It was a cold and rainy night in early February. I stood in the dark, on the property of Mr. Jacob Burkle, whose home was a depot on the Underground Railroad. I shivered from the cold but also from a fear that had suddenly come over me from out of nowhere. Was I as safe as I thought, or was my safety in jeopardy? I was beginning to rethink my decision, but something deep inside told me it was now or never…
The character and event portrayed in the above excerpt is not fictitious. It is completely true. I know because it is my story.
Now that I have your attention let me give you a little context. It really was a cold and rainy night in early February, but the year was 2014. The Underground Railroad had long been out of service, but I did find myself standing on the property of Jacob Burkle, at 826 N. Second Street in Memphis, Tennessee. Today, it’s better known as the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum. This was not my first visit to Slave Haven; it was my third. During this visit, I needed to use the restroom and was informed that it was in a separate building behind the main house. When I put my hand on the knob of the back door, I was in 2014. When I stepped out onto the back porch into a night that was much darker than I had anticipated, I slipped through some kind of time portal and found myself in the 1800s.
The building was only about 20 feet from the back porch, but I had a strong (and somewhat irrational) feeling that stepping off that porch might be the last thing I did in life. It was as if I was no longer in 2014. Instead, I found myself experiencing emotions that so many runaway slaves felt as they were trying to escape to the North into freedom. My bladder was screaming that I needed to decide sooner rather than later, but my fear kept my feet glued to the ground. After what was one of the longest minutes of my life, I finally shook myself back to the present day and ran through the rain to the bathroom. That experience will stick with me forever.
I visited Slave Haven with a group that was participating in something called the Sankofa Journey, an “intentional, cross-racial prayer journey that seeks to assist disciples of Christ on their move toward a righteous response to the social ills related to racism.” To date, I’ve been on at least 10 Sankofas, with another one coming up at the end of February. These experiences are emotionally and physically painful and exhausting. A large portion of the trip is spent on a coach bus. Cramped quarters, not a lot of sleep, and lots of discussions about race, racism, and injustice. As an introverted black woman who also hates conflict, this is sort of like a nightmare! Yet, I’ve willingly participated multiple times and will continue to do so. Why? It’s my way of being a part of the solution.
Most people subscribe to the belief that the best way to deal with racism is to not talk about it. They believe that, if we ignore it, it’ll go away. One thing experience has taught me is that conflicts often arise from misunderstandings (or biases/stereotypes) that are often rooted in miscommunication (or a total lack of communication). In the context of combating racism, talking about it is probably just what the doctor ordered. (Arguments on social media don’t count.) I’ve seen numerous Sankofa participants experience breakthroughs and healing during the journey. This releases them to return home and begin to do the hard work of dismantling racism in their own circles and contexts. That would not happen if they hadn’t taken the time to sit and talk with others about this painfully divisive topic.
It’s time to face our fears head on and start talking to—not at—each other. Let’s use our words to build bridges, not walls. Are you up for the challenge?