on bystanders and standing by

Running through a city this weekend, I found myself along a stretch of deserted waterfront. Scanning the environment, I spotted a man walking toward me. Being a female in a country where sexual assault occurs frequently can lead one to occupy a state of hyper-vigilance. Whenever I am alone, I am aware that I could be assaulted at any moment (from anecdotal conversations, I know I am not alone in this). We live in a culture in which one never knows if the man walking toward you has been taught to respect the dignity of a woman’s personhood, or to take what he wants from her.

 Running along this unfamiliar trail, I was flooded with regretful thoughts of my own foolishness: Why was I so confident that I could run through a city, anonymous, with no record of my departure or path? Why did I continue to push the bounds of independence when I could just be safe instead?

Then I saw a couple in the distance, and immediately felt safe again. These bystanders restored my peace.

 Should they have? Everything in me wanted to trust that a person—even a stranger—would intervene for my well-being. Suddenly, in spite of myself, I wondered why I trusted this to be true.

 Dr. King claimed we live in a network of mutuality, that we are all tied to one another in one garment. Jesus agreed, hitching the flourishing of his kingdom to the ability of his followers to love others well. Adherents surely claim that Gandhi embodied the best of Hinduism when he continually linked the needs of others to his own sacrificial courage. Even here in America, we claim to believe we are all created equal, that every American deserves a chance at happiness, life and liberty.

 Indeed, our public consciousness is held up by a commitment to one another, to neighboring and to the shared responsibility all communities demand. Despite the ideal that basic decency requires bystanders to not stand by when an other is harmed, we seem to have a rather large hole in the garment holding us all together. Do we still believe in noble bystanders, or have they gone the way of knights and town criers?

Well-known research has shown us that people are not always trustworthy in their efforts at intervention. When Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City in 1964, many bystanders witnessed some part of the gruesome act, and yet no one called the police or attempted to stop the crime in progress. Resulting experiments confirmed what is known as the Bystander Effect: The Inaction of onlookers due to the diffusion of responsibility. In short, the more people notice a bad act, the more paralysis—or the less responsibility—they feel to intervene. When we notice others noticing—and ignoring—injustice or a crime, we are disincentivized from speaking up ourselves.

In our American moment, active bystanders are hard to come by. There are many reasons for inaction, and I am sympathetic to nearly all of them. We are busy, and intervening takes time. Helping others is messy. We have a limited number of resources and spending them on a stranger might reduce what we can offer those to whom we are already committed. Furthermore, speaking into a situation can invite trouble or even seem presumptuous: What if they don’t want my help!? What if I do it wrong?

These are understandable considerations; however, the psychological math of is perhaps even more toxic.  The prevailing attitude goes something like, “not my people, not my problem.” Rather that everyone we pass on the street is a human, and therefore worthy of help or protection if they are in trouble, we seem to first consider if a potential victim is worth our time. Most of us want to be people who intervene to stop a bad actor, but many of us stay silent as our neighbors are displaced, or as children in public schools continue to fall below grade level, or as life is ignored from womb to old age, or as rape kits go unprocessed, or as people of color are consistently treated suspiciously, or as public housing funding is stripped, or as folks with pre-existing conditions are threatened with being uninsurable, or as people who make minimum wage cannot feed their children.

Something in us wakes when we see vulnerable others ignored or abused, and yet most of us remain silent.

What happens in the space of that comma that transforms us from engaged bystanders to passive supporters of an unjust status quo? How does the gap between who we want to be and who we prove to be grow so large? Whatever occurs in the space of that comma unravels the fabric of our society. If that comma, that pause, gave us space to find courage, more of us would live in community rather than dying alone. More of us would find hope instead of despair. More of us would experience shalom.

 We are all bystanders to acts of violence and disdain when we live in a society that refuses to care for the people who comprise it. We need not be shocked by this admission, for in many ways, this is who we are as a nation. Historically, before we decided to intervene, we decided if you were worth it. After all, bystanders looked away as native lands were stolen. Bystanders did not come running as bodies were bought and sold, forced to build wealth for others. As Jemar Tisby forcefully argues in his book, The Color of Compromise, a few Christians denounced slavery and the lynchings that followed for a century, but the vast majority remained silent, avoiding any stance that would prevent the practice from progressing.

Running along the waterfront that day, I was indeed relieved to realize there were bystanders nearby. As I put distance between my own body and the male body nearby, I realized I could only rely on my own speed to keep me safe. Bystanders, all too often, simply stand by, refusing to speak up for others around them. Each of us is a witness to those around us. Will we reweave the garment King hoped we all share, or will we continue to use blinders, only getting involved when we decide the person at risk is valuable to us? Pay attention to your surroundings, and you might just see that you develop the compassion, patience and will to stop standing by, and instead intervene to protect the strangers around you.

squishy skin and other unmentionables: a path toward belonging

Sitting on a beach near Miami recently, I was struck by all the beautiful bodies. South Florida: land of sensory overload. Bodies seem sculpted, perfected through multiple interventions. Couples look so perfect, so fashionable, that it is easy to believe every other person must be someone famous, right? In a place like that it is tempting to lose your self in the watching of others.

The striking image of one couple is seared in my mind. I have not forgotten seeing them together, and although we did not speak, they taught me a great deal about how to live a meaningful life. I was not struck by their perfect chin lines, yoga arms, mirrored glasses, bangled wrists, or loafers covered in the sheen of wealth. I was not tempted to think they were famous, and I did not envy the perfection they displayed to those around them.

In fact, they were old and flabby, and our only interaction involved me watching them as they put sunscreen on each other.

The man wore swim trunks, pulled up high, just below his rib cage in the way that elderly gentlemen often do. His wife’s face was framed with white frizzy curls, her body in a floral one piece that had seen many a season. They shuffled onto the pool deck together, like so many other retired couples in South Florida. As they began to settle in to chairs, getting out their books and bottles of water, she seemed struck by the ocean before them, and paused, taking it all in. Meanwhile, he reclined, and soon she sat and began putting sunscreen on. She used the good stuff, thick, and so hard to apply one can only hope it created a formidable block to all those carcinogenic rays. Done with the places she could reach, she handed him the bottle, held up her hair, and, without a word, turned around.

He rose from his chaise lounge, poured sunscreen into his hand, and then began to rub it all over her back. She was chunky, so his fingers squished the skin, pinching and rolling her excess, rubbing every square inch, in full public view. In a place where every body is perfect, such a scene felt almost offensive. How brave she was to stand there with her squishy skin exposed! It was a little gross, but I was mesmerized. They were so clearly comfortable together, so aware of their imperfections and their need for each other just to get through a day at the beach, that the eyeballs of the world were irrelevant to them.

It was ugly, but it was also beautiful. (As life often is).

 Here is what they taught me: if we want to be known, to walk through life growing in meaningful connections with others, we have to expose our ugly parts. Many of us can access our desire to belong, to be in easy community, to be a part of an “us.” When told it will require vulnerability, honesty, and exposure, however, most of us decide to pass. We want the easy comfort of being known and loved despite (or, dare I say, because of?) our infirmities, but we don’t want the daunting challenge of admitting we need another person to get all up in our business in order to do life.

We do though. Watching this anonymous older couple forced me to pose a hard question: If I share a lot of life with someone else but s/he never gets to lay hands on my ugly squishy parts, then what am I doing with my time? Moreover, are meaningful, life giving relationships possible if I am always mindful of how much I share, deciding when to be authentically honest and when to hold back just in case it is not safe to go all in?

If we long to be known, cherished and held onto, we have to expose our vulnerabilities.

The hard to reach places on our backs are small reminders that we were made to depend on others. We thrive when we belong, when we are reachable. Interdependency works best when we are open about the parts of us that aren’t camera ready.

As I often find in the beautiful truth of an image that imprints the soul, I also noticed that when we allow ourselves to be touched in the most embarrassing parts, we might find ourselves helped and even protected. Truth be told, the sweet old man was not particularly loving in his sunscreen application; still, he was willing to get messy, all up in his wife’s business, to protect her. The truth is that we can’t make it on our own. We need each other in ways we can’t even imagine. What a worthy thing to know, to say out loud, and to try to live by.

Of course, the best part about all of this is that those places we love to hide are also the places that long for an embrace. When we are touched there, in the spots we want to ignore, we know, deep in our bones, that we are not alone. Such a connection with others is incredibly beautiful, and worth exposing ourselves for. In ways small and large, I suspect we could all benefit from a little less curated image, a little more here I am, in all my (damaged) glory.

 Believing, as I do, that we all carry the imprint of God in our created selves, I suppose the lesson here for me is that we diminish our capacity to thrive in community when we hide any part of our being. While it is true that it is scary to expose ourselves, I suspect it also feels really lovely to be seen, touched and known.

black history reads!

As the days of our annual effort to celebrate Black History wind down, I offer a reading list derived from my February tweets. Idealist that I am, I suppose I hope you will make a habit of searching for and then relishing the rich cultural traditions that our American educational system has often minimized or erased.

Don’t be the victim of an incomplete education. I spent nearly 24 years getting educated, and I would have missed so much of the literature and history that now shape my vision of community, heighten my awareness of the breadth of human experience, and humble me at the stunning beauty of the resilient human soul, had I not finally, in Graduate School at the University of Miami, been exposed to brilliant voices of color. I fell in love with their words and stories, and I invite you to discover the beauty and brilliance that captured my imagination and respect. These voices have, in fact, shaped the places we call home, and it is time we recognize and delight in them. Enjoy!

#BlackHistoryMonth Reads!

Clair of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

Haitian, now Miamian whose poetic prose crafts a story about the devastation of poverty, the trauma and hope of adoption, & the choices we make for the people we love. Gorgeous book!

Omeros by Derek Walcott

Saint Lucian Nobel Prize winning poet who offers a postcolonial, African, diasporic reworking of Homer in this epic poem. Caribbean poetry at its best!

 

A Gathering of Old Men By Ernest Gaines

Gaines grew up in Louisiana & writes better than anyone about the importance of community in our efforts to tell our own stories. For Gaines, confessing the way we participate in oppression brings healing.

 

An American Marriage By Tayori Jones

A remarkable novel that tracks the devastation of incarceration on a family system, the conflicting legacies our families leave us, & the ambivalent journey we all must take to claim (or even understand) agency.

 

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem By Maryse Conde

Telling the backstory of a West Indian woman mentioned in the historical record & imagined first in Miller’s The Crucible, this novel troubles the history of the Americas from a postcolonial point of view.

 

Americanah

Feminist Manifesto By Chimananda Ngozi Adichie

A Nigerian writer who also lives in the US, Adichie offers stunning clarity into how we find our normal, & how we manage our national, class, gendered & political identities.

 

Passing By Nella Larsen

Written out of the Harlem Renaissance about the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen writes of friendship & loyalty, the temptation to perform our race, and the fluid nature of identity. A beautiful, heartbreaking book.

 

Feeding the Ghosts By Fred D’Aguiar

A Guyanese poet, novelist and playwright, D’Aguiar’s novel reveals the excruciating acts of resistance that empowered the victims of the middle passage. Haunting & empowering, it stays with you.

 

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man By James Weldon Johnson

Johnson captures the rich creativity and cosmopolitanism of the Harlem Renaissance, all on a backdrop of racial ambiguity, power dynamics and cultural appropriation. Fantastic.

 

To Pimp a Butterfly By Kendrick Lamar

Pulitzer Prize Winning poet who deconstructs the American experience in stunning ways. Lamar elevates and explores the fluid nature of identity construction in the search for agency.

 

Between the World and Me

Black Panther By Ta-nehisi Coates

Wielding comic book power, long form cultural critique (the Atlantic) & the memoir as a force for contextualizing historical erasure, Toni Morrison calls him “required reading.” So, yeah.

 

Cane By Jean Toomer

Toomer’s only novel is remarkable for his fearlessness in content & form. He raises questions about the possibilities & realities of black lives in various parts of the country, showing the gap between the dream & the reality.

 

The Underground Railroad By Colson Whitehead

Whitehead’s novel sears images of abuse and courageous sacrifice into our American collective consciousness, calling us back to a history we erased through his liberal imagination.

 

I’m Still Here By Austin Channing Brown

A prophetic witness to the indignities of carrying one’s blackness into nearly all-white spaces, Brown narrates her life, revealing deep wells of resistance & calling everyone to sit at a new table.

 

The Hate U Give By Angie Thomas

Thomas burst onto the literary scene, shaping the shared experience of a generation of young people seeking to reach across lines of difference as they understand what it means to grow up knowing BlackLivesMatter.

 

Blake, or the Huts of America By Martin Delaney

Written across the African diaspora in the Americas, Delaney articulates a vision for resisting racialized oppression through black nationalism. Politically intuitive, he shapes a generation.

 

Mama Day  

The Women Of Brewster Place By Gloria Naylor

Naylor describes and celebrates black women, celebrating the places they belong, the homes they create and the power they display. Beautiful texts.

 

My Brother

See, Now, Then

Autobiography of my Mother By Jamaica Kincaid

Antiguan born, Kincaid writes better than anyone on the ongoing erasure of African diasporic peoples, of the complicated mobilities/voices left in colonialism’s wake.

 

Invisible Man By Ralph Ellison

Ellison’s iconic text makes room in the American canon for the voices and bodies of those whose presence shape & form a nation who refuses to acknowledge their existence. DuBois’ musings come to life here.

 

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Salvage the Bones By Jesmyn Ward

Ward crafts tales about generations and the places that shaped them, about families who survive at great cost, about systems that destroy us. She reminds me of Faulkner...

 

Paradise

The Bluest Eye

Beloved

Sula By Toni Morrison

Too many to list & too necessary to describe, Morrison writes so compellingly that literature in America had to readjust, not just to make room, but to place her stories in the center.

 

The Awkward Thoughts Of W Kamau Bell By Kamau Bell

Hilarious and pitch perfect, Bell describes what it means to create art as a defiant act of communal meaning making in an age of independent arrogance. You will laugh and cry, and wonder.

 

Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? By Beverly D Tatum

She gave sociological roots to a necessary reality: in the best hope for integration we all have to find a way to belong. The updated introduction is CRUCIAL.

 

Notes of a Native Son

Go Tell it on the Mountain By James Baldwin

Baldwin epitomized the beauty of Black cosmopolitanism, as black cultural appreciation rose in America, the West Indies, and France among others. Gorgeous writing.

 

Ordinary Light

Life on Mars By Tracy K Smith

Our National Poet Laureate, Smith is an artist, a mom, a poet, a philosopher, a prophet, and a pro. Her voice is shaping our time, in real time.

 

On Beauty By Zadie Smith

Everything she writes is worth reading. Her way with words is so gorgeous that one could be forgiven for overlooking the astounding insights about humanity she layers into each page. She is the best writer going...

 

Selected Poems By Langston Hughes

His way of capturing the angst, the pride, the grief, the beauty, the longing, the being...of black folks in America...simply can't be matched. He's better than you remember.

 

Homegoing By Yaa Gyasi

Capturing the migratory paths of a family, Gyasi layers intra-African journeys on top of the Middle Passage, then explores diasporic wanderings across America as figures discover & create meaningful contexts for life.

 

Bonus pics (because February is too short!)!

The Color Purple By Alice Walker

The Dragon Can't Dance By Earl Lovelace

Black Skin, White Masks By Frantz Fanon

Brown Girl, Brownstones and Praisesong for the Widow By Paule Marshall

The Piano Lesson By August Wilson