Voices from Lafayette's Black community explore the role of education in reconciliation.

History is our witness

John Warner Smith wearing a hat
John Warner Smith was the Poet Laureate of Louisiana from 2019 to 2021 and is the only African American man to serve in the office in its eighty-year history. Photo by Travis Gauthier

To me, a seventy-year-old African American who lived through the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras of the 1950s and 1960s, race has been like a prescribed pill swallowed with a glass of tap water. I am what some might call an educated, enlightened, and successful Black man, a native son of America who is a victim and product of racial hatred, but who long ago learned to mask his bitterness toward racial prejudice by relishing the sweetness of knowing both the person he is and the person people see or think they know. 

I have grown to understand hatred and oppression, not as a consciously contrived emotion, thought, or act, but as a deep spiritual hollowness in many Americans, and a byproduct of a complex web of unconscious forces that religion, history, and politics do little to explain or untangle. Still, the more I grow to understand racism, the less tolerant I am of it, and the more determined I am to fight it.  

About Reflections on Reconciliation

Reconciliation, and what role education should play in it, has become more than a political hot potato. It has engulfed, even swallowed whole at times, both thought and tendency to acknowledge deeds of the past. We find ourselves in denial, and sometimes entertaining fiction and fallacy.

We asked a wide spectrum of commentators to consider reconciliation in the context of education, using this prompt: 

What is the importance of racial reconciliation in today’s world, and what role should education play?

Ruth Foote, collection editor

What I didn’t know, for many years at least, and what many white people don’t know or understand or refuse to accept, is that, like Tar Baby in the briar patch, I am stuck to them, and it is their task, not mine, to learn that they cannot be free until I am free.

Thirty-four-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. understood that fact, and he never said it more plainly and eloquently than when he faced a quarter of a million people at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool on that hot August day in 1963 and spoke to America about the unfulfilled promises of its democracy.  His words were just beginning to ascend toward the “dream” and had not reached the crescendo that would later soar the clouds when, suddenly, like a birdsong, his cadence caught a crosswind, and the words struck a chord that sent the crowd into its first thunderous applause:

Many of our white brothers
as evidenced by their presence
here today have come to realize
that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.
And they have come to realize that their freedom
is inextricably bound to our freedom.

That personal transformation of white Americans, caused not by reasoning or law or physical force, but through compassion and a sense of spiritual identity and moral purpose, did much to ignite and fuel the national movement for Civil Rights. Our becoming a “more perfect union” will only be within reach when each of us, white and Black, discovers that common bond and interdependence.

Even when a Black man led America and the free world, discourses on race relations bordered on benign neglect and did little to address the grave disparities and injustices of our present situation.  Not surprisingly, the election of America’s first Black President awoke and galvanized some of the very same prejudices that the Civil Rights movement fought to eradicate.   

Measured against the indignity and degradation suffered by generations before me and by many of my own generation, my personal experiences with racial prejudice are hardly worth mentioning. But if, as James Baldwin suggests, one’s forgetfulness is the serpent in the garden of one’s dreams, Americans of all races must surely watch and witness, not to indict the past or present, but to never lose sight of the race-molded shadow of our beloved country, however long it persists.  

A young white man in his early twenties once said to me, “You seem to know a lot about the race problem, but I don’t get it. What’s the solution? How can or will the country ever be free of prejudice, injustice, and inequality?” To him, I replied: 

“Let us, you and I, climb a high bridge. Admittedly, I am afraid of heights, and I dread crossing tall bridges. They’re one of my worst fears. I can’t really explain why, except that crossing them makes me very uncomfortable. I feel a loss of control. When I approach a tall bridge, I see more than steel beams and concrete. I see fear, a fear of being too high above the ground, climbing into the clouds, falling from the sky, and careening into the river below, or maybe it’s the fear of not being on solid ground, or losing gravity and my surefooted grip on the world.

“The problem is personal but has everything to do with you, because if you and I can both believe that together we can climb and cross any tall bridge, even in my fear; if you and I can get beyond history, accept our differences in age, ancestry, race, and culture, and genuinely care about each other’s life and well-being as if it were his own; if you will sit beside me and believe that I can hold on to the wheel and not faint but keep straight ahead toward that bridge with my heart pounding as my body climbs, tilts and loses ground; and if I, with you by my side, have the courage and faith to stay the course, conquering fear and believing  that no harm will come to either of us if I let go of the wheel and put my life in your hands, trusting you to get us safely across those deep waters; then maybe, just maybe, you and I, together, can climb that height and cross that vast, open space.

“You ask: After slavery, war, and disenfranchisement, after hate, terror, resistance, protests, and Civil Rights, after the silence of strangers passing each other with gestures or words spoken and unspoken that cut without intent to hurt, after the rhetoric, finger pointing, and projections, after winter has passed and the spring sun sleeps, and we enter our houses, close our doors, love our children, put them to bed, and turn out the lights, how do we awake to our better, brighter days?

“How do Black and white Americans live as one family? When will Black lives always matter to white people and visa versa?  How do we close the racial divide that has existed for four hundred years and divided the sweet soul of this country between two continents and two races of people who now live as one nation under God? How do we solve the problems that sap Americans of life and a sense of worth and dignity? How do we fulfill the promises of democracy for all Americans, regardless of race? 

“As complex and perplexing as it seems, the solution is very simple. Each race has answers to those questions, but do we truly listen to one another? By listen, I mean remember but care and forgive. By care and forgive, I mean love. By love, I mean imagine you and I entering a darkened, unfamiliar room together, with each carrying an unlit lantern. Would we be willing to extend our arms to light, not our own, but one another’s lamp? The race problem in this country can only be solved when that happens, when people of all races enter that dark space together to see and feel the realities that each race experiences, even if, in darkness, what we see and feel falls short of truth. Each race must be willing to act out those perceptions in the best interest of the other, knowing that absolute truth is never absolute. 

“All races standing together, in one dark, unfamiliar room and lighting each other’s lantern is the highest of heights. It requires white people and people of color to step beyond their own front doors far and long enough to see each other’s houses, despite the distance and differences between them, and embrace darkness and unfamiliarity without fear or presumption. It requires us to look into our own and each other’s hearts to find common goodness, not fearing, forgetting, or shunning the past, but embracing it, while imagining a brighter future. It requires us to climb together, hand in hand, and patiently tread the stony road together, to learn, pray, laugh, and cry together, and be willing to cross the wilderness, valleys, deep canyons, and desert sands together.

“With lamps lit and glowing brightly in the strangeness of darkness, after all we’ve destroyed and built, after all we’ve suffered and endured as a divided and united country, we can enter that dark, unfamiliar room. We can leap beyond time, history, and circumstance, but no one but us will carry the light. No one but us will guide, push, or pull us over that vast, open space. No one but us will love enough to get us there.

“Say and do unto me as I say and will do unto you: I do not have the power to make you love me, but I have the heart to love you, and I will.”