Talk­ing about race

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - Kath­leen­parker@wash­post.com

By all ap­pear­ances Fri­day morn­ing, as thou­sands lined the street wait­ing (and wilt­ing) for hours in 90-de­gree heat to en­ter the fu­neral arena where Pres­i­dent Obama was to de­liver a eu­logy for state Sen. Cle­menta C. Pinck­ney, racial unity seemed a com­fort­able fact of life.

For many, no doubt, it is. And nu­mer­ous con­ver­sa­tions the past few days with res­i­dents con­firmed at least the as­pi­ra­tional con­sis­tency of this ob­ser­va­tion. But— and there’s al­ways a “but” — there’s more work to be done. Hov­er­ing over this beau­ti­ful city in the wake of the hideous mur­ders this month of Pinck­ney and eight parish­ioners at Emanuel African Methodist Epis­co­pal Church is a puz­zle for the good-hearted: Now what?

How do Charleston and South Carolina — and the na­tion — pro­ceed from here? Once the eu­lo­gies have ended and life, in­deed, goes on, what pre­cisely can one, or many, of us do to re­solve the prob­lem of race?

Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is the word of the day, but how, prac­ti­cally speak­ing, does one get there? From lead­ers in Washington, we of­ten hear of the need for a “na­tional con­ver­sa­tion about race.” Again, how? And what does this re­ally mean?

I asked Su­san Glis­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Wil­liam Win­ter In­sti­tute of Racial Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion at the Univer­sity of Mis­sis­sippi. She and As­so­ciate Di­rec­tor Charles Tucker gave me a three-hour tu­to­rial in my Washington liv­ing room about how peo­ple can have the nec­es­sary con­ver­sa­tion and work to­ward true rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

First, said Glis­son, it can’t be a na­tional con­ver­sa­tion. “The best con­ver­sa­tions are the most lo­cal,” she says.

To this end, the in­sti­tute cre­ated a por­ta­ble tem­plate for con­ver­sa­tion called “the Welcome Ta­ble,” a phys­i­cal ta­ble where up to 25 peo­ple of all races sit and talk. Re­ally talk. As mod­er­a­tor, Glis­son or Tucker might ask par­tic­i­pants to speak for three min­utes about when he or she first no­ticed the ele­phant of race in the room.

Hon­esty is cru­cial, even if it smarts. Some­times peo­ple’s rec­ol­lec­tions lead to tears. Other times, to laugh­ter. Peo­ple of­ten laugh over what Tucker calls their “ner­vous sto­ries.”

Tucker, who is African Amer­i­can and grew up on a cot­ton plan­ta­tion in the Mis­sis­sippi Delta, re­leases a rolling, bari­tone laugh from deep within his 6-foot-3 frame at my own ner­vous story. He has had plenty of per­sonal en­coun­ters with racism yet seems to have a con­sid­er­able well of com­pas­sion for the most foolish among us. This is in part be­cause he has lis­tened to other peo­ple’s sto­ries and re­ally heard them. Some­thing about the telling of sto­ries draws out our more hu­man selves. Em­pa­thy dis­places cyn­i­cism and guard­ed­ness.

Glis­son, a font of knowl­edge and wis­dom, para­phrases Henry Wadsworth Longfel­low, say­ing, “My en­emy is some­one whose sto­ries I don’t know.”

Though most Amer­i­cans of var­i­ous races don’t see each other as en­e­mies, the sen­ti­ment is clear. When you put your­self in oth­ers’ shoes, it’s harder to think of them as “other.” The rare and in­ex­pli­ca­ble ex­cep­tion is the young man who al­legedly mur­dered nine peo­ple in the Mother Emanuel church — even af­ter, as he put it, they were so nice to him.

This is rec­on­cil­i­a­tion: Ac­knowl­edg­ing that bad things have hap­pened, that mis­un­der­stand­ings per­sist, that we are sorry, that we for­give.

This is what Amer­i­cans wit­nessed in Charleston as black and white res­i­dents em­braced each other. This is what was hap­pen­ing when res­i­dents walked from op­po­site sides of the Arthur Ravenel Bridge to meet half­way.

At its most pro­found, this is what we wit­nessed when fam­ily mem­bers of the Charleston vic­tims spoke to the ac­cused, Dy­lann Roof, and, ex­press­ing their au­then­tic Chris­tian faith, for­gave him.

But rec­on­cil­i­a­tion isn’t a one-act play. Ev­ery com­mu­nity, not just in the South, has work to do, though Glis­son be­lieves South­ern cities and states have an ex­tra duty to lead the way. She is also keen on the con­ver­sa­tion cul­mi­nat­ing in so­cial jus­tice pol­icy. “Per­sonto-per­son leads to group-to-group,” she says. “And groups cre­ate pol­icy.”

Of like mind is na­tive Charlesto­nian Charles T. “Bud” Fer­illo Jr., cre­ator and di­rec­tor of the doc­u­men­tary film “Cor­ri­dor of Shame.” Fer­illo has been work­ing to cre­ate a sis­ter rec­on­cil­i­a­tion in­sti­tute in Charleston, per­haps with the Col­lege of Charleston. His new film, “A Seat at the Ta­ble,” about the Welcome Ta­ble, is co­in­ci­den­tally al­most ready for public re­lease.

The ter­ri­ble event that brought these projects to my at­ten­tion will re­main heavy on our hearts. But welcome ta­bles are a welcome idea as we search for so­lu­tions and cre­ate a new story with a hap­pier end­ing.

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