My heart is broken today. I went to kindergarten on the property of my town’s oldest one-room schoolhouse, Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Voorhees, New Jersey, just a few miles from Philadelphia. On my first day of kindergarten, my mom told me that the AME church had been a stop on the Underground Railroad. As a five-year-old in a family of borderline revolutionaries, this was a source of immense pride. When you’re that young, though, you take everything your mom tells you for granted, particularly if she’s a teacher. Last November, when Ferguson burned and I ignited a search for my own role and identity vis-à-vis racial justice, I went back to this story to see what I could learn.
What ultimately unfolded before me was a beautiful landscape of black culture in my hometown of which I had been ignorant as a child. Many of South Jersey’s AME churches collaborated with William Still, a Philly-based black abolitionist, and his Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society to bring escaped slaves up from the Chesapeake. The trip from Atlantic City to Philly was a particularly well-trod route, and I spent my childhood in the middle of it. I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. Jason Allen, head of the Camden County Historical Society, began a series of trolley tours in 2013 to mainstream these tales. “There is a hidden history in New Jersey that we don't talk about,” Allen said. “I think the tour is a response to that. We needed to create a narrative." From Allen’s work I learned that Mount Pisgah AME Church in Lawnside, the next town over from mine, once counted AME's national founder as its pastor. Lawnside itself was the first free black municipality in the United States, as the Philly abolitionists created subsidies for escaped slaves to settle there.
If not for my mother, the conscious teacher, all of this would still be invisible to me. Perhaps the scariest part of invisible history is how badly distorted it can become. When I went to summer camp in South Jersey , kids and counselors passed around ghost stories, including that of the “black doctor of the Pines," which John McPhee recounts in his famous 1968 book, The Pine Barrens. It turns out, though, that the black doctor was actually James Still, the abolitionist Still’s older brother, a self-taught physician who practiced homeopathic remedies for poorer folks in the Pine Barrens. Ghost stories always have revealed our deepest fears; in this case, it was the fear of an educated black man.
When I woke up this morning and learned that a white man walked into Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina and killed nine people, I could barely breathe or think. I have grappled, sometimes (too?) publicly, with my own whiteness and my lifelong connection to the black community. All of it traces back to Mount Zion AME Church, my kindergarten classroom, and my mom. I’m a little overwhelmed right now. If you are curious as to why I cannot dissociate education from liberation and racial justice, this is why.
We also cannot dissociate today's actions from racism. White folks created racism, and it is up to us to play a huge role in ending it. Here are some action steps for white allies on a devastating day. First, read this speech that Brittany Packnett shared, which connects today's horrific act to the long history of white folks terrorizing black churches in the south. Second, my friend Mike Johnston shared a story on Facebook last night. He went to his local AME church and posted a note on their door, expressing sorrow while offering himself in service and humility. If you consider yourself a white ally, I encourage you to do the same today. Third, Shaun King, whose Justice Together project everyone should check out, suggested that folks donate to the Emanuel AME Church, which I did this morning. If you have the means to send anything, please do. (All original tweets below.) And finally, as I've said before, wake up the unconscious white people in your lives. There will be a lot of claims that "not all white people are racist," but that's not the point. It's the silence of moderates that most hampers our efforts. Make sure both you and they Stay Woke.