Memoirs are a path toward mutual respect

Growing up Jewish gave me a front row seat to the hatred proudly on display against people of other races, not only in Europe but right here in my own country. By the time I arrived in college, the signs posted on beaches and restaurants throughout the American South – No Jews or Blacks Allowed –had been reluctantly taken down, and I happily assumed that the American promise of universal equality was heading in the right direction.

Sadly that optimistic belief has been challenged by the presence of video cameras in everyone’s pockets, which document the fact that something is still desperately wrong. From a woman tasered and jailed for refusing to put out her cigarette, to suspects of a minor crime shot multiple times in the back while running away, to a man strangled to death in front of a crowd of onlookers, the injustice continues, and even though it’s an uncomfortable conversation, it is also one my heart demands I enter.

Since I’ve spent the last 15 years making the audacious claim that memoirs have the power to transform society, it makes sense to tack on this additional hope – that memoirs could specifically elevate our conversation about race.

After George Floyd’s murder, while riots raged in cities around the country, I reviewed the Black memoirs I’d read, and found that the very first blog post I wrote in 2007 mentions two memoirs by Black authors, one of which inspired a trip into Philadelphia to meet the famous Tommie Smith. In 1968, Smith, one of the great runners of the modern era, stood with his Gold Medal on the podium of the Olympics and raised his fist in solidarity with Black protests.

Back in 1968, while I was busy trying to grow up, Tommie Smith’s brave gesture quickly slipped out of my awareness. Reading his memoir years later revealed what happened next. His simple plea for equality ran afoul of the racial caste system, and decades before “cancel culture” became a thing, he lost his endorsements and was blacklisted from college and sports team. His silent, bold, dignified gesture hurtled him into obscurity and poverty.

I am ashamed to admit that when I first read Tommie Smith’s memoir, I was still clinging to the belief that the vicious backlash directed against him was some sort of mistake, and that in general, while the American promise of equality had flaws, it was still essentially intact.

George Floyd’s murder made it impossible to ignore that these supposedly small pockets of racial indignity run much deeper into the fabric of our society and have more far-reaching, dire consequences than I wanted to believe. But what could I do?

I can’t change the world, but perhaps I could cry harder, and invite others with big hearts to cry (and try!) with me. Because in addition to protests, the other way to lift this mess is with love, and love sometimes requires exposing one’s self to pain.

So I dug deeper into my reading list, and eventually I came to see that the American system of promising everyone equality and then withholding it from those of a different race has forced many people to find the dignity hidden in the spaces permitted them by their circumstances.

I didn’t make these observations of moral strength on my own. I extracted them from between the lines of another Black writer I met in Philadelphia, Lorene Cary. In reviewing her two books, Black Ice and Lady Sitting, I formulated my ideas for a 21st Century approach to racism, and how the response to it is a search for dignity.

After I wrote an essay on the topic, my own blog seemed too limited a platform. To stretch outside my usual range, I sent the essay out into the world. When I heard back from, Mary McBeth, the editor of Memoir Magazine that she wanted to talk to me, I was flattered that she would take some time to help me improve it.

Unfortunately she did not find my exploration of these topics to be as clear as I’d hoped. Fortunately, she wanted to talk about it, and that resulted in an impromptu seminar in the language of being Black (and white) in America.

It turns out that she too has been longing for a way to contribute to this conversation, but she has the privilege of seeing the situation from the Black side of the ocean that separates us. When she saw I’d dived into that ocean, she jumped in too, in order to see if we could meet in the middle.

During two phone conversations, spanning 3.5 hours, we attempted to swim across the turbulent waters that divided her world from mine. Because of hundreds of years of cruelty and contention, it turns out that steering through appropriate, compassionate language is more difficult than I’d anticipated.

Based on her feedback, I mulled over my article, and eventually returned version two. She reviewed that one and gave me even more feedback. By the third round, she said she didn’t just like it. She loved it.

The article, published in Memoir Magazine  [Click here to read the whole thing, ] says much of what I’ve been thinking about since the George Floyd murder,  I also want to add one more thing here.

I’ve been reading Isabel Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns, about the Jim Crow south, and the great migration from south to north. Wilkerson’s thoughtful, heavily researched story has shredded the blinders that kept me from seeing the history of racial atrocity in this country. Perhaps because I am now close to three quarters of a century old myself, the sadistic, dehumanizing laws and social norms against Blacks in the first half of the twentieth century don’t seem so long ago. In fact, they were taking place in the same decades as the groundswell of human cruelty was rising in Europe to create the Holocaust – it’s all too close for comfort. 

Of course no one can reverse past oppression, but as we move forward, in order to live up to our own standards of “freedom for all” we must learn to use our words in the service of mutual respect. While most of our public debate about the empathetic use of language has been directed against inflammatory and demeaning word choices, an even more valuable use of words occurs in the mutual respect we gain by listening to each other’s stories. This is the promise of the Memoir Revolution, that while we all live our own unique lives, stories enable us to have empathy for each other’s.

After you’ve given an author several hours of your attention, you have entered into one of the most dignified, and dignifying relationships in human experience, vicariously setting yourself aside, and letting them lead you through their journey.

I’ve often said that memoirs generate hope, because each one leads from a place of lesser personal satisfaction to greater. But whenever I cross a barrier of race, or culture, or any other difference in our backgrounds, I believe that equally important is its promotion of empathy. By allowing myself into their worlds, each memoir chips away at the sense of otherness, and immerse myself in the knowledge that we are all swimming in the same ocean.