Volume 12, Issue 41 ~ October 7 - 13, 2004
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Walking Past Slavery
In the Lifeline Expedition, you and I probably didn’t see the same thing. That’s a lesson worth learning.
by Lucy Oppenheim

Annapolis’ experience with the recent Slavery Walk illustrates some of the tools we need to make real progress in dealing with the legacy of slavery. One of these is understanding how much difference someone’s intentions make to how we interpret their actions. Another is the skill of collaboration.

You can look at the event as a picture set in a frame. The Europeans walking in yokes and chains and Africans walking along with them are the picture. The local additions — evening lecture, speeches and dialogue at the sites along the route, museum reception afterward and planned future projects — are the frame.

Many local people worked hard to make the frame as educational, insightful and inspiring as it was. But so many people were turned off by the picture that few moved close enough to see that carefully constructed frame. In the end, it did little to shape what most people saw.

What did people see when they looked at this picture? Some saw a gross misrepresentation in trying to make a few short blocks of walking in bondage symbolize centuries of agony and millions murdered. Others saw a personal journey that didn’t deal with social institutions and institutionalized injustice. Some saw a focus on the past when what’s needed is better understanding of what’s happening today. And some saw a desire to turn the tables and do to Europeans what they did to Africans.

David Potts, founder of the Lifeline Expedition, explained that he intended the walk to symbolize European repentance and African forgiveness. Some who heard his explanation and shared his desire for personal repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation joined in. But for most, actions meant more than words.

What difference did knowing the walkers’ intentions make in your interpretation of the symbols? Did it change what the symbols meant to you? Probably not.

The same thing often happens when people talk about racism.

Someone who’s spent a lifetime at the receiving end of it says he or she sees racism in a particular situation. Someone else, usually a white person, explains how that wasn’t really racism. It wasn’t racism because no one intended to be racist. It wasn’t racism because the person speaking doesn’t see racism in the situation.

That’s just as effective as explaining how the symbols of this walk didn’t really mean what you saw in them, because of what the walkers intended them to mean.

We all know the first step in dealing with a problem is recognizing there is a problem. As a white antiracist activist, I’ve found that recognizing racism often means listening to what someone else sees in a situation. I’ve learned that I don’t always see everything.

I remember smugly telling a friend how unrealistic this scene and that scene in a movie were. “If you want to look at it that way,” he replied, “the whole thing was unrealistic, because they would have lynched the guy in the first scene.” He was right. I’d missed that flaw completely.

The more clearly we recognize how much we don’t see, the more likely we are to ask others how they see something before we go forward with a big idea. To a lot of people, the Lifeline Expedition seemed like something one white person thought up and put into motion without asking other people how it looked to them.

In writing and speaking, Potts described the personal vision that set his expedition in motion. But, when asked, he didn’t describe any process of asking people of different backgrounds what message they read into the symbols that spoke so powerfully to him.

Guided by his personal vision, Potts and several hundred others around the world are having profound personal experiences of repentance and forgiveness. But collaborating with others from the earliest planning stages could have made the project meaningful to many more.

Working collaboratively extends antiracism initiatives beyond the limits of a personal vision by drawing on the wisdom of many people.

I’m optimistic about the next stage of the local efforts surrounding this walk. Leonard Blackshear, of the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, announced his intention to bring the community together to consult about how to carry out the follow-up study circles. That means opening up the process to many people’s ideas about what’s most important and what’s most effective. And someone in the group can point out the flaw in the opening scene that everyone else overlooked.

In her last story for Bay Weekly, Lucy Oppenheim profiled Jim Martin, environmentalist and entrepreneur.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.