Over the years I read books on racism in America and the Black experience, attended anti-racism workshops, a microaggression training at work, book groups and meetings for white people working to eliminate our own anti-Black racism, and listened to my Black friends and the Black people in my life about their experiences in a racist society. Two years ago, I recommitted to making my anti-racism learning journey a consistent focus in my life. This was my response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement’s ask of white people to take the initiative to learn about the Black experience in America and not wait for Black people to explain it to us. Whatever your background, I invite you to join me on this journey. There is so much to learn and unlearn.
I first learned of the Zen Peacemakers Bearing Witness retreats 7 years ago when I did ZPI’s social entrepreneurship training at the Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, NY. Greyston pioneered open hiring, where people who are unhoused or recently incarcerated can get work and rebuild their lives without references or background checks; they just need to show up and do the work. My 2 days working on the factory floor, as the newbie, taking direction from people whose lives had been directly impacted by racism, homelessness, incarceration and poverty, was my first ZPI “plunge.” Greyston was started by ZPI’s founder, Roshi Bernie Glassman, a Jewish rocket scientist, turned social activist, Zen master. For more than 20 years Bernie led Bearing Witness retreats to Auschwitz, and the ZPI team led “plunges” into homelessness in New York City, where they would live for three days on the streets using only the resources available to the unhoused. This immersive approach to understanding oppression and healing called to me and I knew I would someday go on a Bearing Witness retreat.
During the first year of the COVID pandemic, I attended a virtual Bearing Witness retreat at Auschwitz and the first ever Bearing Witness to Racism in America retreat. There I encountered the work of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) to commemorate the 4000+ lynchings that happened in America with public memorials in the communities where they occurred as a tool to facilitate communal acknowledgement and healing. We participated virtually in a ceremony in Volusia, FL to remember the life and death of an innocent man killed by a lynch mob after being handed over by the police 85 years before. Community members gathered dirt from the site of the lynching to place in 2 jars to serve as a memorial in the Volusia community and at EJI’s museum. The white sheriff spoke at the event about how this type of injustice could never happen today in Florida, which was the hardest moment of the retreat for me in light of the death of George Floyd, and countless other Black people who are harmed in police custody in our times. This opened my eyes and my heart and left me wanting to learn more and do more about anti-Black racism.
This spring I was among the first to sign up for the Bearing Witness to Racism in America retreat in Alabama. I was excited and nervous when I arrived in Birmingham, the site of the 1963 Civil Rights protests, whose images in the press of dogs and firehoses being set on children pushed segregation into the national consciousness, enabling the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As we set the container for the retreat everyone shared their name and a word or phrase about what they were feeling. My word was gratitude - the gratitude expressed In the Shehecheyanu prayer:
I am grateful to be alive and to be sustained to reach this season.
I am grateful for the teachings of Bernie Glassman and the Zen Peacemakers' tradition of bearing witness retreats where a group of people can gather to share a learning, heart-opening journey and draw strength and inspiration from all we encounter and from each other. And then continue to ask the question “what is my response? What is my action?”
“What happened here in Alabama was a human rights issue not a civil rights issue. In this case the marginalized community was Black.” This was the key message I heard that first night at our opening gathering from Timarie, a local racial and social justice activist in Birmingham, whose great uncle was murdered by the Klan for being a union organizer. We watched a montage of the faces and names of dozens of Black folks killed by police or lynched and Timarie emphasized that they each had plans and families and lives interrupted. Her call to action for us was: “What are you going to do with this experience? What is your piece?” As I walked the following morning among the sculptures in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, through a narrow passage with life-size bronze dogs lunging at me, I could imagine what it was like to be there on that day in 1963, watching children get beaten by the police, and feel the desperation that drove the movement. I knew my piece was to share my experience with my community and to encourage people I know to take their own next step on their learning journeys about racism in America, past and present.
Nothing prepared me to encounter EJI’s Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, which teaches the history of Black people in America. Entering it felt like entering the US Holocaust Memorial Museum - emotionally overpowering, heartbreaking, and profoundly important. So important that I want to tell everyone I know to go there. The Legacy Museum is an immersive experience. I entered a gallery surrounded by video walls of crashing waves and sculptural forms of people struggling, depicting the middle passage, which transported 12.5 million people from Africa to the Americas and left 2 million dead on the bottom of the sea. It tells the story of the economic impact of the slave trade on cities up and down the eastern seaboard, including Boston. There are ghost-like videos of people telling their stories or acting out a scene from the lives of the people who were held in bondage at the site of the museum. The museum tells the tale of emancipation and reconstruction, with its promises of Freedom abandoned and betrayed, the rise of the Klan, the epidemic of lynchings that drove the great migration north, the Civil Rights movement, the present day mass incarceration of Black people in the US and the structures of white supremacy that perpetuate our unjust system. It challenges us to fight for justice for Black Americans and all Americans.
So much of what I learned in Birmingham at Kelly Ingram Park and in Montgomery at The Legacy Museum gave 3-D solidity to things I knew as headlines. I had heard of segregation and Jim Crow laws, but did not know that the project to separate human beings by skin color in the South got as granular as laws forbidding play. It speaks to the insanity and inhumanity of the project. The 1896 Supreme Court ruling Plessy vs. Ferguson made "separate but equal" laws for Blacks and whites legal and solidified the way for a century of increasingly restrictive laws, that, with the end of Reconstruction and the federal will and support to protect Black rights in the south, created a climate so hellish that it drove the great migration to the northern cities. My one afternoon in the museum was not enough to absorb all the lessons that it has to teach me. I plan to go back and bring my family, and hopefully my friends, with me.
Our group spent the next day in Selma, walking the Edmond Pettus Bridge, learning the history of the Civil Right movement – Bloody Sunday, Turnaround Tuesday, the walk from Selma to Montgomery. I met Jorge, the park ranger from Puerto Rico, and learned how he came to work at the parks service education center in Selma; and how they could use some more volunteers for Jubilee weekend, the first weekend in March when this history is celebrated. We meditated underneath the Edmund Pettus bridge with the torn-out seats of a car and piles of trash and 30 members of Zen Peacemakers. We saw the vines reclaiming the commemorative plaques and the rotted and broken boards in the park celebrating this history. I spent the hours before and after lunch working in the heat with Selma’s public works service, carefully picking up broken glass from around a playground on the banks of the Alabama River, while my friends mulched plants and picked up trash. At the end of the day I sat in council with my small group, listening and speaking our truth, lean of word, saying only what needed to be said. Then I got a phone call from a doctor at a Hospital in Massachusetts telling me that my 87 year-old father, who had been recovering from COVID, had taken a turn for the worse. The rest of my time in Alabama was a counterpoint between bearing witness to the legacy of racism in America and bearing witness to my father’s impending death.
The next morning, I joined three new friends for breakfast at the Waffle House. We walked around the Alabama State House with its huge monument commemorating the glory of the Confederacy and its many tablets commemorating the bicentennial of Montgomery. We walked the arc of the tablets backwards, staring with the aspirations for the 21st century and making our way back to the dinosaurs roaming the shallow seas. While Black leaders like George Washington Carver were mentioned in the text on the tablets, most of the images of “200 years of success” in Montgomery were white men. With one exception, the many statues in the parks around the statehouse were all of white Christian men. The exception is a Black woman, holding the hands of a Black child and a white child, representing Education for Commerce, which stands opposite a statue of 2 white men representing Commerce and Education.
We visited Jefferson Davis’ first White House of the Confederacy and saw photos of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who in 1900 built the huge monument to the glory of the confederacy which stands on the State Capitol lawn, and in 1921 moved this house across the city to sit near the Capitol building to commemorate the few weeks that Montgomery was the capital of the Confederacy before it moved to Richmond. I wondered, who were these white women, whose tragic loss of their husbands and sons, and whose commitment to the glory of White Supremacy drove them to fundraise, build and commemorate the Confederacy into the 1940s? What did Jefferson Davis do for the 24 years after the end of the Civil War? Our last stop before we rejoined the group was at the Civil Rights Memorial of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which was designed by Maya Lin of Vietnam Veterans Memorial fame. I stood with my hands pressed up against the black stone wall, below Martin Luther King’s words, “Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” As the sheet of water rolled over my hands, I cried.
We rejoined the group to walk silently to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, “the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” Just as entering the Legacy Museum had the familiar feeling of visiting the Holocaust Memorial in Washington DC, entering the National Memorial for Peace and Justice had the familiar feeling of entering Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Israel. On this beautiful green hillside in Alabama there are different memorials centered around a square complex with a walkway that brings you face to face, and then under, over 800 large metal monuments which commemorate over 4400 documented lynchings in the US. Each metal monument has the name of a county and state where lynchings happened and a list of the names and dates of the people who were lynched. When you enter to walk among these columns your feet are on the ground, at the same level as the base of the columns and you see each one with its list of names at eye level. Names of people you know, like Gabriel and Michael, my son’s and husband’s names. As you continue to walk through the pavilion, you descend until you are walking below the coffin-like monuments, which are now suspended above you, as Black bodies were suspended from tree limbs while white communities picnicked and celebrated their murder and torture.
You read bands of text with the justification for racial terror lynchings: people were lynched for being human – for being successful and refusing to sell their crops at unfair prices, for loving someone, for talking back to disrespectful treatment, for speaking out against lynching. It is profound and overwhelming to stand among these monuments and contemplate the number of people whose lives were taken and whose families and communities were terrorized by white people asserting white supremacy. That morning, at the first White House of the Confederacy, I learned that at the time of the Civil War, 1/3 of Alabama’s voting delegates voted to stay part of the union, which was not uncommon in Confederate states. Many white people abhorred lynching and racial terror, but for decades there was not the national political will to pass a federal anti-lynching bill or provide the law enforcement needed to stop it. This terror shaped our country by driving a mass migration of 6 million Black people out of the south to the northern cities in the early years of the 20th century.
After exploring the monument and the memorial grounds, I came back to sit by the wall of water near the end, inscribed with:
For the hanged and beaten.
For the shot, drowned, and burned.
For the tortured, tormented, and terrorized.
For those abandoned by the Rule of Law.
We will remember.
With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice.
With courage because peace requires bravery.
With persistence because justice is a constant struggle.
With faith because we shall overcome.
I read the quote over and over again and promised myself I would memorize this passage. I decided I would make a monthly contribution to EJI’s work, which includes a duplicate monument for each of the 800 counties where lynchings have occurred, which they can claim and install to commemorate this important, tragic history. For it is through knowing our collective history that we can heal and build a just society. I contemplated the line: “With persistence because justice is a constant struggle” over and over again. It reminded me of a Thomas Jefferson quote I often cite, “The tree of liberty must be watered by the blood of Patriots every 20 years.” They mean the same thing to me: we are not “there yet” and we cannot be like children on a long car trip just waiting to “get there.” The struggle for a just society never ends. We are all called to act again and again.
I contemplated the difference between visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and the Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. While antisemitism remains a real problem, the Holocaust is, in fact, over. Today, in the US, money is being made off disenfranchised Black people and the system of oppression is wired into our legal system. The banks we use, the insurance companies we use, and the intergenerational wealth transfer we benefit from was and is made through exploitation. We are all complicit in the present and being paralyzed in ignorance by that fact is inhuman. To be human we must keep learning new and uncomfortable things and figure out what we want to do about them. Dismantling racism is a journey that will not end in our lifetime. As Rabbi Tarfon said, “It is not up to you to finish the task, but you are not free to avoid it “ (Pirkei Avot 2:16).
I am committed to looking at hard history because I love my friends and family,
Because I am Jewish and my world has been touched and shaped by hard history, Because I am American, and the life of my country is being shaped by hard history, Because I am a woman and we are always fighting for our rights,
Because I am human and we are destroying each other and destroying our ecosystems, Because I am a parent and want a just world for myself and for my children and for everyone else and for their children.
As I find new ways to bear witness to the harm of racism, my compassion for all of us and my commitment to anti-racist action grows. I know that you are on your own anti-racism journey and I would like us to accompany each other. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to share some of your journey and tell me what your next step is. What are you doing today to dismantle racism and build a just world? To be a “good ancestor” in the words of activist and educator Layla Saad.