When I was about thirteen, my mom gave me a book titled I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. I believe it was the first time I had ever read a story from the point of view of a person of color (which now that I know better is more than a little shocking.) From the first chapter I was blown away, feeling like I was living in her story. My easy delight with the first part shifted as I began to wrestle with difficult revelations as her story became more complicated. It made a big impact on me. It was the beginning of a lifelong love of Angelou’s work, and the start of a reading journey seeking to understand other people’s stories.
I grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s in a small town of about 1200 people in eastern South Dakota, where the cultural differences were whether you lived on a farm or in town; your age; if you were male or female (only two choices); which church you attended; and how many generations your family had lived there. Racial diversity was nearly nonexistent. All my information about Black people for many years came from TV. Fat Albert, Sesame Street, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and The Redd Foxx show were my guides as to what “life” looked like for Black people out in the world. Star Trek was my guide as to what race relations would look like in the future. Imperfect as they were, these shows helped me be aware of a world outside my homogeneous hometown, where everyone looked alike (although I can attest not everyone felt like they fit in.)
The problem with watching a movie or TV show is that they rarely take you inside a character’s mind. You might see how someone responds to events, but unless the narrator is filling you in, you can only guess what the character’s internal experience is like. In my own life even ordinary activities, such as planning what to do on a day off, is a wild churn of memories of past days off, hopes of what might be accomplished, calculations of what is most important, ideas of what might be fun or relaxing, good and bad takes (probably bad tbh) on how much time I have and how well I will use it, and fears about feeling judged on the outcome of it all. This churn is invisible to anyone watching me map out my day, and I can’t perfectly express it in writing, but the written sharing of it may have gotten you closer to my experience. All of us are big stories walking around wrapped up in more or less inscrutable skins. We make assumptions about other people as we look at those skins, but we can’t experience another’s life from inside until we accept the invitation of someone offering us their story.
What I am saying is, read the books. Read books that take you outside your understanding and comfort zone. Read books that take you inside a life on a reservation (for instance, The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich), or the life of a refugee child (Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri), or the life of a young professional of color fighting for a level playing field (I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown). It will likely be uncomfortable at times. Exercising to build strength is often uncomfortable and so is learning algebra and many other things. Discomfort is not bad, it is just something you feel as you stretch and grow. Becoming aware of another’s point of view does not diminish your own, although it might put it into a more realistic perspective.
Reading books might not change the world, but when we seek to grow in understanding we change OUR world, especially if our everyday life is populated with people who look just like us. Once we become curious about and sensitive to lives other than the ones immediately around us, we are more equipped to connect with and relate to actual people who are different than us, whose lives are as richly complicated and full of beauty and sorrow as our own, who we can no longer discount vaguely as “other.” And that is when we find ourselves in “I/Thou” relationships as described by Martin Buber, and where we become people capable of Agape love for our neighbors as Jesus commanded.
I can do better, so I am going to keep reading and keep connecting. We can all do better. We need to do better. And one small but powerful way to do this is by opening up a book. I bet there is a librarian in your community who would love to help you out with that.