By Rebecca Murdock

I walked into the empty auditorium, my footsteps echoing off the walls around me. I was 45 minutes early and hoping to do some reading before the event began. Looking up at the movie-theater style seats, I realized I could sit anywhere, but suddenly felt the need to pick my seat very intentionally. Too far up, and I might seem like I didn’t care enough. Too close, and I could look pretentious, as if I thought this was for me. I needed to be somewhere where I could observe and learn, but still be out of the way. I was already out of place, being white at a Black Student Association event, and I didn’t need to make any careless mistakes.

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I chose a seat about 10 rows up, to one side. Tonight’s “Dinner and Dialogue” would feature the documentary film by Raoul Peck, “I Am Not Your Negro,” released in February, 2017, a film project about James Baldwin’s unfinished book on the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. I’d never heard of it, but it looked interesting; not to mention that my friend was hosting the event, so I figured I should be supportive.

The BSA officers arrived and set out dinner for everyone, as the rest of the audience trickled in. I was starkly aware of the fact that I was still the only white person in the room. Soon, the documentary started and I braced myself for the flood of white guilt that I expected to ensue. But instead, my overwhelming feeling throughout the film was awe, as I was taken on a fascinating and terrible journey through a version of American history I’d never experienced. Not one I’d resisted, but one that simply hadn’t made its way into my purview.

The idea that we all experience reality differently wasn’t new to me, as I’d poured over articles on confirmation bias, social constructionism, and communication theory.

But this was different.

I’d sympathized with the black struggle, but I’d never felt it in my own soul before. To see the same history that had bolstered my sense of heritage, tear down someone else’s, felt as if I’d believed part of a lie my whole life. To hear James Baldwin talk about cheering for John Wayne shooting down the Indians on TV as a child, only to grow older and realize that he, himself, represented the Indians, a threat to white America, was sobering. To see “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” not as a progressive film, but as an orchestrated manuscript, dictating how black people must act, dress, and express themselves if they were to be tolerated by white America, was grievous. But to watch working black men walk by the caskets of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, or Martin Luther King, Jr. and see the look of hopelessness on their faces as they walked away was unbearable. Because here was where the fate of these black men was most clear – that they could either continue to endure being treated as less than human, or that they could speak up in protest, only to be permanently silenced.

Baldwin speaks about blacks and whites and the hatred they are perceived to have between each other. “The root of the black man’s hatred is rage, and he does not so much hate white men as simply wants them out of his way, and more than that, out of his children’s way.” As Baldwin later says, he simply wanted to go about his interests, passions, and work projects without the social terror of constantly looking over his shoulder, expecting harassment or danger. And it was not until his move from America to Paris that he finally experienced a reality in which that way of peaceful living was somewhat possible.

At the end of the film, Baldwin takes an interesting shift toward contemplating the psychological effects of oppression on the oppressors, themselves.

“I know very well,” he says. “That my ancestors had no desire to come to this place. But neither did the ancestors of the people who became white, and who require of my captivity a song. They require a song of me, less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own.”

He laments the impoverished moral character that results from the subjugation of “other.”

“I have always been struck, in America, by an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep, that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable, organic connection between his public stance and his private life. This failure of the private life has always had the most devastating effect on American public conduct, and on black-white relations. If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they would never have become so dependent on what they call ‘The Negro Problem’.”

He asserts that white America would do well to do some soul searching as to why the use of a Negro in society was needed in the first place. What function this type of social order was created to fulfill. “And,” he concludes. “The future of our country depends on that… whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”

As the movie credits rolled over the screen, I puzzled over how any marginalized group should properly speak up about unfair treatment, without being cast in the role of oppressor, themselves. Since three different black men with three different philosophies were all assassinated for trying to alert white America of their plight, what approach then would finally have “merited” and received such long-awaited validation? If any at all?

I recalled a moment of hope in the film, a part toward the end, where Baldwin references an old, 1958 movie called “The Defiant Ones,” where a black man and a white man are chained together on a chain gang and spend the first parts of the movie fighting each other vehemently. It is not until they resign themselves to the fact that they are in it together that they begin to understand that their future as a unit depends on their joint partnership.  

Similarly, Baldwin proposes that our future in America, for both black and white people, is dependent upon our working together. And it is not until we spend time listening and understanding each other’s experiences of history that we can avoid repeating the tragedies that our ignorance has been accomplice to.

While even liberal, Millennial, America has been focused on their own perspective and tiptoeing around black people on eggshells, hoping not to upset anyone or get called a “racist,” the majority of black America has simply been trying to create enough structure and safety in this country to go about their daily business in peace.

A luxury I’ve known for most of my life in America, and taken for granted.

Instead of avoiding the uncomfortable truths and assuming that we should stay out of it as a polite courtesy; I would encourage my white brothers and sisters to pay the higher courtesy of attending more BSA events, watching more documentaries, and taking ownership to educate yourselves further on the united, and sometimes divided, historical realities that form the foundation of the country we call home.

Rebecca Murdock currently lives in Berrien Springs, Michigan and is working on her M.A. in Systematic Theology at the Andrews University Seminary. She is passionate about the integration of culture, politics, and religion and works with the Adventist Muslim Relations Forum on campus to further dialogue concerning interfaith relationships. She lives with her husband of three years, J. Murdock, who is currently working on his M.Div. in sponsorship with the Rocky Mountain Conference.