Talk is Golden

More than one reader has asked if I have stopped writing altogether. Understandable, since my last post was two months ago, just as  the quarantine was becoming a way of life instead of a temporary inconvenience. I posted the essay five days before George Floyd was killed, upping the country’s turmoil to a high boil. 

By the end of that week, I participated in a conversation on race between African American and Jewish women. I heard hard stories of prejudice and fear. I heard the palpable anxiety in the voices of mothers who worry that their sons remain unharmed if they are pulled over for a true traffic infraction or simply driving while black.

Their stories were painful to hear but not a revelation. I grew up in Atlanta in the 1960’s. The bigotry I witnessed was both subtle and overt. Some friends’ mothers had a certain sneering chuckle that inevitably followed a recounting of something “the help” did.  Then there were my mom’s stories. A born-and-bred-New Yorker, she recalled learning to navigate the rules of a city that, despite its slogan of being “city too busy to hate” was built upon a scaffolding of bigotry. “Lady, get out my cab,” a black driver once told her, “they’ll kill me.”

Over the course of the next three or four weekly Zoom calls, the meetings expanded into the wonderful sharing that women do so easily.  At one point I shared reflections of my grandfather who had been deeply involved in civil rights work in Birmingham, Alabama.  

Some days later I received an email from Dr. Sabrina Black who, with Sharona Shapiro, a long-term bridge builder in our community, had gathered us all together for that first Zoom call. Dr. Black’s mother heard me mention my grandfather and wanted to talk to me. She was from Bessemer, a town not far from Birmingham. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I called Adell. Were we supposed to “get down to business.” There was talk of writing a book of our experiences but that felt like putting the cart way before the horse. 

Adell told me of her childhood. Her grandfather, a former slave, had acquired land from his owner when he was freed. Whether the land was bought or given, Adell didn’t know. Mr. Miree set aside plots for his seven sons and four daughters to build homes of their own.  “Telling you this now,” Adell reflected, “I think my grandfather, intentionally or not, used the language of the [plantation.] He always said he lived in the ‘big house’ much the way slave owners referred to their own homes.”

I told Adell some of my childhood, how I ended up where I have. As the sole Jewish kid in my classes I was often a target. At school, being a target meant I was occasionally accused of killing Jesus. A classmate once pushed me to the ground so she could feel my horns. At home, being a target meant being raised to understand the primacy Jews put on justice, on welcoming the stranger, on reaching out to those in need. Compassion over cruelty; justice over judgment.  

Adell and I tiptoed around the killing of George Floyd and the ongoing aftermath. I jumped into the breach, “I won’t accept the label ‘privileged.’ It is a dismissive judgment that takes nothing into account of who I am as a human being.” Silence on the other end. “I know I had, and have, advantages because of my skin color. It’s not right. I strive for compassion. For understanding.” Though I didn’t say it at the time, I am on guard against my own judgmental assumptions. Of anyone.

“You had the advantage to be,” Adell said, her voice suffused with gentle honesty. She wasn’t out to club me with the history of others’ brutality. “You had the advantage to be, simply to be.” Her words pierced my heart, putting me right into her shoes and keeping me there. Her words took my breath away. I told her so.

I wish you could hear Adell’s voice as I do.  It is gentle. It is soft. It is imbued with her deep faith in God’s majesty and love. Hers is a voice of wisdom and love and patience.The kind of voice you want to crawl into, listen to again and again. It is a voice that models for you how to listen to another. There’s not much listening going on these days.  There hasn’t been in years.  

There is power and risk in being heard, in bringing one’s story before another to receive. If only we could sit down, all of us in this country. Two by two.  To speak with gentle honesty and listen with compassion. Two by two.  If we don’t find a way to do that, the fury overtaking this country is going to….

 

Are you working to build bridges through conversation? Allow me to support you. I have set aside several sets of Picture a Conversation prompts for just such efforts.  Head over to our Contact page

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10 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Nancy Kalef says:

    Wonderful essay, Debra. I envy you that you had such wonderful opportunities to discuss really tough subjects with the ladies in your group.

    Keep reporting to us. It’s really important.

  2. Debra Darvick, your story is poignant. I could feel the joy, the tension, the pause and the gentle truth. “The Conversation on RACE” between African American and Jewish women, which were facilitated by Sharona Shapiro and I, have launched or stirred up quite a few initiatives. Life happens; give it room to breath as you and Adell continue to have the conversation about that much needed book. This reads like the introduction. I’m waiting to see chapter one.
    http://www.drsabrinablack.com

  3. Linda Trammell says:

    As usual, you help us build bridges. Thank you for your honest eloquence and the healing power of your words.

  4. Debra, I have read many of your essays and have been touched and moved by them. This one about race/ethnic relations conversations, African American and Jewish American, is one of the deepest, most eloquent and most inspirational you have shared so far. It is a tribute to the capacity of compassion, openness and affection to bridge the gap and enable conversations to be healing and transformational! I cheer you on. Larry

  5. Ilene says:

    Yes, talking to each other is very important but really listening and reading between the lines is equally so.

  6. T.K. Thorne says:

    Debra,
    You are a fine writer. Your words are poignant, honest, and beautiful. Your grandfather, Abraham “Abe” Berkowitz, would be very proud. It has been my privilege to write a little about him. He was a brave, courageous man and a leader in his city.

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