How To Hang In There: Today, Baratunde Thurston’s Podcast, How To Citizen, Helped

2 Sep

Everyone has probably heard the phrase, “we all have our cross to bear.” Even as a Jewish woman, I of course, get it. We all have our burdens in this life–our own, personal sufferings. Whenever I recall that phrase, it brings to mind this Russian artist, Ernst Neizvestny, and the time he painted a gigantic wall mural inside the Eduard Nakhamkin Gallery in Soho, where decades ago I worked as a gallery assistant.

I remember bold strokes of black paint outlining the mural content. I remember grey boulders, and a man, was it just a regular man, or was it supposed to be Jesus, I can’t remember, but he was dragging a cross up the hill of boulders. It appeared heavy. I remember Ernst talking with the other gallery assistants and myself about the weight of the personal burdens that each person endures in his or her lifetime. I remember his thick, Russian accent, and the passion he held in getting out the words which gave meaning to his vision. I felt the weight of that cross, and maybe that day I even thought about my own current life burdens, which at twenty-six, were most likely centered on how I was going to pay my rent, or keep things good with my current boyfriend, a salesperson at the gallery by day, and a flirtatious band musician by night.

Today, as I sit with my own struggles, the heaviness I feel with wanting to be doing enough, doing enough of my part in breaking down racism and racist institutions and systems of oppression, I know I am not alone. I know I am not unique in this. Yet, as a white-skinned, Jewish woman, I do not bear the burden of being Black in America, nor the trauma, pain, and anxiety that comes with living in a Black body in this country today, and for the past 400 years. This week, I heard the weighted words of Black friends on social media, words expressing emotional exhaustion, and the wondering of how much more they could bear. Hadn’t we said, Enough is Enough, after George Floyd’s death? Yet hear we were with all eyes, and hearts, on Kenosha, Wisconsin.

And, the burden is complex for each one of us. And we have multiple burdens, right? Many of us are stressed and depressed from Covid fatigue. Related to the pandemic, we may have health worries, financial worries, worries of how our kids will safely receive their education, and the worry that comes from the uncertainty of when this all will end. We may be dealing with anxiety and loneliness from the inability to socially connect with one another in the way we are used to.

We are also living through the current racial pandemic, and the uprising of strong activism–the reigniting of the Black Lives Matter movement–that followed the death of George Floyd in May. We have witnessed the killings where justice has not yet been fully served for Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and Elijah McClain. Again, for white people, this may feel like something new, as we continue to wake up, and finally see and hear some of the things that Black people have been trying to tell us for a real long time about racism in this country.

And if that was not enough, our country is hurting terribly over the most recent shooting of Jacob Blake by police officers as he walked away from trying to break up a domestic dispute. Then came the subsequent killings of two Kenosha protestors, Anthony Huber, and Joseph Rosenbaum, by 17 year-old domestic terrorist, Kyle Rittenhouse. There is also a great deal of outpouring of grief from the Black community, and people of all backgrounds from all over the world, over the death of actor, Chadwick Boseman. Boseman succumbed from colon cancer this week, at the age of 42. His role as T’Challa, in Black Panther was historic in creating representation of the first, leading Black superhero in cinema, as were his roles portraying Jackie Robinson, and James Brown, among others. Through the tributes I am witnessing, the fact that Chadwick Boseman was a cultural marker, and maker, for Black people in this country, and abroad, and that his loss is causing great grief for so many, is quite apparent.

With all of this, all of these burdens, you might be feeling like it’s hard to be grounded. Like how can you even focus on regular, day-to-day life, when life is anything but regular? Like you can’t remember what it’s like to experience joy, or feel guilty for getting to feel some joy in the midst of all that is wrong in our world right now. You might be feeling like your cross, or whatever symbol you want to use, is too heavy to bear. I know I am having a hard time right now.

As a white person living through all of this upheaval, I am reminded of the words of local activist and educator, and founder of the Providence, Rhode Island based non-profit youth organization, A Sweet Creation, Pilar McCloud. This spring, at a backyard talk with a group of us white folks who showed up to learn more about how to show up for Black people right now, Pilar said that it was interesting for Black people to watch how white people are struggling with the pandemic, and their new acknowledgment of racial injustice. She said, and I am paraphrasing because I did not record her exact words, “Black people have always had to struggle to survive. We are experienced at having to make our way through all kinds of obstacles,”… the obstacles of racism and racist policies that began with slavery, continued with Jim Crow laws, redlining, mass incarceration, and unequal educational and economic resources, to name a few of the burdens that Black people in this country have had to deal with since this country’s founding.

Pilar’s words of truth, and a lot of the other wisdom she and her co-host, Juan Carter, shared that evening, show up for me when I catch myself struggling, which is often. I try to do things to help myself feel like the world will not stay sick forever. I can recall the encouraging words of friends and family, who say there is hope all this darkness provides opportunity for better days ahead. My 3-mile morning walks at a local park by the bay here in Providence help elevate my mood. On this Monday morning’s walk I listened to writer, activist, comedian, Baratunde Thurston’s new podcast, How To Citizen. I had first come to know Baratunde’s work through his book, How To Be Black, and wrote a blog post on it when the book came out in 2012.

From Baratunde’s website, on How To Citizen, the site says,”Baratunde reimagines the word “citizen” as a verb and reminds us how to wield our collective power. So many of us want to do more in response to the problems we hear about constantly, but where and how to participate can leave us feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Voting, while critically important, simply isn’t enough. It takes more to make this experiment in self-governance work. Listen in to learn new perspectives and practices from people working to improve society for the many. Join writer, activist, and comedian Baratunde Thurston on a journey beyond politics as usual that will leave us all more hopeful, connected, and moved to act.”

Sometimes feeling scattered and sporadic in my attempt to do my part to support the fight for racial justice and Black liberation, I knew I wanted to listen in. I was glad I did. Baratunde’s first guest on what he called a prelude to the podcast’s first season was Valarie Kaur, a Sikh activist, filmmaker, lawyer, educator and faith leader. She is also founder of The Revolutionary Love Project, and author of the recently released memoir, See No Stranger.

I admit I had not known of Valarie Kaur before the podcast, but was intrigued and inspired by what she had to share, and after listening, understood Baratunde’s self-described intense, emotional draw to Valarie and her work. It was hearing these words she first shared on social media: “The future is dark. But is this the darkness of the tomb – or the darkness of the womb?” that blew Baratunde away.

In her discussion, Valarie asks us to act as if no one was a stranger to us, and to act with revolutionary love, which she describes as “the choice to labor for others, our opponents, and ourselves.” I admit I continue to struggle with acting or laboring with love toward those I see as opponents to racial justice, and the fight for Black Lives. Just last night I felt challenged when my friend and colleague, Amy, a white woman, posted on social media that she would be posting a lot about racial justice, and would make herself open to negative feedback from online ‘friends.’ I replied, “that’s why God invented the ‘Unfriend’ button.”

Amy responded saying that she likes to engage with people with diverse perspectives and beliefs, to see all sides of the story, and to understand that those with opinions and beliefs that counter hers have been influenced by the fact that they grew up with the institutionalized racial systems we still live in. She said she wants to try and understand others so that she knows what she is up against, and can be more constructive in her dialogues with them. I, on the other hand, go between wishing I had more grace, and believing it’s not deserved, in the conversations I have with white peers who have made racist comments about George Floyd, policing, and their interpretation of what Black Lives Matter means. Amy’s last comment though about “knowing what she’s up against,” was similar to something Valarie Kaur said about loving our opponent. Valarie said that it is not only pragmatic, but also, strategic to do so. She shared that when we know what, how and why people are thinking and behaving the way they do, then we can know how to have the conversation, what to talk about with them to “challenge the culture and institutions that promote hate,” which can then effect change.

There is so much more of value that was said, including a touching ode to joy between Valarie and her young son at the end of the podcast. I urge you to take a listen, and I bet you, too, will be inspired. I am hoping, too, after listening, you will see not only the tomb, but the womb. Baratunde, seeing that our country is now at a tipping point–that we can go in a bad direction, or a good direction,–inspired him to create How To Citizen. To that end, thankfully, Valarie believes we all hold value and can do our part, to see the darkness of the womb, and the beginning of “a new nation waiting to be born.” She also believes that practicing revolutionary love, seeing no stranger, and connecting to our joy on a daily basis, will allow us to sustain ourselves over the long haul while doing the work it takes to arrive there.

I was grateful that day for both the walk and the talk, which alleviated some of the heaviness I feel weighing on me. I want to know: How are you bearing your burdens? What helps you get through each day? How do you find joy, when in pain, when it seems elusive, or a luxury you cannot afford? I would love to hear from you, and have us share with one another. It can be our communal act of revolutionary love.

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