Gravity works like this: everything we do, everything we have created to live on earth, every cell in our bodies and every expectation we have in our lives depends on gravity. We develop strong bodies, muscles, dense bones, parallel hips and shoulder structures, so that we can stand up in opposition to gravity. Our cells are oriented by and function in concert with gravitational pull. We design buildings and use materials that counter act gravity. The forces of gravity move the largest bodies of water known to man back and forth across the face of the planet. The force of gravity is so ingrained in us that we are able to anticipate a falling snowflake. Even our animals comprehend of gravity: my dog is not performing elaborate computations to predict the pitch and drag of the Frisbee he catches I his mouth. It is instinctive. Gravity is like that: so instinctive that we don’t think about it at all, it’s a given. And yet everything we do and everything we are is premised on gravity. That is being White in the U.S.
Now imagine that gravity increased ten-fold. Imagine it pushed you down. Imagine you could not build the structures or catch the snowflake, imagine that you had to use every ounce of your strength to stand. That is being non-white in the U.S.
This was brought home to me in an essay by Alice Walker called “Saving the Life that is Your Own” in which she examines role models she’s held for her own writing. It struck me that she had to go looking for role models who were not what she was, but what she wanted to be. She quotes Toni Morrison saying that she has to be “her own model as well as the artist attending from, learning and realizing the model.” What struck me about this is that my race has never defined my role models, because my potential is not limited by my race. In my entire life as a writer, until that moment, it never occurred to me that I could not aspire to be Leo Tolstoy.
I look around at the books on my shelves and their stories jump out at me. I know the characters like old friends, I know their lines, I can envision their most moving scenes with an immediacy that gives me great joy. I have to stop and think and in several cases Google and check the race and sometimes gender of the writer. This, in my sheltered little mind, is the road to the kingdom. In her essay, Alice Walker says that white writers tend to write the reality they live in now, “as if there were no better existence for which to struggle.” Black writers, however, expect a “larger freedom” and their characters struggle toward it.
One thing all theologians agree on is that human beings are narrative animals. They take their realities and write them into legends: they call that history. They write their dreams and imagine a reality that is more perfect, more satisfying than what they know: they call that fiction. But when those stories are read and their fictions take root in the imagination of the reader, then there is the beginning of reality. I know this story, you know it. A truth exists between us and between us we can live that truth into being, speak imagination into revolution, create the reality that once was only a dream.
I don’t know what I post racial world looks like. But I can imagine a city whose buildings are constructed in different ways and with different materials, I can imagine evolutionary adaptations that enabled people to walk and breathe comfortably. I can imagine bowling becoming a more popular sport than tennis. And then suddenly having the weight lifted, the entire paradigm changing and how a culture would have to adapt to their “larger freedom.” Imagine that.