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Leaning Into the Fire

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Photo by Victoria Priessnitz on Unsplash
Rise

Risë Kevalshar Collins graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University with a drama degree and has a history as an actor, including on Broadway. She did her graduate studies at the University of Houston, earned a master’s degree in social work, has been licensed and has worked in Texas, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, and has served in mental health, oncology, hospice, the prison system and in extended care. She is a student in the creative writing department of Boise State University where her focus is creative non-fiction and poetry.


Leaning Into the Fire of White Supremacy with Love—and More

Rise Collins
Risë Kevalshar Collins

My name is Risë Kevalshar Collins. I am black, born in the American South, raised between Texas, California and Ohio. I am the eldest of two daughters reared by an extraordinary single mother. I grew up with no father, uncle or brother. I have no husband, brother-in-law, nephew or son. As far as I know, my father wasn’t murdered by police officers before they took him to jail. He wasn’t one among the disproportionately targeted and inordinately imprisoned American black men. He did not die by electric chair as was once Texas practice. My father was simply absent. He was absent. White supremacy and racism of the dominant group contributed to his absence, to his belief that his life had low value mirroring the low value that white men placed on the lives of Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and the many other lives they have not been valued, and that have been wrongfully taken. To some measure, my father internalized societal devaluation. This diminished his value of me.

Our founding fathers were white men, many of whom owned enslaved Africans. References to slavery were omitted from the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution permitted slavery and counted each enslaved person as three-fifths human. This is white supremacy. It hurts.

White supremacy is the belief—conscious or unconscious—that white people are inherently superior to other races, especially to blacks; that they are rightfully the dominant group, should have control—social, political, historical, institutional, financial dominion—over people of other races. This doctrine and process was manifest in South African Apartheid, in White Australia policies, in Nazi Germany, in American chattel slavery, in American Jim Crow, in American mass incarceration of blacks, in the repeated murder of American blacks with impunity and in the American bias targeted specifically against blacks.

Built-in bias toward white people, and against black people, against indigenous people and against other people of color is part and parcel to the structure upon which our American democracy is based. It is inherent in our institutions, in our systems of operations, in our country’s DNA. It has been internalized, is so tightly woven into the culture, is so normalized as to be nearly invisible to those whom it does not hurt.

We must educate ourselves. I suggest the book: Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla Saad; the 2019 movie: Clemency directed by Chinonye Chukwu; the Netflix documentary: 13th (Amendment) directed by Ava DuVernay.

I live in the diversity desert of Idaho famous for potatoes, hate groups and recent anti-diversity initiatives. But that’s not all. I am a student in the creative writing department at Boise State University where, in two years, I have seen one other black student and where I have seen no black professors. But I have hope that will change at Boise State under the leadership of Dr. Marlene Tromp, president; and under that of Richard Klautsch, chair of the Theatre Arts, Film, and Creative Writing Department. I have hope that more doors will be opened, that the field will be leveled, that the ceiling will be raised, that more mentors will make themselves available and that more places at the table will be made. And, given the collaborative spirits of adjunct instructor and poet Lindsey Appell, lecturer and poet Kerri Webster, and peers such as Trisha Kangas and Lyd Havens, I have hope for the unfolding of an ever more inclusive future at Boise State.

But today as I write, my heart hammers. I am distracted, am having word-finding difficulties, am transposing letters, numbers, dates.

Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old black man, was murdered in Atlanta on June 12, 2020. Rayshard was twice shot in the back by Garrett Rolfe, a white police officer. They were in the presence of Devin Brosnan, another white police officer. Rayshard had fallen asleep in his car in the drive-thru at Wendy’s on June 12, 2020, a week before June 19—known as Juneteenth, Freedom Day for American black people, a day advocated to become a national holiday.

On June 12, 2020, Rayshard Brooks struggled when two white police officers tried to arrest him. He had reason to be fearful of white police, as I do. He’d likely seen the video of the execution style murder of a black man, George Floyd, by a white policeman just two and a half weeks before. If you’re a black man in America, you fear ending up nearly beaten to death as Rodney King was in California in 1991; or you fear ending up dead in interactions with police as Eric Garner did in a chokehold in New York in 2014; as 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot dead in Missouri in 2014; as 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead in Ohio in 2014, as a 28-year-old black woman, Atatiana Jefferson, was shot dead through her bedroom window during a simple welfare check in Texas in 2019; and as were many, many more—the list goes on and on. You can end up dead—whether you struggle, or whether you don’t. Two and a half weeks ago, George Floyd didn’t struggle. It might be difficult for white people to understand this fear. We don’t see police officers give white men Rodney King-style beatings, or shoot 12-year-old white boys, or shoot white women through their bedroom windows as they do black women. This is white supremacy. White supremacy is the root, racism is the tree, injustice is the fruit.

Also in recent days, two black men in California were hanged. If these deaths were suicides, I can understand at least part of the angst of these men. If these deaths were foul play, perhaps you can understand my angst.

Today, it’s hard for me to remember names. My ability to spell has left me. I’ve forgotten an appointment—maybe two. Today, I can’t manage another conversation. Email and texting are too much. Zoom? No way. Today, I feel as though I’m walking through quicksand. I am numb.

White supremacy did not end in the Confederate South, or with the hooded KKK. It propagates within modern terrorist groups; it lives in the collective unconsciousness of the benign and neglectful mainstream, in its widespread ways and means; in its actions, reactions and inactions; in its patterns and processes. White supremacy has been internalized, even in the well-meaning; it has been normalized by the unwitting. It has been inked into our laws, etched into our American DNA. White supremacy is the base upon which our American democracy is built. Free land. Free labor. Ruthless accumulation. Unbridled greed. Structural supremacy is the root, institutionalized racism, the tree; systemic inequality, the fruit. The white power hierarchy maintained by ostensibly straight, Christian, educated, extremely wealthy white men and their progeny—progeny of the founding fathers.

In my youth, every Negro home in Texas hosted a white calendar distributed by white people, on which a white Jesus wearing a white loincloth hung with white arms spread on a brown cross. Jesus, a white man, the son of God—presumably another white man—at some point called out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In the national consciousness Jesus was envisioned as a white man, not as a black man like George Floyd, who presaged his own murder, bled red, cried out for his black mama as he lay prone on the grey ground, his black wrists behind him bound, crucified, his black neck under a white man’s knee. I, one of his mothers, aunts, sisters, heard and still hear his plea. It hurts.

White supremacy. Free land. Free labor. Genocide. Enslavement. Manifest destiny; divinely ordained and relentless accumulation, from the ice blue Atlantic to the deep white Pacific blood red sea. This is our history, whitewashed, ignored, unreckoned, and unresolved.

It will take more than people’s expressions of shock, helplessness, sadness and shame; more than comfortable covers of naïveté; more than apolitical religious stances; more than promises of a place beyond this where we will no longer suffer, where there will no longer be injustice or tears. Alternatively, we face it now; we fix it here.

For weeks winds have raged around the police murder, in May, of an unarmed 46-year-old black man, George Floyd, in Minnesota; around the police murder, in March, of a 26- year-old black woman, Breonna Taylor, while she lay asleep in her bed in Kentucky; around the murder of an unarmed black jogger, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, in February, by a white father and son in Georgia. My own son, Shabda, who died shortly after birth, would now be 25, had he lived. These young ones—Breonna, George, Ahmaud, Rayshard—are my daughter and sons, so are they all, the named and the unnamed.

Today, I type through tears. It takes me longer than usual to form a sentence. Too tired to rest in the bunker that is my bedroom, I pause to walk and feed the dogs, to water the potted plants. Homeostasis is not my privilege. Everything hurts.

In Boise, black women are rare. Often white people want to discuss racism, want me to educate them on racism. Last week, a white woman friend in Boise’s progressive North End—the blue enclave in the purple city in the blood red state—referencing George Floyd, said, “Now we know. We can’t deny it. We’ve seen it on tape.”

In America, the culture and experience of white supremacy and racism encourage white amnesia. White Americans easily forget that they have seen and read and heard of the deaths of blacks by the hands of whites in whispers, in shouts, in conversations, in letters, on billboards, in newspapers, in songs, in movies, in books, on radio, on television, on video tapes many times for many years. But maybe this time, the collective pain of the coronavirus has helped some to shift, to turn, to open their hearts to feeling, their ears to hearing, their eyes to seeing, their spirits to empathizing with their larger human family. Perhaps empathy is a gift in the wound of these particular wrongful deaths; perhaps increased humanity is the gift in the wound of this particularly painful time of massive global death from COVID-19.

Recently, I sent a blog written by a black Boise woman, Dr. Charlene Taylor, to a white male friend. Dr. Taylor, while sitting in Hyde Park, was the butt of a racial slur hurled at her like a rock. Nearby white people also heard the slur, but they said nothing and they did nothing. No one stood up or spoke up. There was no outrage, no support, no solidarity, no allyship. Just white silence. After reading the blog, he asked me, “Had I been there, in your estimation, what should I have done?” I asked him to do the work of thinking about his own answer to his own question. But for the record, we must always confront and always interrupt all oppression.

When I use Google, I get no results for internalized white supremacy, systemic white supremacy, or structural white supremacy. Perhaps there should be. I did, however, find results worth reading on “institutionalized white supremacy.”

Meanwhile, I asked another white male friend what he plans to do—what action he plans to take to address gross inequality—the inequality of which white people, especially those over age 40—seem to have been newly made aware. This friend is the same friend who told me, “The way out for a black woman in Trump’s America is to marry a rich white man.” But now, in the face of my question, he is speechless.

When I again ask him what he will do to help end inequality, he draws a blank. When I press, he angrily says, “I don’t have to report to you.” But two days later when I ask again, he’s come up with a promising project.

He says that one of my qualities is persistence. I say it would help if white people would get behind themselves and push forward in support of justice for others.

For those who feel defensive, I suggest this book: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. For those who disremember, I recommend the Netflix documentary, LA 92 directed by T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay. For those to whom it matters, I guide you to the book, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.

The 14th Amendment of equal protection under the law is not applied equally to everyone. Just as the LGBTQ community had gotten protection at work from discrimination due to sex, the current administration, in the midst of a pandemic, reversed healthcare protections for transgender people. This is wrong. I stand for dismantling ALL oppression. It will require all of us leaning into the fire of dismantling white supremacy.

I encounter a disturbing degree of befuddlement, delusion and passivity regarding issues of race in the diversity desert of Idaho, in Boise’s progressive North End—the blue enclave in the purple city in the blood red state famous for potatoes and hate groups and recent anti-diversity initiatives. I must read: Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge.

For now, I lean into the fire of white supremacy—the assumed superiority and privilege of white people embedded in the national consciousness, and in the culture. Once, I heard a wise white man say, “Racism is in the breast milk and the semen.” I say, true. Racism, and its lineage, is in the breast milk and the semen, in the blood and the soil, in the water and the well, in the letter and the law. Supremacy is the root, racism is the tree, injustice is the fruit.

Several people who know of my distress over this series of murders have offered me the service of listening so that I might discharge my distress. I love them for that. Listening is good, but it’s not good enough. After thinking and talking and listening we must take action.

An acupuncturist who recognizes trauma, and who knows of my periods of lack of sleep kindly offered me acupuncture for PTSD. Acupuncture is good, but it will take more than acupuncture to address what Joy DeGruy, Ph.D, has identified as underlying Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, multigenerational trauma experienced by enslaved African Americans and their descendants. I agree with her that it requires profound social change in individuals as well as structural change in institutions to address systemic inequality and injustice toward African Americans.

It requires the work of dismantling the fact and the legacy of white supremacy.

It is important to educate ourselves, and to educate others in our sphere of influence: The Great Courses offers a series of college-level audio and video courses, including courses in American history. Yale University offers an open online course titled “African American History: From Emancipation to the Present.” MIT offers open courses in Black Studies. Cornell offers “Teaching and Learning in a Diverse Classroom,” and “American Capitalism: A History.” Harvard offers a free “Justice” course.

We also learn from art and beauty. I highly recommend Daughters of the Dust written and directed by Julie Dash in 1991, which was the first feature film by an African American woman to be distributed theatrically in the United States. It is masterful. It is historically, culturally and aesthetically significant.

While learning, it is also important to act—physically, politically, financially.

I lean into love’s fire to confront and dismantle oppression.

I write in solidarity with protestors, nationally and internationally, who march for justice for Rayshard, for George, for Breonna, for Ahmaud, and for all.

I write in solidarity with those who call for justice for black, Indigenous and other people of color.

I write in solidarity with all who stand and strive for transformation.

– Risë Kevalshar Collins, Juneteenth 2020, Boise