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Thanksgiving, Sandy, and America’s soul

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

Thanksgiving, Sandy, and America’s soul
We know that Thanksgiving begins America’s annual month-long holiday season, and that it seems to bring out the best in Americans, a sort of giving spirit that represents the spiritual greatness of who we can be as human beings. I especially think about that this Thanksgiving week given the very ugly and divisive presidential campaign cycle we just concluded, and the equal ugliness of Superstorm Sandy that rocked us so badly in the Northeast that there are countless residents, of various backgrounds, still without house or home or, if in their own confines, without heat or electricity, or both.

Indeed I’ve not seen such nonstop calls for food, for supplies and resources since I did a year’s worth of relief and recovery work in the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Now like then a gigantic disaster, ironically, produces a sort of magic in our America: It shows that we can come together as a people, irrespective of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion (or not), disability or ability. It shows that Americans are and can be a kind and generous people, can rally to the aid and comfort of those in dire need, including the organized democracy of Occupy Sandy, an off-shoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, where you see folks on both sides of America’s capitalism working shoulder to shoulder in places like Far Rockaway, Queens. In short, there is an awe-inspiring brand of selflessness happening, as we struggle through relief and recovery from Sandy.

But as great as the above is, I also think of something Bono, lead singer of the rock group U2, once said: we must understand the difference between charity and justice. Charity means we give money, a bit of our time, to a cause, a disaster, a relief and recovery effort, then we keep it moving with our lives where the hardened boundaries of, say, race and class, are perpetually alive and in living color in our America. I thought of this as I listened to some well-meaning New Yorkers, clearly of the city’s upper class, discuss their upcoming “trip” from their cushy doorman high-rise to Far Rockaway. It felt as if they were describing incredibly patronizing missionary work in some foreign land or, worse, what I call a cultural safari where people, albeit with good intentions, are so detached from those different from them that they do not even get they are peddling forms of classism and racism simply by virtue of the words dropping from their lips. What is a field trip to the ghetto for some is a permanent and hardcore reality for others.

Moreover, justice means even as we unite for American traditions like Thanksgiving we never forget to acknowledge the slaughter and genocide of scores of Native Americans for whom Thanksgiving means something entirely different than to most of us. This is why I say a silent meditation for Native Americans every year around this time because they were here first and were forcibly and savagely shoved over to the tattered margins of American democracy. Justice also means we are clear that we, human beings, are sisters and brothers, we belong to one big family called the human race. And that it does not matter if you have privilege because of your race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. What matters, because humans do matter, is that you use your privileged space to empathize, to understand, to listen and learn, and to support the communities that are lights years away from yours. Think of Bobby Kennedy, a White man of tremendous wealth who, in the final years of his too-short life, was able to reach Whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and others in a way rarely seen in American history. Think of Dr. King who did the same and who, at the end of his too-short life, was so unafraid of crossing boundaries, that he of the Nobel Peace Prize and world fame was working with garbage men in Memphis when he was killed. And organizing a poor people’s campaign of working-class Americans, too.

And think of that very brief moment, in 2008, of the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama. It had that same kind of soul and possibility. But it seems the exact moment he took the oath of office America tumbled backwards, the darkest chapters of its mighty saga updated and remixed for the 21st century. No, President Obama’s first term was not what many hoped for, not even remotely close. And I pray, very deeply, that his second term is far better, for so many reasons I cannot get into here. But unless you’ve lived under a giant boulder for the past decade or so there is no denying Mr. Obama was a superior presidential candidate to Mitt Romney in 2012. By a wide margin.

Yet if you do not believe in an America for we the people, if the America you believe in is for the haves and not the rest of us, is for people who look like you and think like you only, then you are also very likely to spew some of the most hateful, divisive, mean-spirited, and anti-human being comments, publicly and privately, we’ve seen since the height of America’s Civil Rights Movement. I am not playing the race card here because I have no cards to play, nor do I believe in games when we are talking about matters as serious as this. It is called truth-telling, completely, because that is the only way our country will ever go forward.

To be blunt, my friend Richard L. said it best to me just yesterday evening: there are White people in America and then there are those who happen to be White. White people are the ones who keep saying we need to take the country back. White people are the ones still accusing Barack Obama of not having a college degree, of not being an American citizen, of committing voter fraud, who are simply pissed that a Black man is sitting in the White House. So the questions beg themselves: Take our country back to where, from whom, and why?

But those who happen to be White understand that race is a human-made river of no return, that if America is to survive and thrive in the 21st century and beyond we’d better get to know our neighbors beyond the surface of charity, volunteerism, and writing checks to this or that non-profit in this or that ‘hood, or living vicariously through the coolest Black rapper or Black athlete of the moment.

But the burden is not simply on my White sisters and brothers. Black people and other people of color also need a soulful gut check, too, more than ever. Protesting just for the sake of protesting and reactionary politics are dead, and it has become very tired to blame every single thing on racism. Any leader of color who does that should not be respected nor followed. But it is also not an either or proposition to me: yes we need to be very loud and focused when there is clear and present racism: like the prison-industrial complex; like the police tactic of stop and frisk; like failing public schools in communities of color; like stereotypical and destructive images of people of color in the media, film, and tv; like the absence of diversity in corporate America or other institutions. Put another way, every American should have the opportunity to have an opportunity, just as I did, because of the Civil Rights Movement, and in spite of the terrible circumstances of my single mother and the poverty of my youth. And no American should have her or his life reduced to hopelessness and despair simply because of the circumstances of who they are or what they were born into.

Yet we also need to challenge, for example, Black and Latino elected officials who represent areas most devastated by Sandy and ask some very basic questions, like: What consistent resources and services were some of you funneling to your voters before this disaster hit? Like, Why were some of you not raising your voice before Sandy about the gross inequalities in New York City around race and class, and why are some of you silent now as it becomes very clear that even the recovery efforts are unequal due to race and class?

And I will most certainly point the finger at myself. I now deeply regret a “debate” I had with one Ann Coulter on Current TV, in the weeks leading to election day. I do not agree with anything she has to say. However, I should have never talked above her or put forth an energy that was not constructive to those who were watching. And I deeply regret the tone of the blog I wrote about her afterwards. For that I apologize publicly to her and to anyone who may have watched or read and did not appreciate how the exchange went down. That is not what we need more of in America, and that is not who I am these days, nor who I want to be. When we talk about America’s soul, we’ve got to bring ourselves and our country to a place where we can agree to disagree civilly, with grace, class, and respect. To a place where love is the way, not hate, and we need to fight as hard for love as others have fought for hate. We need an America where nonviolence and peace are our anchors, not violence in its many vicious forms, nor a spiritual chaos that keeps us torn asunder, from ourselves, from each other.

And we’ve got to get to a place, in our America, where Thanksgiving is not merely one day a year, or one holiday season, or about Black Friday and being consumed with material things, but instead a spiritual movement and awakening that has a lasting place in the hearts and souls of us all. Where we will no longer wait for disasters to hit before we find the generosity and caring that has been there all along. For when we do that we will truly understand what it is to be born, again, not for any religious purpose, not for any one holiday or season, but as human beings, for the rest of our lives….

Kevin Powell is a writer, activist, public speaker, and author or editor of 11 books. Email him at kevin@kevinpowell.net, or follow him on twitter @kevin_powell

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