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Binding Up Wounds by Opening Up Conversations

Frank Barry
·12 mins read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- West of Gettysburg, the Lincoln Highway passes Mister Ed’s Elephant Museum and Candy Emporium. The cashier tells me business has been good, as I plunk dry roasted peanuts on the counter — OK, some fudge, too. Winding up and over the Allegheny Mountains, testing the Winnebago’s get-up-and-go, we pull into the Flight 93 National Memorial, 2,200 acres of wildflowers and woods, with a walkway conveying the flight’s path and marble panels commemorating each of the 40 people killed. Half a million visitors arrive each year.

The visitors’ center reminds me of something I’d forgotten: Before some of the passengers courageously charged the cockpit, they discussed the matter — and put it to a vote. An attack on democracy — the U.S. Capitol was the likely target — defeated by democracy. Having just come from Gettysburg, which Lincoln lifted from a battle over secession to a war over ideas, I see its legacy here in this field: in the spirit of equality that led to the vote, in the desire for unity that underlaid it, and in the devotion to collective action — of, by and for the people — that carried the day.

Five miles south in the small village of Shanksville, we pick up a late lunch at Snida’s Corner Store, a deli, pizzeria, ice cream parlor, coffee shop, grocery store, post office, bait supply and all-around community institution. The sign on the door reads: “Our Pennsylvania TYRANT Governor, Tom Wolf, has once again ordered that all customers must wear a mask when entering this facility.” We do. The staff doesn’t. Two pepperoni rolls to go.

PNC Park in Pittsburgh: I’ve always wanted to go a Pirates game, and today’s a double-header. But the stadium is empty and the parking lot across the street has plenty of room — we stay overnight for $20. The play-by-play and piped-in crowd noise over the public address system is intended to provide a measure of normalcy to the players, but out in the street, it’s funereal.

We’ve arrived on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, but how can you celebrate a new year when the old one won’t die, and when even breaking bread with family can be impossible? Yet the Jewish community here has seen worse.

“Last year as we were getting ready for Rosh Hashanah, we were having lots of conversations about how difficult it would be for people to walk back into synagogue buildings and feel safe,” Maggie Feinstein says. She’s the director the city’s 10.27 Healing Partnership, formed in the aftermath of the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue that killed 11 people, wounded six, and shook the whole nation. “This year, we’re talking about: How do [we] not walk back into the buildings?”

The mission of the 10.27 Healing Partnership is to support those affected by the shooting or any hate-induced trauma. “Within the Jewish community,” Maggie says, “we recognize how terrible this act of anti-Semitism was perpetrated by somebody who was really espousing a lot of anti-refugee and immigrant beliefs, and that a lot of it falls into the same White supremacy narratives” that Jews have long been victims of. “The community wanted to make sure that anybody else in our community who’s been affected by any of those types of attacks has the ability to use the resiliency center.”

One of the main services the center offers is simply listening. Anyone of any religion experiencing any trauma can come and talk with a licensed counselor. The healing and strength that can derive from conversation is also the idea behind a separate effort that grew out of the shooting, the 412 Black Jewish Collaborative, named for the city’s area code.

Josh Sayles, who works for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, explained the group’s origins: “One of the things we were hearing over and over again,” in the weeks after the shooting, “especially from our Black partners, was: ‘Thank God the Jewish community is getting everything that you guys need from the city, from faith leaders, from diverse community leaders, funding, etcetera. But we’ve got young Black men dying in low-income neighborhoods, several times a week, and no one is doing a thing for us.’”

When the Jewish Council of Public Affairs organized a civil-rights mission to the South, visiting Atlanta, Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, Sayles organized a small group of young Jewish and Black leaders to attend. “I spent 10 days traveling around Germany [in 2018], learning about the Holocaust. And I was absolutely blown away by the lynching memorial [in Montgomery]. The atmosphere, the feeling in that space, was exactly how I felt in the Holocaust memorials in Germany.”

Josiah Gilliam, who works for the city’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, was also on the mission. “It was wonderful to learn about the history of Selma and Montgomery and Atlanta and all of that, [but] what does that look like here in real time?” he asks. “So much of the conversation around solidarity was really in the past — marching with King, or these leaders did this stuff back in the last civil rights era. And we know that there’s a history of it … but we kind of wanted to have our chance.”

They began inviting others to join a small board. Esther Terry said the group offered “a respectful place where you could ask hard questions and get an honest answer and listen to the answer and be willing to change and adjust.” One of the topics that came up early on was code switching: “The Black members of the board really walked through, step by step, what it meant for them individually to code switch throughout their life. And the burden that was. And I think it’s eye-opening for some of the Jewish members of the board, just to grapple with that everyday experience. And if you’re not related to someone from another culture or from another background, it’s rare to hear an inside perspective of what it means day to day.”

I had heard a similar story in York from Rev. Guy Dunham, who said that an interracial dialogue at his church this summer left many White congregants taken aback: “It was the first time that some of our White members heard our Black members talk about racial profiling. Never dreamt that they had been victims of it on a regular basis here in York.”

I would hear that sentiment again a few days later from Rev. Anne Epling, a Presbyterian minister in Fort Wayne, Indiana, who had worked in St. Louis during the Michael Brown shooting in 2014.

“There’s a White congregation in a more conservative part of West St. Louis, and a Black congregation in the city not far from Ferguson. Their men have been having conversations now and getting to know one another for the past four or five years. And I look at that work and think that’s great work. Some people may say, ‘Well, but it’s just getting to know one another.’ But those folks were worlds apart in some ways. So really getting together and having those difficult conversations about what’s going on in the Black community, what happens with Black men — some of those White men really needed to hear. I think that that has helped. The church that I served was in a White, very wealthy community. But after George Floyd, members of that community marched down one of the main streets of that neighborhood with their Black Lives Matter signs. Six years ago, that would never have happened.”

Across the street from an abandoned lot in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood, a community garden planted and worked by teenagers has produced tomatoes, corn, squash, peppers, eggplant, okra, watermelon, mint and more. The young gardeners are now gone — the summer jobs that paid minimum wage for 25 hours a week ended in August — but Ayanna Jones is still here, and still focused on her harvest.

“The first week they hate me,” she says of the kids. “The first week I require so much that the parents often [say]: ‘Your expectations are too high.’ I never lower my expectations. If your young person wants to be up here working with me, they have to meet the standards that I set. That second week I have to push them off site. They get off at 3:00 — at 4:30, they’re still here working.”

Throughout the summer, she talks to her gardeners about Black history, about Paul E. Williams, Dr. Charles Drew, Garnett Morgan. “These kids get the opportunity to hear something besides slavery and enslavement. So when they go back to school and any subject about slavery comes up, my kids have a foundation.”

One of her early students was Antwon Rose, a 17-year old who was shot dead by a police officer in 2018 while running away from an arrest. There is a plaque for him at the garden. On the day George Floyd was killed, she says, they didn’t work in the garden: “We sat at the tent and those kids expressed some of the most profound statements, emotions and feelings.” She was proud that some of them participated in the protests, though she did not.

“I'm not a protest person,” she says. “I’ve been protesting since 1964. If it was successful, we wouldn’t be where we’re at now. I’ve been a Black Panther, I’ve been in the Black Liberation Army. I have lived through Emmett Till being killed all the way up to George Floyd, and I don’t see any progress.” But she adds: “I did see participation by White folks that I never saw before. … It was uncanny how White people took to the streets and made their voices heard. And that’s what’s going to make the change. It’s not going to be a Black change. It’s going to be White people saying, ‘We’re tired of seeing what is being done to people because of the color of their skin and not the content of their character.’”

I had planned to meet former Philadelphia mayor Mike Nutter earlier in the week. But the day I arrived in town he called in a woozy state to say he was in the hospital with an appendicitis. When I caught up with him down the road, I asked him why the killing of George Floyd touched such a nerve with White people.

“I just don’t know that many people have actually watched somebody die. It’s usually a gunshot or something like that — it’s usually rather quick, you don’t see it that closely. That was, I think for many Americans, especially White Americans, that was an incredible experience. And I think light bulbs started going off. Black people, we’ve been telling you about these things for literally hundreds of years, but somehow in that moment, it finally clicked.”

What took so long? He makes two related points.

First, the persistence of segregation in housing, education and employment matters. “The reality is, White people don’t have to be around Black people. Most Black people don’t have that option,” he says. “It’s just easier for many Whites to not have to pay attention or worry about what Black people are doing, or how Black people are affected in any way, shape or form. You see some stuff on TV and then, OK — that’s that.”

Second, he says, it can be difficult to discuss race. “Other than talking about money, there’s possibly nothing more uncomfortable than talking about race and race relations,” he says. “I think for many White people, it’s, ‘I didn’t do it. I wasn't involved.’ And for Black people it’s like, ‘What the F? But you benefit from the privilege.’ And a lot of White people think, ‘Well okay, but we got laws now.’ But that doesn’t stop the guy from making a different decision about the mortgage application, or the job hiring.” He adds, “A lot of White people don’t even want to believe that these things still go on … that there are things still in place that impede the ability of a certain group of folks to move forward.”

He echoes Ayanna Jones’s view of change: “I think until White people can be more comfortable having these conversations” — he pauses. “Here’s the deal: The only people who can really do anything about racism in the United States of America are White people. Black people can’t really do much about that. So they have to decide how much change they’re willing to push for. They have to decide how they want things to be different.”

Leaving Pittsburgh, Laurel and I drive to our next overnight parking spot — another sports stadium, Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania Motor Speedway. It’s our first auto race, a hobby stock invitational — $1,000 in prize money, rather than the usual $125 and a bag of chips. The lot fills up and we watch families, young couples, older men — several hundred in all — head for the entrance.

Before going in, we sit outside the Winnebago with a beer. The public address announcer hypes up the night’s races and urges people to follow Covid safety rules so the track can avoid further trouble with the police, reminding everyone that masks are required in the concession areas. “We appreciate you leaving your politics out in the parking lot.”

Looking down our row, a Confederate flag waves from the back of a pickup truck.

Want to learn more about Frank’s trip? Visit the Looking for Lincoln Storythread, and follow him on Instagram @looking4lincoln.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Frank Barry is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. This column is part of a series, “Looking for Lincoln: A Portrait of America at a Crossroads.” It features reports from Barry’s journey west along the Lincoln Highway, a zigzagging network of local roads running from Times Square to the Golden Gate Bridge, from Sept. 11 to Election Day.

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