Sometimes reading is hard. Oh, not the words or the way they
are strung together, but what they say...the subject matter...
the story they tell...the information they impart. I have just
finished two hard books...very different in subject matter but
both heart-rending and mind-boggling and certain to stay with
me for a long, long time, perhaps for the rest of my life.
The first was The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by African-
American theologian, James H. Cone, in which the author links-
in some dramatically intense ways- the cross of Jesus the Christ
and the lynchings of African-Americans in this country in the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a white American growing
up in in the North during years when such reprehensible
behavior was still taking place, I must confess my total ignorance
of the history of what had and was still taking place during my
childhood. And we learned nothing about it in school...nothing.
Throughout my elementary school years I knew only two
Negroes, as they were called then- (when they weren't being
called something far worse): Clarabelle Jimmerson and James
Williams. They were bussed to my school from a small town
outside of our small city because we were the nearest school.
Clarabelle was in my class for several years and I remember
being fascinated by her beautiful dark skin and the many small
pigtails in which her hair was braided. Sometimes we shared
our lunches and when we had to double up in our desk seats
for some activity or other, we were quick to seek each other out.
But I knew nothing of her life outside of school, just as she knew
nothing of mine. We were classmates and school friends.
My junior high/high school was totally white, located as it was
outside the city which is where most people of color lived. And
though Friday night's Teen Canteen at the YMCA was totally
integrated, the black kids pretty much stayed with the black
kids, the white with the white. Oh, I do recall hearing about the
Ku Klux Klan but that seemed like some ridiculously unreal
apparition in the deep South. Never once do I recall- until I
went to college in New York City- wondering about the life and
treatment of black people. It simply did not enter my headspace
and I do not recall the adults around me discussing it. Lord,
have mercy. College presented a different world, a world in
which I came to know several black students who became
good friends...but I still knew nothing about what it was like
for them to live inside a black skin. Christ, have mercy.
Forgive the digression...lost in memory's corridors.
Cone' s book was difficult for me to read because page after page
not only presented me with facts previously unknown to me, but
also convicted me as a white woman, a white Christian woman, a
white Christian pastor, and caused me more than once to have
to put the book down and walk away for a while to permit my
emotions to settle a bit...my nausea to ebb. Over and over again,
I found myself asking how human beings could commit such
heinous acts upon another human being. But, as Cone reminded
me again and again, the African American was often viewed by
his/her white "sisters and brothers" as less-than-human. Over
and over again, I was astonished and horrified by what I read;
over and over again I find my eyes filling with tears and my
heart filling with sorrow and deep, deep regret for what had been
done, often in the name of religion, by people whose skin color
is like my own. And I learned the names of many courageous
and gifted African Americans: poets, writers, activists, of whom
I had never heard. I learned about the Harlem Renaissance as
well as the daring and committed women who started the
National Association for Colored Women. (Today, I spent
several hours at the library, looking up name after name from
Cone's book, determined that I would expand both knowledge
and appreciation for these fellow-citizens, these fellow-travelers
on life's road.) Would that this book were required reading in
every high school and college in this nation, to fill in the glaring
gaps in our children's education.
The second hard book was Redeployment by Phil Klay, a series
of short stories about troops serving in Iraq, written by someone
who had been there, done that. I was astounded by the rawness,
the honesty, the horror of these stories. Indeed, they are not for
the faint-hearted. And if you're offended by foul language- well,
you'll just have to get over it. Klay doesn't pull punches, but tells
it like it is...and those of us who have put people into office who
continue to send young men and women into harm's way need
to come face-to-face with what is happening to them, with the
toll their experience is exacting from them. And perhaps Klay's
book will also help us to more compassionately deal with those
suffering from PTSD and TBIs and depression and alcoholism
as a result of their service...on our behalf.
So...do I recommend these two very different but equally-
disturbing books to you, dear reader? Yes, yes, and yes again-
if you want to be informed...if you want to understand...if you
want to be linked to your fellow humans in many and varied
ways. But, I warn you, sometimes reading is hard.