on selma, the curve of time, and being born again
I’ve felt intense, enduring pangs of pain and sorrow at a few pointed moments this past year. On some of these occasions, my sadness manifested sharply and solely as a sort of deep grief, the kind I felt when a musician played taps at my grandfather’s burial. At other times, the pressure in my head and heart has been more akin to feelings of intense, helpless anger at some cruel betrayal.
The first time in recent memory that I can remember feeling this way was in June, when I visited a former American concentration camp on a pilgrimage with Japanese American youth. As I looked over barbed wire and metal gates, I couldn’t help but thinking of family members who were locked up in camps like these, and all the innocent people who were torn from their homes by police officers and FBI agents and incarcerated here.
The next time my chest felt like it was going to collapse was on the night of the Ferguson grand jury verdict. I wept silently as my family cast strange glances and threw weighty barbs in my direction. That night, I stayed up alone, angry and afraid for countless hours, my face lit up blue in the bedroom dark as I scrolled through social media reading friends’ alternating reactions of pain and glee.
Earlier this month at a weeklong retreat called Leadershape, I again felt this refrigerator-grade weight pushing down on my rib cage, grating at my chest like acid. The sixty or so students in attendance participated in an interactive simulation meant to evoke incisive comparisons to class/ism (and perhaps poverty and race). It felt like I was on the front lines of the Stanford prison experiment. Many of us felt crushed or traumatized after we examined the implications of our behavior – I myself was cut to the bone by my own actions and particularly by the ways that the most privileged groups acted when it came to looking out for those of us on the way, way bottom.
Shortly after this I was fortunate enough to see the spiritual epic that is Ava DuVernay’s Selma. I cannot express how much I believe that every American – black, white, whatever color you claim – should see this film. The intimate glimpses of the tale (of Malcolm and Martin, of nonviolence and brutality) that we are exposed to in this movie is an integral part of our country’s history. As Americans from all backgrounds and nationalities, we must recognize that billy clubs, police hoses, confederate flags, and staunch, segregationist state-sponsored terrorists comprise our collective inheritance. Black, white, Latino, Arab, Japanese American, we all inhabit different spheres of this history and its legacy impacts us differently, but its marks, scars, martyrs and heroes remain.
White folks should see Selma for the same reason they should read books like Farewell to Manzanar, or reckon with Solomon Northup’s journey – if you are a product of the American educational system, it is likely that these stories have been glossed over at best, obscured and swept aside at worst. White folks should seek to understand these historic brutalities in order to better recognize their complicity in upholding modern racist frameworks. (White Christians in particular might seek to also learn how they might come to the cross of Jesus in the name of repentance from the white supremacy that infects the cultural air we all breathe.)
I would encourage my friends of color to see Selma because it is the telling of the stories of the underdog. Because before the civil rights movement was ever viewed as a positive thing, before Dr. King was ever called Dr. King by white folks, there was a burgeoning and bloodied movement for justice and freedom that upset the president, the FBI, white liberals, and millions of Northern and Southern segregationists. The series of moments in history captured in this film serve as important reminders of how far we still have to come, and it helped me connect to the not-so-distant past in a novel way.
My friend Broderick has written about the curve of time, asking what would change if we viewed time as an ocean rather than as a flat trajectory. I played with this same idea in a personal reflection after visiting Manzanar: if we see time as a sort of stream, we find that past trauma can revisit us in startling ways, as if these atrocities aren’t ancient history but mere inches away. If we understand the passage of time as winding and fluid, then the suffering in places like Manzanar, Selma, Dachau, and Ferguson is not only intertwined, but more than inclined to hit each of its descendants just as hard with each new breath.
This always feels like a breaking down. You turn on the news and see death in the streets of your country, murderers walking free. A parent sits you down on a couch and tells you that your mom and dad are getting a divorce. Your sibling calls you sobbing and asks why she can’t live with you anymore. You visit a Californian concentration camp, and wonder where all the good (white) people were. A family matriarch succumbs to mental illness and your heart tightens in fear of your own future. A friend comes out to you and your heart shatters, wondering why you weren’t there for her more. You discover human trafficking going on in your home town.
I look back at the times that I have felt destroyed. The pain in my chest has always felt like a forest fire, a dam bursting. There is this overwhelming period of hurt and circulatory congestion, but it is usually followed by a kind of growth. Something sprouts from the ashes not long after. I’ve honestly been made harder, better, faster, stronger by the things that have shattered me (na, na, na, that that don’t kill me…).
We improve, our eyes and ears continually open to the world, and we affirm the possibility for positive change. As author Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his memoir, “You know one way or the other we all get touched…All the truly living, at least once, are born again.” This sounds similar to something my uncle Warner said reflecting on his interview with George Wallace (played by Tim Roth in Selma) towards the end of the former governor’s life: “people can become something different.”
I’m not entirely sure how to conclude these thoughts. Maybe it’s enough to reaffirm that the past has a way of winding around and breaking us apart, paving the way for new possibilities going forward. In my experience, healing can begin to enter when we remain open to this process, and to the depths of human emotion and intensity that accompany it.
This doesn’t always cut it. But it’s sometimes enough to light up our faces with hope, resplendent with the glow of tomorrow’s promise.