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From Whence You Come

In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love.
In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile.
In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm.
I realized, through it all, that…
In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”

– Albert Camus

There is a moment when you read something and everything you thought you understood about the world is turned inside out. It’s the moment when you see the insufficiency of all which came before.

As a writer, I strive to create such moments for those who believe in my work. Indeed, to this day, nearly four years after its release, my book inspires people to share that they see themselves in my stories and, as a result, see themselves anew. This phenomenon, which I often summarize as being told by a reader that “Your story is my story,” links me to my readers. It is profoundly moving and deeply connective.

For example, there was Margaret, a white woman in her 80s, who told me of being a child of the depression, in the dust bowl of Eastern Colorado and Kansas. She felt that I had somehow written her life story. And then there was the retired Army General with whom I walked the streets of Madrid for three hours, hearing his new understanding of his own life story after reading my stories. Such moments of recognition, of seeing ourselves and the work that is ours to do in the work of others, are gifts to those of us who seek to inspire and heal.

They are also compelling for me as a reader. Following the advice of my mentor, teacher, and dear friend, Parker Palmer, I read Lisa Sharon Harper’s Actually, it’d be more accurate to say I devoured it. Reading at night, just before sleep, I’d wake from fevered dreams, my brain seemingly on fire, lit by moments of recognition, moments of cognition, when everything I thought I knew was changing as I metabolized Harper’s insights.

I should explain. Last summer, when I read Fortune, I was coming to the end of the first draft of a new manuscript. This new book, Reunion: Leadership and the Longing to Belong, is set to be released later this year. And, as I’ve shared, the book is an attempt to formulate to answer the question of a leader’s responsibility in a world “broken” – to use Harper’s term – by systemic Othering and overwhelmed by the yearning to belong.

As an example of my belief that those of us who hold power –those of us in bodies that identify as white, male, straight, and CIS-gendered – need to go first in order to create safety for others, I wrote my way to an understanding of my own whiteness. Even more relevant, I wrote to understand my ancestors’ journey from immigrants to the dominator class. I spent much of the last two years in such throes – literally experiencing the wrenching pain of my ancestors’ struggles – while internalizing the ways they were complicit in the Othering of others and the undeniable ways I and all their descendants have benefitted from that complicity. It was while I was in the middle of these throes that I read Fortune.

“A key strategy of White supremacy,” writes Harper, “is to dismember, warp, and erase the memories of peoples of European descent.” People deemed white – people like my ancestors’ descendants, people like me – she adds, “have forgotten who they really are.” We have forgotten our ancestors’ histories of oppression, she says, and why and how they came here.

“God charges the Hebrews again and again to remember that they were once enslaved in Egypt. This is the source of their humility – this is their grounding memory.” Grounding memory, yes, and, I’ll add, a source of their strength. Strength, and the source of belonging that they might create for others.

Descendants like me have work to do, she says. We must, for example, dismantle the myths of our identity and reckon with our actual origin stories.

In his brilliant essay, The Price of the Ticket, James Baldwin exhorted the folks who look like me to go back to where we started and examine all of it, and travel the road of our ancestors again. Tell the truth of your journey, and that of your ancestors, he taught, “Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence you came.”

Echoing and expanding on Baldwin, Harper writes that there is no more powerful way to reckon with our origin stories, to fix what the construct of race has broken, to create systemic belonging in our country let alone our communities and organizations, then through the process of uncovering family history.

This was one of those brain-on-fire moments of recognition. For as Harper tells the story of her ancestor, Fortune, as a way to illuminate the effects of race, racism, and Othering, I worked to uncover my ancestors – to sing and shout and testify about them – so that not only could I find my way to my own belonging but so that I might inspire others to do the same. In this way, we all might use whatever powers our ancestors bequeathed us to create a world of love, safety, and belonging for others.

Parker was right. I learned from Lisa Sharon Harper. I was challenged by her insights. My brain was set afire by her wisdom. I hope our conversation not only inspires you to read Fortune but that it fires your brain as well. It might then provoke each of us to use the skills of radical self-inquiry – skills we at Reboot teach so often – to unpack, understand, and make conscious choices about the ways we have been complicit in, and benefitted from, a world we say we don’t want to exist, a world in which too many feel they don’t belong.


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