She is whispering in the dark from the top bunk, and I am frozen in place on the bottom one. It’s a bit after 4am.
“I’m awake,” I whisper back.
“Did you hear that?”
I did hear that, first one pistol shot, followed by six or seven more in rapid succession, somewhere close, between our house and the intersection a block away.
We exchange expletives in the dark.
Then she whispers, “Well, I guess we go back to sleep now.” I whisper back, “Just another night on Beulah.”
It’s always tricky to talk about where I live, to tell the truth while not contributing to the political propaganda and twisted stories which help keep systems of oppression in place. To not tell the truth, to make this a quaint white foray into life in the hood for the sake of an object lesson, sentimentalizes the human lives around me, degrading the reality of suffering here, the complexities of their existence. To over-emphasize the suffering at the cost of hope runs a risk of leading you into voyeurism, an exercise in literary slum tourism. And to stay silent? To stay silent feels like a deeper injustice yet.
I’m not good at talking about life here – in part because I am so new; in part because I am not embedded in this neighborhood in any way that makes me more than an outsider; in part because I know I am naive and untrained in the right ways of seeing and of thinking, and the right ways of speaking. I know I carry deep-seated racisms within me. At moments, I feel cautious to the point of silencing myself, afraid to put all my ignorance on display, afraid to be judged for what I didn’t know I shouldn’t say. I don’t trust my eyes yet, or my words.
My housemates have both lived here in this house before. Both work in the neighborhood in non-profits doing good work here. They have neighbors they visit, stories they share, and friends with whom they first came to Beulah, a community within which they first worked out their own wrestlings in this place. Both have spent at least a year here without a car, going everywhere on foot or public transit, a vulnerability I didn’t fully appreciate until being here and imagining what that must be like.
I know talking about this is tricky for them too, but they seem from the outside looking in to be formed in a more nuanced way than I am. The questions that play upon my mind I imagine are old news for them.
My work as an art teacher is in another part of the city, still in a cross-cultural context, and often bewildering to navigate, as I interact daily with students and co-workers from a swath of immigrant backgrounds. Most of my students speak a second language at home – Russian, Mandarin, Nepalese, Spanish, French, Hindi. Most of them are the children of doctors, lawyers, professors, business owners, and parents in the tech industry.
But it’s different. The gravity for me in that diverse context is different, the vulnerabilities different. The kinds of questions I ask there aren’t laden with five hundred years of slave-holding history, or America’s wretched past and present – or at least not in the same ways. I have never in that context felt a threat of violence, and anything I say about my work there will likely not carry the baggage of racism and white privilege in quite the same way. I am often in wonder there, but rarely in terror.
And all of this is to say that at moments, I feel untethered from the neighborhood in ways that make it hard to name the reality of where I am in a way I am positive will do no harm. I do feel wonder living here, but often also terror.
I did a lot of my own racism work in an academic setting a few years ago with Dr. Willie Jennings in what turned out to be a whirlwind tour of my own human depravity. It ruined me in the right kind of ways, but didn’t necessarily give me a map for how then I should live, or a full vocabulary for even naming rightly what I see. The classroom has its limits. Words and thoughts have their limits. This kind of work, to do it fully, requires a body emplaced firmly within the realms of one’s own vulnerability. That class was, for me, a push to get my body in the kind of place where I could be dismantled by the Spirit.
Now that I’m here and vulnerable, the challenge to make sense of it is real. I still know so deeply my own failings, usually my racist sins of omission. I don’t know my neighbors. I know a few of their names, but have never sat on their porches. I haven’t been all that involved in the boy’s school life as he navigates an inner city middle school as a lone white kid. In the afternoons, he takes the public bus from the corner by his school to a corner a half mile or so away from our house, and then walks home from the bus stop. I don’t go to church here.
But I’m here. And I’m not certain my white guilt or shame is helpful, or that my silence out of self-protection is either. I’d like to say it’s humility, and at moments, this is true. Sometimes it’s gentleness with myself, because of how hard it can be here – by which I simply mean how afraid I am. But at other moments, I’m merely afraid to say the wrong thing – or to say the right thing in a way that makes reality here all too real in a way I’d rather pretend it isn’t.
There were gunshots in the middle of the night last night. And I have lost track of how many times this has been the case since we moved in. We have a drug house on our street. My roommate and I have both been followed and have experienced unwanted attention. If the boy misses his bus stop, he can’t just get off at the next one because he may not be safe there. Developers come in frequently and buy up lots – or whole blocks of lots – evicting, boarding up the houses, putting them up for sale to be moved, displacing folks from the place they have always been. Stray dogs roam, and trash builds up in the ditches or in the random piles. The boy’s school doesn’t offer art.
On the plane home to Durham from Houston in March, I began reading Makoto Fujimura’s Culture Care. I didn’t realize then how important and even prophetic the opening of the foreword by Mark Labberton would be for me in the months since then. It’s a page I return to often. And perfectly, it speaks to the tensions I feel in this moment of making sense of where I am, seeing what I see. Labberton says,
“In a world that is at once beautiful and pained, glorious and tortured, thriving and anguished, many ask: Is there hope? What does it look like? Where and what is it? Hope, first of all, must be realistic. That is, hope can be hope only if it admits that which is darkest while urging toward the light. Nothing glib, or blind, or deflective toward the depth of despair could be a contender for hope. If hope has not first been silenced before the profundity of evil and loss, then such a two-dimensional offering is more scandalous than fruitful. Realistic is not so much concerned with practicality as it is about truthfulness.”
He goes on, and the whole foreword is worth a read – his reflections on hope are marvelous and important.
But this press toward the realistic, this press toward admitting the dark while urging toward light, this silencing of hope in the face of suffering’s profundity – this is the challenge of this moment for me, encapsulated. In some ways, to walk away from this place having said nothing while having witnessed so much would be a deep injustice. It’s not as if my naming what I see is important for this neighborhood – though it could be; but I want to avoid stepping into the role of the white person who comes in to tell the story, to save the day.
If anything, naming what I see is important simply because I see it, and because I need the exercise in courage to speak knowing I might speak out of turn, to invest my words in the place I live so that affection might spring up, to be vulnerable and humble at the same time and risk my own imperfection on display.
Hope is hard for me here. Not impossible, but hard work. The sheer force of systemic problems makes it difficult to imagine flourishing in this place for the people here that wouldn’t also put them at risk for gentrification or the greed of outsiders.
And it’s not always clear what flourishing is here, what it means. At moments, I think at least some of my neighbors do flourish in some way, that they’ve made a meaningful life on their own terms apart from white affluent notions of flourishing. I wonder often who I am to decide whether this is so or not.
This morning I came across a bit of Romans, where in chapter 8 Paul talks about hope, and sounds a whole lot like Labberton. He says,
“Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
That second part, about the Spirit interceding – I had never connected it to the struggle to hope. But the connection is real. And while I struggle with the words to name rightly the world I’m living within, the Spirit’s already praying with sighs that are deeper.
Often what I feel here is the helplessness to do anything about what I see, and yet a feeling somehow of responsibility, while being checked immediately by something else which reminds me that missionizing and colonizing have often gone hand in hand.
I’m a swirl of arguments all up inside me.
To know the Spirit is here, that maybe words do fail at points, comes as comfort. Labberton also says that, “Hope also often takes time to mature,” and that’s where I am perhaps, in the growing season of hope – but pre-germination, just a slight rumbling in the seed, safe in its shell, drinking nutrients from the ground it finds itself planted in.