The River Has Two Sides

It’s taken me a while to tell you about what happened in Ann Arbor, the final stop on the first leg of the Meet Me Halfway book tour, because there was so much that happened that last day. Then it was the rush back home, the piles of laundry and bills, the fridge that needed to be restocked.

But on that sunny afternoon — in the hours before my last bookstore event of the tour — Keren and I set off for one final “sit” with the Please Talk With Me About Race sign.

Ann Arbor is the home of the University of Michigan’s flagship school and it feels like it — prestigious, high-powered. On campus, students walked purposefully, with heavy-laden backpacks and intense faces. Downtown, upscale stores and restaurants seem to cater to students with discretionary income and their generally well-off families.

Please Talk With Me About Race sign. Not the last outing, I'm sure!

Please Talk With Me About Race sign. Not the last outing, I’m sure!

We set up the sign on a low wall outside the student union. Small groups of newly minted graduates climbed, in their heels and gowns, up into the flowers beside us to pose for pictures behind the University of Michigan sign. Students who were still completing school work rushed by with bowed heads, seemingly intent on getting to the next task.

One university employee, a white woman in her late 20s or early 30s, stopped to talk with us. She’s an Ann Arbor native and although she knew her hometown was a bit of a “bubble,” she didn’t realize until recently how challenging life really can be for people of color — including on campus. She’s heard stories of students of color being made to feel unwelcome at the university. She said she was trying to figure out how so much has been hidden from her, why she’s “been so clueless.” We told her about the work we saw being done by white people in St. Louis and gave her a YWCA bookmark to remind her to look up the “Witnessing Whiteness” project there. Her gratitude at being given a place to start finding answers to her new questions was palpable, although it seemed like we had done such a small thing.

There were others who talked with us after that, but it was Lucy and Lawrence who stole the show. An African American couple of a certain age, Lucy and Lawrence were from out of town — Louisiana to be precise — and had some time to kill. Lucy is an elegant, professional woman with a lot on her formidable mind, and she didn’t hesitate to share it. Lawrence, clearly the much more soft-spoken spouse, was unable to get more than a word or two in those brief moments when Lucy stopped to breathe.

Lucy said, “I’ll tell you about race! We got to the river, but what we didn’t realize is there’s two sides to the river.” For 40 years, she said, African Americans “have been swimming in the river, just happy they can go to any school, go eat in restaurants, use any drinking fountain.” But they don’t realize that they still have to get to the far side — or that “the river’s headed down.”

Lucy talked about the slow stealing back of the gains that black Americans have won, losses like the recent roll-back of the Voting Rights Act and the chipping away at affirmative action. She knows the younger generation is in for a rude surprise “when that candy gets taken away from them” and they better be ready to be leaders on civil and human rights once again. “The river’s going down,” she said, pantomiming a waterfall going over a steep cliff. If African Americans don’t pull themselves to the other side of the river soon, they’ll go over that cliff.

With drama, passion, and astuteness, Lucy spoke to us for a good half an hour. About her disdain for black men like Clarence Thomas and Ben Carson who think they got to their positions of power without any help. About how, as a child in Louisiana, she observed an alliance forming between working-class blacks and the almost equally downtrodden white Cajuns — an alliance that eventually petered out when the Cajuns figured out how white privilege works. About her Iranian-born college friend, Lily, who had no patience for waiting in lines or for being disrespected as a foreigner, and always seem to find some kind of way to just push ahead.

Lucy believes that only a true revolution will change things for black Americans and she thinks she knows how it will happen: Young immigrants — many of whom have learned how to demand their rights in their home countries — will inspire and become allies with young African Americans, in an immigrant/black coalition that will advance our society toward equality and justice.

I hope she’s right. I hope the young people of all races join together to rethink and restructure our culture and institutions to make them fair and sustainable for everyone. I think the activity we’ve seen since Ferguson, the Black Lives Matter movement, the immigrant youth organizations like the DREAMERS, all are signs that the youth hear that call.

But there is work for all of us to do, no matter our color or age or place of origin. At one point, Lucy said she had hope because I (she deemed me a “creole,” which I agreed was basically true) and Keren (whom she read as a young white person), were out there on the street with this sign, inviting people to talk about race.

That wasn’t the first time we had heard that our Please Talk With Me About Race sign had given someone hope. It seems like such a small thing, to sit outside and ask strangers to say what’s on their minds. But it turns out it’s not a small thing, not in a culture that wants to avoid talking about our racist history and that clings desperately to the myth of colorblindness.

If there’s anything you take away from reading these blog posts from the Meet Me Halfway tour, I hope it will be the power of this simple invitation, this most basic break in the collective silence. When we are willing to invite conversations about race and difference, and when we enter into those conversations humbly, respectfully, and with open ears, hearts, and minds, we give people hope. And hope is no small thing.

May 18, 2015 Blog Posts