Keep Wading in the Waters

February is Black History Month and I wish to honor it here by sharing some of my thoughts, especially my conviction that racial justice needs to become a spiritual compulsion as well as a social responsibility for each one of us.

We discuss issues of race in most of my classes. Italian 361 (Italian Culture 1800-present) includes Italy’s history of colonialism and fascism. We read autobiographical stories by one of the first Afroitalian authors, Kossi Komla-Ebri, and Primo Levi’s Shoah memoir in Italian 340. Students often say that the difficult topics in class were the ones they valued studying the most. Since the Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the summer, I’ve noticed a distinct shift in how my students now come to these issues. To a person, my students have all wanted to have multiple discussions about race, and to a person, all have felt conflicted when we do. Some are afraid that raising the issue of racial injustice is inappropriate, particularly in the classroom, because it can be controversial, and controversy is uncomfortable. Some feel academically or personally unprepared to address the issues; some are concerned that their own discomfort or feelings of inadequacy will deflect from the real focus of expanding our understanding and effecting meaningful change, and some fear that sharing their own experiences of discrimination will cause others to feel defensive.

In initiating these discussions, or joining in with discussions students initiate, it’s been useful for me to restate the definition of education offered by Ziauddin Yousafzasi in his forum address at BYU in Fall semester. He said he considered people educated if they are able to examine their own culture critically. Anyone who attempts to understand, or to change or amend the thinking, values, and attitudes that lead to social injustices of any kind—and especially racial injustice—will inevitably wade into the waters of self-examination. For me, within those waters swirl many emotions: pain, regret, mistake-making, and embarrassment, but also love, growth, respect, and overcoming. The best learning is always hard but rewarding. And the best learning is always shared learning. Meaningful change demands not just an attempt to cross these waters. If we’re doing it right, we’ll spend most, if not all, of our lives wading in them. We should plan for our fingers to get pruny.

When I was at Università di Torino working on my dissertation on the literary instantiations of violence in the autobiographies of members of religious, racial, and political minorities, it was not uncommon for people to express surprise, mistrust, or disbelief about my topic. I understood how people could feel that only those who identified as a certain minority had the autobiographical authority to analyze the group. It was also the case that none of the authors I interviewed or worked with ever expressed that opinion. On the contrary, their writings claimed that history belongs to everyone, society belongs to everyone. In our conversations, they were far more concerned about how I planned to present my work, if I planned to include it in my teaching, if I planned to stay in contact with the authors who had helped me, and most of all, if I was committed to continuing to pursue the issues after I graduated. These authors, now my friends, were far less concerned about how I planned to be engaged with these issues after returning to the US and far more concerned that I planned to stay engaged. As one particular author I worked with has shown, creative forms of encounter are sometimes the most effective.

For many years, Kossi Komla-Ebri would only publish his original Italian works with a publisher that used African street vendors as distributors. He also insisted that the vendors keep half of the book’s price, so after the publisher’s percentage, Kossi never made any money. Even after two of his books became best-sellers and were adopted as required reading in secondary schools in Italy, he contracted with a publisher that would respect the same conditions. Kossi clearly wanted to obligate his readers to seek out an individual that they might otherwise avoid, to require them to need something from a migrant, to have a face-to-face exchange, however fleeting, with someone they might consider to be “other.”

How a community, and especially a faith-based community, confronts the issues surrounding racial injustice, and must promote the advancement of racial justice was the focus of Yale professor of Divinity, Dr. Willie James Jennings, in his two days of presentations and workshops at BYU in December 2020. He started with a question he called fundamental to his worldview, one that began during in his childhood seeing the racial inequities in his hometown, a questions that has been with him his entire intellectual life, “Why has the communal reality of the Christian faith failed so profoundly in imagining and enacting a powerful form of belonging, especially racial belonging?”[1] or, more bluntly, “How can people who sincerely identify as Christians believe and act in racist ways?”

There is not space enough here to do justice to the compelling theses of both books discussed during his virtual visits, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (2010) and After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (2020), but in the former he delineates how Christianity’s historical intertwining with colonization necessitated defining non-Europeans as resources, and in the latter he outlines how the idealization of self-sufficient white masculinity is intricately woven in the practices and values of institutions, values that promote possession, control, and mastery. During his interactions with the BYU audience, people repeatedly asked Dr. Jennings about finding ways to move forward, and he offered this: “Christians must rethink what it means to be learners as fundamental to Christian witness.”

I doubt if my own attempts to be a “learner,” to grapple with, to better understand and promote racial equality would have evolved in the same way if I hadn’t studied in Chicago. When Brent and I first moved to Hyde Park for graduate school, for some reason Victor and Hattie Soil, a Black couple in our ward, took an interest in us. On what was probably our second Sunday there, Vic and Hattie offered to pick us up that night and show us some of Chicago that we might miss out on otherwise. They drove us straight to the Robert Taylor Homes (now demolished). While we sat there in the car, they explained to us that Brent and I were safer than they were in what was at the time one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago, because a White life was institutionally worth more than a Black life. If something had happened to Brent or me, there would have been an outcry and an investigation, but probably not for Hattie or Victor.

“Victor and Hattie Soil, Hyde Park, Chicago, 1993.” Photo by Brent Orton.

This began not only one of the sweetest friendships of our lives, but what would become an ongoing education in social and racial inequality that was even more significant to us than our doctoral work at the University of Chicago and became woven into that work. Victor and Hattie both spent their lives in civil rights activism. Hattie had marched with Dr. King, Victor had supported Malcom X. The experiences they shared with us, the violence they had undergone, the definition of equality they held, altered my worldview. It is important to make clear that neither Vic nor Hattie felt it was their responsibility to educate the endless cycle of white students who came through the Hyde Park Ward, or to enrich their lives. Such thinking, as Vic made clear on other occasions, was demeaning and dismissive. Rather, I believe, they offered us a friendship that we had done nothing to deserve because they cared—about Christ, about their ward community, about us.

A belief in and a testimony of the commandment to love was the main takeaway for me from Elder Dallin Oakes’ BYU devotional on October 27, 2020. He referred to historical crimes and stated that working for a better future is the duty of all Church members. He reminded us that love will always “be accompanied with a sincere concern for others,” he stressed that Black Lives Matter is “an eternal truth all reasonable people should support,” and he taught that in order to become more Christ-like, it is not enough “merely to talk of Christ or think of Him or try to copy His actions,” but that being Christ-like means to achieve “what the apostle Paul called ‘the mind of Christ.’ Then we will look at others and love them and act toward them as Christ would do and as He desires us to do.”[2]

My own efforts to love, to change, to make a difference often feel inadequate, and I don’t always have satisfying answers or ways forward to offer my students. I can offer them my conviction that combatting racism benefits everyone. And we must keep at it: as Lori Spruance observed in one workshop with Dr. Jennings, “We never get a ‘woke’ card and get to be done.” Sincere learning—indeed, sincere discipleship—simply means that we continually and humbly try to do our part.

This post was written by Marie Orton, Humanities Center Fellow.

[1] Jennings, Willie James. “Lecture on The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.” BYU Faith and Imagination Annual Lecture, December 23, 2020, Provo, UT.

[2] Oaks, Dallin H. “Racism and Other Challenges.” BYU University Devotional, October 27, 2020, Provo UT.

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