, this sticks.)
I am uncorking my strength.
I am here for a reason, and so are all of you, who espouse justice and equality of every beautiful and magnificent hue. Perhaps we all have been “called to the kingdom for such a time as this.” What a time, indeed, that we are bearing witness to.
Race is a construct, an extremely powerful one. It has been used by some people in power to rationalize and defend their subjugation of others, and the elevation of their own perception of supremacy or superiority on the basis of racial differences. This is racism.
In contrast, my optimism and my faith in all of you and all of us, my belief that together we who believe in the ideals this country was founded on – even though we took many different routes to get here, sometimes unbelievably painful routes, we ARE here – that if we are committed to a future of peace and justice, then we must both believe in it and fight for it, and that is what we are seeing.
I believe we can do it. I believe we are witnessing the first stage of the last battle for equality. Oh no, the battle will not end quickly or quietly because the forces that want to hold onto their power which was largely derived from wealth at our expense, inspired by greed, sustained by ignorance, and accelerated by hatred, either do not or never will realize that now and in the future, power will be derived from equity of all kinds and for all people.
This will impact multiple systems: health, housing, employment, environment, education, finance, justice, transportation, and more. It will also be equity on a social and moral level, related to how we see one another, connect with one another, and treat one another.
So what does this mean? If you’re a leader in community, government, academia, philanthropy or business, and you happen to be White, I want you to focus hard on paying attention and listening to the experiences of African Americans. Mine is but one of millions.
If you are sincere about transforming your leadership and the organization or institution you lead to be anti-racist and grounded in equity for those around you, especially your employees, your consumers and your community, then I’m interested in helping you on that journey.
Thanks, James. I’m deeply sorry and am trying to do better. Although we haven’t been in touch, except for a few “likes” on Facebook, you have been part of my life in a few ways. One way is my beginning to understand the deep love you have for your mother. My mom died in 2008, and I’m only now looking at how much of what I am is the result of who she was. Another way is, and this goes back a while, your having been on crew. It’s one of the things you and I talked about. That was before my daughter Grace went to a high school that started a competitive rowing program only when she was a sophomore. By her senior year, they were county and regional champions and placed several 4’s and 8’s in state finals. Every time I watched her, I thought of you — the teamwork it took to make that shell be the fastest, the commitment, the mind and sustained focus it takes to be the best, the giving beyond what you think you could for your teammates. That’s who you were to me. Finally, your “uncorking” is something I will carry with me. It’s courageous, and risky what you’ve done, putting yourself open and out there like that. Thanks so very much for your clarity, insight and heart.
James, Thank you for sharing your story. I’m so sorry that you’ve had these feelings, had these experiences. May we all lean and do better.
Dear James, I have never considered myself as a racist. I never considered anyone else’s struggle(s) because I have had many of my own. I know that I have walked down a street at night or been in a parking lot and been observant and cautious for my personal security and that concern was never selective to race or color. These last few days I have been afraid. I have been afraid of people being injured or killed. I have been afraid that people won’t listen to each other. I have been afraid that people will let their anger and emotions take over and the minds of the people who need to be reached will be closed. I am not a person of prominence or position by any means. I don’t own a business and I have a high school education. I have asked myself what I can do to help bring about equality and unity. I have asked myself what I can do to reach the people who are of prominence and position. I was at a loss until I realized I can do as I always have. I can speak up when I see wrong. I can stand beside others when they stand up for themselves. I can educate myself about my city council members, mayor and city managers. I can investigate and research how and what they are doing to represent myself and members of our community. I may not be a person of prominence or position, but I am a tax payer and a registered voter. I promise you that I will use that power to further equality and unity of all people. I can be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Sir, if there is anything else I can do, could you please tell me? I promise you that I will do my best. Sir, I am sorry for the experiences you’ve had and the way you have felt and will continue to feel. Your story has touched my heart and opened my mind. Thank you.
James, thank you for all you are sharing. Don’t stop- don’t even slow down. It needs to be said and heard.
James …. Thank you for opening your heart and sharing what every human being needs to hear. I was broken as I read every word you wrote, and I am left in disbelief as to why you should have had to live, and continue to live, through this nightmare.
The only thing I ask is that you to continue to share your story …. until the whole world hears it and life changes are made by those who continue to inflict the damage that you and the countless millions of wonderful individuals have endured and continue to endure.
I am grateful to you for being so courageous and opening your soul so that we can hear you, and in turn, share your story. We need to be made uncomfortable so that we can understand the plight of so many who have needlessly suffered and continue to suffer …. so that we can fight the injustices and make real changes that begin to heal our world.
Thank you, James, for shining your light.