Healing the Divides Between Us

by Amina Knowlan | November 2008

"We have never been just a collection of individuals ..."

"In this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people."

"We do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress."

"Our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. …to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope."
— Barack Obama, November 4, 2008

LIKE MANY, I SAT IN RAPT SILENCE and awe, listening to Barack Obama as he spoke to the American people and to the world upon winning the election to become the 44th president of the United States. I was in my living room with a small group of friends and Matrix colleagues ranging in age from 19 to 72. We were young and middle aged, women and men, Jewish and Christian lineage, and European and African heritage.

We were cheering, whooping, clapping, crying and riding waves of relief, disbelief and astonishment. Those of us who took part in the civil rights movement of the '60s could truly say we didn't think we would live to see this day. For me, it was one of the most moving, meaningful and hopeful moments of my life.

I saw the same demographics and the same reactions in the crowd of 250,000 people who converged in Chicago's Grant Park after the election. Young and the old, white, brown and black, men and women; all with their arms wrapped around each other, many with tears streaming down their faces and all with wide-open grins. As the reality of this watershed event began to sink in, I noticed that while I felt ecstatic, celebratory joy, enormous relief and a sense of liberation, I also felt numb. I was not crying, as I almost always do in any meaningful moment.

When I heard the president-elect say, "We are not just a collection of individuals ..." my Matrix mind woke up. Senator Obama was speaking the words of a systems thinker — a holistic, globally responsive consciousness. In Matrix Leadership trainings I often post quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Dr. King said that we are all tied "in a single garment of destiny. I cannot be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be." Archbishop Tutu said, "If we truly knew that we were one human family, we would realize that we can only go forward together."

VISIONARY LEADERS HAVE SPOKEN this intelligence for many years. On this November night, the American people elected one such man as President of the United States. Each of Obama's quotes, noted above, describe an essential practice of Matrix Leadership. Hope began to melt through the layers of shock in my body.

My African-heritage friend Gig, sitting on the couch next to me, said that for him, the reality of this election had yet to sink in. He said it might take going to the inauguration; it might take seeing it in person to truly believe that this country — a country still tarnished by slavery and bigotry and racism — had just elected a black man as president.

When only Gig and I were left watching the news analysis, I noticed that I felt like the top half of my heart was open, taking in and celebrating this breakthrough. The bottom half of my heart felt as if it was still in the dark, partially frozen.

Then came a mysterious moment. I cannot tell you what triggered it. It is as if the election of an African-heritage man suddenly translated to a wall coming down between us. I leaned into his shoulder and cried without knowing much about why.

The next day, I met my writing coach, Max, in our usual café. He walked toward me grinning with his arms outstretched. He was born in 1968. He said, “I want to thank you. I want to thank all of you ex-hippies who did the work that preceded this election. This happened in part because you began this work in the 60s. We are all standing on your shoulders.”

I SHARED HIS EXCITEMENT, traded stories and again felt the mysterious sense of numbness. As we talked about this reality that neither of us thought we would see in our lifetimes — I began to crack open. A memory from my own past came unbidden:

IN 1968 I WAS A HIGH-SCHOOL SENIOR in small-town Missouri. I had a steady boyfriend, Rich, who was the quarterback on the football team — a smart, funny, good-looking guy. His best friend, Brad, was one of a handful of African Americans in our school. Brad was also the star football player and a very friendly, funny guy with a big heart. The three of us were inseparable at school. We laughed non-stop, pulled pranks and occasionally chased each other down the halls.

The highest honor in our high school of 800 students was the Silver Arrow (yearbook) Queen and King. Rich, Brad and I were all nominated. In a stunning testimony to the authenticity of the kids, Brad was elected—and much to my surprise, so was I.

It was the two of us — white girl and black boy — in front of the whole school. He escorted me, put the crown on my head and we danced the first dance together. I was ecstatic that Brad was elected, wondering only briefly if my boyfriend Rich would be jealous. I think Brad was in complete shock—and in hindsight, I would guess he was uncomfortable with the honor and the pairing.

The next morning, I received a call from the mother of another student. "I am so sorry that happened to you," she said.

"What?" I asked. And after she repeated the words, I blurted, "I don’t know what you’re talking about." My mind was reeling into confusion, assuming she meant that she was sorry I had been elected.

"Well, you know," she said. Then silence. I think my heart was beginning to pound. I was holding my breath. “What are you talking about?” I asked again.

I STILL REMEMBER THE ICY TONE in her voice when she said, "Well, you know ... that you had to be up there on stage with that Nigger."

I feel it now as vividly as I did that day 40 years ago. I felt like someone stabbed me in the heart. I felt like I could throw up on the phone. I was frozen in shock and horror. The innocent part of me, the part that loved Brad, had no idea something so right could be seen as wrong. I don’t remember how long I was silent. Years or centuries could have been frozen into that moment.

I do remember that when I finally found my voice I screamed into the phone, "Well I am not sorry! He is my best friend, it was an honor to be with him!" I slammed the phone down and haven't spoken to her since.

I have a vague memory that there were similar calls that day. I believe my mother, wanting to protect me, screened the calls. She was raised in Texas and carried plenty of unconscious racism, but she abhorred bigotry and fervently insisted that all people were created equal in God’s eyes and deserved kindness and generosity.

TELLING THIS STORY TO MAX, the numb bottom half of my heart was trembling. I didn't fully understand the connection to the election. I didn’t know why I felt like I could cry for a long time. The rest of the day I felt raw. Every time I thought about the election, I cried. I thought perhaps I was crying the grief of all of the years of suffering under the hand of racism.

Was I crying the relief of all who had endured being oppressed as well as that of those of us hopelessly trying to scrape away our unconscious racism to alleviate the suffering?

That night I called Gig. I wanted some perspective. He said it felt like the election had shattered both the real and imagined limit on opportunity and potential imposed by centuries of racist oppression. There was, he said, a very clear rule: there are some things a black man just cannot do or be, some places he just cannot go.

"Blond-haired, blue-eyed little boys get told again and again, ‘You can be anything you want to be,' " Gig said. "And there's plenty of proof in what they see and hear in the world. A boy with brown or black skin gets a very different message, and there's plenty of proof for that, too."

I nodded with tears in my eyes as I thought about the messages that said, "you'll be a gardener or a janitor or an athlete, if you're lucky. If you’re going to make it beyond that, you'll have to work very, very hard."

It is painful to know that so many beautiful, brilliant people have lived with any messages other than ones that acknowledged their stunning potential. That innocent girl in me — the one who still has no idea why skin-color makes a difference in honor or opportunity — was crying.

Not wanting to accept tears for the past, Gig said, "Don't you see? That ceiling is now gone! From now on, little black boys get the message that they can be anything, do anything. And there is proof."

As I listened to him grasp this paradigm-shifting reality, I felt something else, subtle but unmistakable. I felt as if the Berlin Wall was coming down between us. A wall that I never even knew I carried.

DESPITE WHAT THE WOMAN ON THE PHONE had said so many years ago, I felt as if I were actually free to love anybody I wanted. I likened it to what I might feel now if the barriers of ageism suddenly disappeared. What if I suddenly valued myself in such a way that I knew I was desirable and visible? How then might I open to others? What might happen between any two men or any two women if the barrier of homophobia suddenly came down?

I felt as if millennia of walls of identities were coming down leaving us in the poignant possibly of simply connecting, loving and working together as fellow human beings. The strongest grief and relief came with realizing that I hadn't known the extent to which I kept myself separate with walls surrounding islands of identity.

They were walls that were installed pervasively by messages in my 1950s and 60s upbringing. I wept with gratitude knowing I did not pass those barriers on to my adult children whose friends and lovers routinely cross racial barriers. Somehow, on that night in high school, I had crossed a racial barrier with little awareness that there was a barrier — and claimed in my own small way that I would not participate in the division of people from each other. And yet I had — as we all typically do — with every difference in identity.

Now we stand on threshold of change that has the potential to usher us toward a new social reality. I feel renewed hope and deep gratitude for the privilege of being a part of the web or Matrix of people who are midwifeing a new era of leadership based on healing the divides between us and realizing the strength of our interconnection.

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