There was an old, rural church in the Florida panhandle I visited a few times. It was quaint and unremarkable save for its overt simplicity. However, if one were to look at the wooden ceiling, they could see dark footprints on the pine planks. It was said that those were the footprints of the slaves that built it. Ceilings shouldn’t have footprints on them.
As I read the first headline I saw about the massacre at Emmanuel AME in Charleston my heart physically hurt. I knew the story before I read it. I knew a young white male did it. My mind in a moment flew over the various outposts of racial tensions that have been the 1 and 3 of America’s rhythm. Everything in me just wants it to be over. From Dr. King’s dream to Rodney King’s plea I desperately want a post-racial America. But that is like wanting water that’s not wet. If there is such a thing as America there will be issues of race and inequality. The steel of this great nation was forged in part by the mill of dehumanization.
That acknowledgement is one of the reasons I liked Rachel Dolezal when I first met her. My junior year was her freshman year of college in Jackson Mississippi. She was very much white. “Whiter” than me. She was a homeschooled kid from Montana. She was very plain looking. There wasn’t much style to her at all.
Her plain whiteness was what made her art something to behold. There were a few artists at our college making decent contributions. But Rachel’s art was just better. It connected more. It conveyed more. Her installations were the ones people stopped and stared at. Her subject matter was exclusively the capturing of the struggle of people of color. To see this nondescript white-girl telling the story of the pain and pride of black folk through remarkable art was ironic. At the same time, her art was real. It was soulful. It was legit.
I got to know Rachel beyond simple acquaintance. She and I were white members of the Black Student Association of our college. She and I were part of a push to get an African American history class taught for the first time at our school. We both attended a church whose mission, in part, was to be a community devoted to racial reconciliation. Rachel was relentless in her pursuit of understanding and conveying the hardship and beauty of the black experience. I recall the time she told me about driving north of Jackson toward the delta until she saw a cotton field. She pulled over, climbed through the barbed wire and picked cotton for hours. She wanted to know the struggle.
My brother, like Rachel, was studying fine arts. He had gifted me a portrait of my best friend James. It was a small drawing done with black and white pencil on a green matte board. It hung on the wall in his studio. James was black. Looking for my brother in his studio space I found Rachel instead. She was staring at the portrait of my friend James. She was crying. She explained to me that what my brother captured in that intimate portrait was always what she was trying to convey through her own art. I gave her the portrait of my best friend. I had him. I didn’t need the picture.
Little did I know that James would get arrested a number of times- for robbery, aggravated assault, and grand theft. He’ll get out of prison in 2019. A handful of years ago I reached out to Rachel to see if I could have James’ portrait back. I wanted my kids to know about my best friend growing up. She offered to sell it back to me. I wasn’t interested. Shortly after that she moved to Washington. Shortly after that she unfriended me on Facebook.
And then, out of nowhere, she filled the internet. I couldn’t believe it. Then I could. It made all the sense in the world to me. For as much as Rachel tried to understand and convey the truth of the struggle of the black experience, it was never close enough. What James’ portrait had in it that Rachel’s work lacked was relationship- not a subject matter but a personhood.
Ultimately, I think Rachel became her own canvas. Her life became the medium of her magnum opus; her identity the means through which to capture and tell the story she was so desperately drawn to. She became immersed in telling a history of struggle that was not her own. Her brushes gave way to hair extensions, paints gave way to skin pigments and like any art she became the representation of something she wasn’t. It was earnest. But it wasn’t real.
I understand it though. As wave after wave of headlines poured in about Charleston, everything in me wanted to excuse myself from my whiteness. I wanted the Charleston tragedy to be a story of some crazy, racist kid who was an aberration. But that’s not true. The truth is that our culture is woven from the loom of white supremacy. Dylan Roof was incubated in a culture that didn’t put him in check. I hate that truth. I hate the idea that my life benefits from that truth. I want to make it not so. I want to identify with and stand in solidarity with the struggle of my brothers and sisters of color. That’s what Rachel Dolezal and I have in common.
What we don’t have in common is that she hid. In the wake of Charleston I would love to distance myself from my whiteness by claiming that I self-identify as black. I would love to claim solidarity with those who suffer at the hands not just of hateful persons but at the hands of a system put in place by hateful persons and perpetuated by those who have benefited from it.
As the country watched Baltimore burn a couple of months ago I asked a black man who is a member of my church to go for a walk with me. I told him I needed his help. I asked him to help me interpret these events from his eyes. I asked him to help me understand. I said, “James, I want to walk a mile in your shoes.” I was dead serious. I was hurting. And James laughed. He’s a big man. It was a big laugh. He said, “Scott, you don’t want to walk a mile in my shoes. You’d get a few steps out of my door, take my shoes off and hand them back to me.” He was right.
Charleston doesn’t need me to distance myself from who I am as a white person. Charleston doesn’t need me to claim solidarity. Charleston doesn’t need me to denounce racism as though I am an enlightened one. Charleston doesn’t need me to self-identify as black making the suffering of others a work of self-art. Charleston needs me to be honest about who I am. Solidarity may come, but it comes as the fruit of repentance; repentance that is born of an honest assessment of self and society.
Can I be honest? I am shielded from the hot sun of racial oppression. I am kept dry from the driving rains of inequality. I am protected from the damaging hail of functional segregation. I am not stung by the sleet of assumed inferiority. There is a pine ceiling over my head and there are dark footprints on it. And I like it. I hate that I like it. But I like it.
James was right. I would bring his shoes back because I have the privilege of not having to walk in them. That’s the truth. That’s where my repentance needs to begin. The first flag furled needs to be the one that flies over the foot-printed ceiling of my privilege.
Earlier this week I walked with my children through the MLK Memorial complex in Atlanta. That kind of thing is of value. More valuable for the people they will grow up to be however, will be making them see the ceiling of our life and explaining why there are footprints on it.