Unlearning Long Divisions: Introduction
Though our American diversity and its attendant challenges have always created conflicts and divisions since the days when we first became a country, the current chasms between us seem to be growing wider and deeper. We focus on the dysfunction of Congress, but the people we elect to represent us also reflect who we are, and we have as much responsibility in solving the problems as they do. I think about how we can build bridges between us—right in our own back yards, within our families, in our neighborhoods and in our communities. Every act of courage, of kindness and of friendliness is not small, but adds to the larger picture of creating a more cooperative and compassionate world. I would like to address some of the problems I see that create divisions, the first of which follows here. Much of this was informed by my inmate students.
If I’m upset about an issue in the news and hear negative reports about a person connected to it, I don’t automatically check the facts from several sources, especially when the narrative lines up with my politics and values. It seems like a common human tendency to form opinions without very much information when we’re bombarded with media images, squeezed by time and churned up with anger over things that hurt our hearts. All kinds of people and groups who don’t share my worldview end up in my head like they’re in shipping crates, nailed shut so that no light can get in and with labels stamped firmly on the outside.
The students in my prison classroom constantly upended my crates, pried them open and erased the labels. Sometimes they dazzled me with the light in their boxes that forced me to see people and difficult situations in a whole new way.
Mr. Dunn was my student in several classes, and I rarely saw even a hint of a smile on his middle-aged, frowning face. He wasn’t a very confident student, but he did do all of his work. What really bothered me was that I had no relationship with him, no eye contact and no conversations about anything. I had him in a box with labels that said grumpy, unfriendly and most important doesn’t like me. I kept trying to talk to him, but got no further than a few humphs. He didn’t seem to brighten up anything or anybody, and I didn’t think he was adding a darn thing to the group.
One day another student blurted out an insult about gay people, and a few others laughed. Someone else added another offensive comment and an argument followed, heating up as it went along. I tried to stay out of such conflicts, wanting them to learn to solve problems by themselves. All of a sudden, Mr. Dunn’s deep voice rang out as he looked around from his customary seat in the middle of the room, “I can’t believe my ears! What in the world is the difference between how you’re talking and the prejudice we feel as black people? Gay people are no different than any of us, and I’m not going to sit here and listen to this!” The room went still and silent—and the subject was dropped. I was as surprised as everyone else, and told him as he was leaving that I was grateful he had spoken up. I got a usual monosyllabic humph. Later, as he was getting ready to go home, he appeared at my door. Many of them came to say good-bye, but I was very surprised to see this student standing there.
“Come out here Mrs. Wenzel,” he said, gesturing with his hand and moving me into a corner in the hall. “I have something to give you. I know I can’t give you a present, so this can be part of the program. I know how much you love poetry and I know you don’t have it, because I’ve been looking through all the poetry books in the room for a while now. I just know you’ll like it.” He pulled Nikki Giovanni’s Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea out of his blue net bag and put it in my hands. A huge smile spread across his face.
I wonder, do we ever get anyone’s whole story, really know who other people are? It’s so much easier to stay on the surface of things, keep our first impressions and maintain a distance. The prison fence keeps us on the surface–and at a distance. It is a powerful label on the shipping crate of the prison itself. The fence tells us that the people inside are so dangerous that we can’t see them or get to know them. Distance creates stereotypes of people all the time.
It’s easier for me to stay at a safe distance from people who struggle so much more than I do than it is to get closer to them and try to understand the box they are in. The men I met in prison over 25 years allowed me to get closer and hear their stories, so unlike my own, often making me uncomfortable as I began to understand the opportunity gap that existed between us. They taught me to investigate my notions about people and situations I know nothing about. I need to do that more often. I need to at least admit I don’t have all the information, that it’s nailed into the crate, and I don’t see any light—about human beings who might be as scared and uninformed as I am. I need to recognize the danger of distance and that I rarely experience things first hand. I need to remember what it feels like to have a black-eyed pea in my hand.
“The most important thing
is that the teacher is also learning.
you have to know it all.”
–Nikki Giovanni, Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (HarperCollins New York), 2002, 109