“Need To Know”
A UU Worship Experience
Led by Anastasia Higginbotham
When I was a kid, I learned that the problem of racism was a problem affecting other people. Because I’m een as white, I understood that racism was something I could be sad about, even angry, but doing anything to change it was about helping someone else. That’s one of the biggest lies of whiteness and white supremacy. The truth is: I didn’t ask to be part of this violent and unjust system—this was never my idea; it was never your idea. I did not consent to carry it forward and I need no permission to tear it down. And that is what we have a chance and a responsibility to do – take it down. Everyplace we find it – in our families and in our own minds. The people you most need to talk to about racial justice are your own family. The experience you most need to understand is yours. Here’s a story I wrote and illustrated about a child who feels the wrongness of racial injustice in their body and senses the peace they will feel when they grow justice instead. While I read, try to notice what you feel in your body and where you feel it. I’ll be reading next to this cardboard Colin Kaepernick I drew and colored in – he’s a professional quarterback for the San Francisco 49-ers who kneeled for racial justice, and kneeled for an end to police violence, and kneeled for Black liberation and the rights of his ancestors and he hasn’t been picked for the team since. I’m with him, all the way.
Story: Not My Idea by Anastasia Higginbotham (read to the Melrose UU Children during “Time For All Ages”
This passage is by Rev. angel Kyodo williams, a Zen priest and Master Teacher and one of the co-authors of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation.
“In truth, we have to integrate our wounds into our understanding of who we are and what we are really capable of so that we can be whole human beings. Only from there can we begin the process of healing the brokenness, the broken-heartedness within ourselves that is the foundation for beginning to heal that in our larger society.
“We cannot have a healed society, we cannot have change, we cannot have justice if we do not reclaim and repair the human spirit. We simply cannot. Imagining anything different is to really have our heads buried deeply in the sand of hundreds of years of a culture of domination, colonization, the theft of this land, the theft of a people from their land, and the continued and ongoing theft and appropriation of peoples and cultures on a day to day basis that every single one of us is colluding with and participating in consciously and unconsciously.
“Learning to be with suffering as an experience is part and parcel of what it means to live, and it radically alters our relationship to all life and to the suffering of others. If you are invested in alleviating suffering, whether as an activist or change maker or someone who’s committed to life because you hear the cries of the world, it’s important to understand that you can’t even recognize the suffering of others without fully acknowledging the despair of your own suffering. It turns out that far from dragging you down, one of the most liberating things you can do is to come to terms with the fact that some form of your suffering will always be there. To really be present with that unhooks us from the constant anxiety of trying to make it go away. Paradoxically, once we release the proposition that we are going to get rid of the suffering, then the potential to alleviate the suffering becomes possible.”
“NEED TO KNOW: TELLING THE TRUTH, EVEN TO KIDS” (Anastasia Higginbotham, copyright)
Thank you for inviting me here Rev. Susanne.
I have always wanted to do this. I like the responsibility. I like when my job description is: take care, show love, offer something useful. It feels good to experience your trust and openness.
Every time I read my book in public – I am afraid.
I worry that kids will get mad at me for telling them the truth about a violent system they were born into that pretty much runs the world: white supremacy. Here they are going along enjoying family life, school and gymnastics classes, and here I come, telling them so much is wrong and we’ve all got our hands in it.
I long to tell them the truth.
At age nine, my niece Francesca asked what all my books would be about. We were sitting poolside under an umbrella in a Raleigh suburb, eating strawberry Twizzlers and cheese puffs. She’d already read my book about divorce, which came out the year her own parents split up, and she knew it was the first in a series.
Next is death, I told her. After that, the confusing messages about sex that tell you it’s both shameful and beautiful. After that, white supremacy. Then I’ll do one on sexual abuse that happens inside the family, and one about being a target of violence at your school because kids suspect you’re gay and you might be and you’re terrified. Oh, and life-threatening asthma caused by environmental racism and corporate greed.
As soon as I stopped talking, I looked like that emoji with the wide eyes and flushed cheeks. I felt like I should apologize to her for every word that had come out of my mouth. And I told her so.
“Hey, don’t worry about me,” she said, waving a Twizzler, as kids splashed and floated past us. “I need to know what I need to know.”
She gave me so much confidence that day.
Not My Idea is the fourth book I’ve made. I love them all. But this one means the most to me.
I want it to “serve humankind in fellowship,” like the words of the hymn we sang. May it serve, I pray to myself before speaking in front of a room like this. May it serve, I think to myself before speaking into a microphone that puts me directly onto the radio.
May it serve, may it serve…
My books are an effort to heal my own broken-heartedness. And yours.
I grew up in a Catholic tradition, taking everything literally, believing it all. I prayed God would make me pregnant – I wanted the responsibility of raising God’s child. Plus, if I got pregnant at 14 by God, my dad wouldn’t be able to yell at me.
The stories in church instructed me and I cherished the lessons on peace, love, mercy, and justice.
But then the priest started talking bad about my mother.
Her decision to divorce was a problem. Her use of birth control was a problem. Then my brother’s sexuality was a problem. Then mine was. Then my grandfather died and I was sure he was going to hell for being a nonbeliever.
But my mom said, Nah. That’s not how this works.
She let me know I could keep the lessons on peace, love, mercy and justice, love everyone entirely, and go on my way. So I did.
In 1993, I went to New York City to apply those lessons as an activist and writer, but I was so upset and rattled by injustice I could barely function. It made me sick. Still does.
Because it is just as Rev. angel says: “If you are invested in alleviating suffering, whether as an activist or change maker or someone who’s committed to life because you hear the cries of the world…you can’t even recognize the suffering of others without fully acknowledging” your own.
The books I make are an effort to acknowledge and reckon with what is so. About my own childhood, about my children’s childhood, and maybe about yours. My goal is to help create a healed society, nothing less.
The books are subversive in every way. From the materials I use to make them (stuff that was on its way to the trash, grocery bags, broken necklaces, bits of catalogs, and clothes my kids outgrew) to the choices I make within them (kids aren’t gendered unless gender is the crisis, and I keep the adults in the margins unless we really trust them—and the only ones I trust so far are the grandmothers, one living, one dead).
Each book speaks to an ordinary childhood experience. Divorce. Death. Sex. Race. My themes are loss, separation, confusion, isolation, betrayal, violence. A desire to belong, be loved, be seen, be safe. A desire to understand and be embraced by those whose job it is to care for us and care about us as children.
Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, wrote in Publisher’s Weekly once: “I believe there exists a quiet but highly effective censorship of subjects that are supposedly too frightening, or morbid, or simply not sufficiently optimistic for boys and girls. This should be of little importance to the creative artist whose prime concern is exploring the riches of their own remembered childhood and presenting them transmuted into artistic form for children.”
People say to me, please make a book about adoption. About autism. About trans identity. About ADHD. About money. About refugees. About living with a chronic illness. About having a parent who has a chronic illness, or is drug-addicted, or is incarcerated.
What I hear is: Please acknowledge my experience of being in danger, misunderstood, not taken seriously, not taken into account. Please show me on those grocery bag pages being given up, left out, lost, underestimated, found, encouraged, supported, liberated, and fulfilled. Please show me me, surviving.
In her book 100 Demons, my favorite cartoonist Lynda Barry devotes each chapter to a different demon and one of them, she names: Resilience. “I cringe when people talk about the resiliency of children,” writes Barry. It’s a hope adults have about the nature of a child’s inner life, that it’s simple….” Barry calls resilience “the ability to exist in pieces.”
I work with those pieces – that is my spiritual practice, my wellness practice, and my activism. For me, fitting and gluing pieces of paper, scraps of fabric, ribbon, and cut-up magazines together to make a kitchen where a conversation about consent and abuse can happen between a trusted elder and a child … mends my soul. It helps me to re-member, as in the opposite of dis-member. It heals me and bonds me to all of this, all of you – your internal world and re-membered childhood and mine.
Telling the truth about what the world is – even and especially to children – can save them so much time and trouble.
In Black and Brown families, telling the truth about race is, of course, a matter of staying alive. People who experience anti-Blackness and who are targeted by racism have always taught children about how the system works. Awareness is essential. Kids must learn to see it clearly to navigate it.
Here’s how whiteness and white supremacy will come for you when you are shopping in stores. Here is how it will show up in your school. Here’s how it will portray you when you are walking on a sidewalk in the suburbs. Here’s what it demands of you when you are stopped and questioned by police. Here’s how it invades your mind and your body. And even when you prepare and get all the answers right, still your safety is not guaranteed.
That’s the harsh reality. And we – by we, I mean the white dominant culture – have been letting Black and Brown children shoulder this entire burden alone. For centuries.
We’ve never entrusted white kids with the responsibility of also learning the truth about the trouble that passes them by, in stores and on sidewalks and in cars. We’ve never, as a collective, taught white kids what their responsibility is, as the members of an oppressor group, to undo what should never have been done for the sake of their own liberation. It’s as if we think they can’t handle it. As if white kids are incapable of living and acting from a place of love and solidarity, and don’t have the stamina or resilience to face it and break it down, or the fortitude to reject the lies of white superiority, white innocence, white entitlement.
We know our kids. We know what they’re capable of – empathically, emotionally. This underestimation of them – of us – is absurd and the consequences of not teaching and inviting them (each other) into this work of undoing are catastrophic.
How could a child possibly develop a healthy racial identity in this society without an explicit understanding of the systems that are in place to divide and control us? We need that education. These systems are human made – and that’s the good news. It means they can be human unmade.
Death is a mystery. What keeps our parents together as a couple or wedges them apart is a mystery when you’re a kid. Sex and sexuality, what defines it and how it asserts itself in us can feel mysterious.
But racism? That’s no mystery. That’s a set up.
Here’s what I believe about kids’ capacity for this material – which is ultimately spiritual material, as it expresses justice, peace, mercy and love:
- Kids appreciate being trusted with important and dangerous information.
- Kids like to challenge adults on the subjects we try to hide from them.
- Kids need practice and support to connect their emotions and bodily truths (their uh-oh feelings, knotted guts, bad sleeps, bouncy knees, tight chests) into coherent ideas and choices, and
- Kids need help aligning what they know with how they choose to live.
Without an education in the world as it is (instead of how we wish it would be), my sons could go their whole lives tuning out the truth about what happens to you when you’re seen as Black in this country, and what doesn’t even make sense to you when you’re seen as white.
Whiteness wants my kids to feel good and comfortable – good in the moral sense and comfortable in the financial sense. These are two of the most insidious and ingenious lies of whiteness: You’re good because you feel good; you’re comfortable because you deserve to be.
When I learn that a police officer pushed a Black girl down on a sidewalk and put his knee in her back, I tell my white sons. When a white shooter is brought in alive and unharmed after hunting people in a school or a church, I tell my white sons. When white cops who have killed Black people during traffic stops are exonerated of any wrong doing, I tell my white sons. Do I do it to make them feel bad? Of course not. I do it so they know where they live. I do it so they know where they don’t live.
I also show my sons the clip of Bree Newsome bringing down that confederate flag in Charleston. “See that young white man at the base of the flag pole keeping watch? That’s you – do you understand?” My words are as much a threat as they are encouragement. What I mean is, if you want your life to have mattered, that better be you.
About three years ago, I stood at the open windows of my apartment and talked to my younger son, age six at the time, about race and white supremacy. I had done my best to explain something that is a made-up story, a lie – but with consequences that are real.
As I spoke, he walked around and around me in a circle, keeping one hand connected to my body. It is the same way he walks around the subway pole when there’s almost no one on the train with us and he has room enough to go the whole way around.
“So we’re the bad color, but we aren’t bad people, right?” he asked me, pausing in orbit a moment to look up.
I thought to myself, Wow, I’ve blown it already. That is not the takeaway I was going for.
But I kept talking.
“Well, that depends,” I said, “on what we do with what we know.”