While closing down my childhood home in Detroit and moving my mother to West Michigan to live with me, I remember finding an old medical lab notice in a drawer telling my mother they wanted more tests.
She pooh-poohed my questions saying, “Oh they’re just trying to get more money out of me. I’m fine.”
She seemed physically fine. But I remembered that conversation three years later when we learned that cancer was slowly eating away my mother’s bone marrow. Already emotionally devastated from the sudden death by swine flu of my sister Connie, her oldest daughter in 2009, Mama was learning the ways to deflect and avoid the difficult conversations about health.
But difficult conversations are necessary; be they about the health of a family member or the health of a nation.
The chilling images and viral videos of racists, torch-bearing white supremacists, Neo-Nazis and Klansmen marching through the streets of Charlottesville chanting epithets against Jews and other minorities, has been called a symptom of the cancer that has been plaguing this nation.
Many said they were shocked to see this happening in 2017. How often have we heard the refrain, “why can’t we all just get along?”
But is the question really why can’t we all just go along? Go along and gloss over and don’t address the uncomfortable conversation that comes when we look at an American history based on oppression, colonization and white superiority. Some will say it is ancient history. Slavery is over. We had a black president.
But the climate and mindset that made it OK to steal land and break treaties and sell black and brown bodies as if they don’t matter years ago, is the same climate that today ignores cries that the name of the sports team in our nation’s Capitol – the Washington Redskins – is racist and offensive.
It’s the same climate that ignores the cries to look into a justice system that can’t make a conviction when unarmed blacks die at the hands of police officers. It’s the same climate that saw this nation basically look the other way as the man elected as the 45th leader defiled the position with his lies and bombastic bullying.
Charlottesville happened because white supremacists were so comfortable with their racism, so self-assured, that they no longer felt the need to hide beneath sheets because we had reached a climate of no consequences. The weekend Nazis felt comfortable enough in this climate to walk the streets in their Dockers and polo shirts and spew their hate and then return on Monday to their positions as students, preachers, bankers, law enforcement, medical professionals, our neighbors.
The cancer had reached the marrow if you will, resulting in the vehicular murder of a young woman and the injuries to more than a dozen others protesting the presence of racists torch-bearing neo-Nazis and Klansmen marching through the streets chanting against Jews and other minorities.
My mother’s denial of her cancer was driven by a desire of not wanting to be a burden to her remaining two children. But those we love are never a burden.
Those who remain silent and decline to name what we are seeing in the streets are in denial of the cancer that has reached the nation’s marrow. But if we love this nation, we have to take the tough steps to excise the glaring tumors.
When my mother finally agreed to go to the doctor they wanted to do a biopsy. They needed to pull out a piece of bone marrow and examine it. The doctor tried to do it quickly and without anesthesia and it was excruciating for my mother. I learned two things that day. I could not trust that doctor to act in my mother’s best interest and I fired him and found another willing to listen to our needs and work with us. I also learned I had to become her best advocate. After the painful, life-draining chemotherapy, she was given six months to live so I quit my job to give her full time care.
There is nothing so agonizing as hearing your mother cry out in pain and not being able to make it immediately stop. But there is nothing so sacred as walking that journey with the hurting. Not running away swept up in your own discomfort; but staying connected and doing everything in your power to make it right. She was given six months with in-home hospice and I was blessed to keep her alive and thriving for nearly three years.
This nation has a cancer but the diagnosis is not terminal.
The viral videos of angry whites taking arms to protect the removal of racist icons from public town squares are a symptom. The placard waving anti-racists challenging white supremacists who claim they want America to be a “white homeland” are part of the medicine.
But the medicine needs to go deeper. All the placard making and safety pin wearing symbols serve as an initial balm; a recognition that there is a long neglected national dismissal of race and culture relations. The systemic racism of slavery, broken treaties, anti-Semitism, Jim Crow, segregation, redlining, and gerrymandering are all ills propped up by solidified legal racist systems that count on a gentleman’s agreement of silence and complicity.
There are no statues of Hitler in German town squares. We watched on our television sets as statues of Lenin and Saddam Hussein were brought down. Their sordid history is not changed, but their icons of hatred are not held up as men of honor.
Change occurs when the community comes together for the common good. We were witness to the recent eclipse and in addition to the celestial magnificence, an even more beautiful sight was watching the uplifted faces of diverse strangers across the nation gathered in fields, mountains, parking lots, and beaches connecting. In my mind’s eye, it was the start of eclipsing the nation’s discord. So here’s to the difficult medicine of community conversations across this nation. Not the one-and-done actions of a one-hour TV special, but the committed, consistent, targeted conversations where we stop and really listen to one another, walk with that pain and advocate for changes that perpetuate the pain.
What if we used these statues and Confederate flags as a source of learning? What if we vowed to become a nation that makes cancer history?
(Editor’s note: Joe Southern’s Faith, Family & Fun column will return next week.)