Encountering Racism Through Poetry

Paula Cole Jones

Years ago, my friend Paula and I would sit on the playground where our children went to elementary school and talk about writing and poetry. Paula spoke with a poet’s heart, with a longing to pen words that would resonate in the lives of others. Over the years, our conversations traversed many different topics, including race and the need for reconciliation in our country.

Paula always possessed keen insights about the importance of honest discussions among people from diverse backgrounds. I have grown in my own understanding as I have listened to her talk about guiding discussions on racism and social change in schools, organizations and her own church community, the Unitarian Universalists.  I recognized that the tender and tough subjects Paula explored with her UU brothers and sisters were something we all should talk about in our still too-often racially polarized culture and in our churches.

And now Paula has taken my learning to a new level with the recent publication of the book she edited, “Encounters: Poems about Race, Ethnicity and Identity.” The book, released in December from Skinner House, brings together Paula’s love for poetry and her work in racial reconciliation. In the book, poets tell their own stories about race and identity in our culture. The voices are  strong and varied, from Countee Cullen’s “Near White” to Joy Harjo’s “Reconciliation –A Prayer.”  Lucille Clifton, Charles H. Johnson, E. Ethelbert Miller, whose work I have come to appreciate, are among the poets in the book whose words point us toward the hope for change.

Each poet in the collection tells of an encounter, a time they stumbled upon, came across or ran headlong into the obstacles of race and culture in our society.  Their stories are poignant and thought-provoking, leaving the reader wiser and more observant of these potentially troubling issues in our midst. Through their lens we see the reality of racism and it’s ugly, complex face.

In the multiracial Baptist groups of which I am a part, I continue to see encounters between blacks and whites, women and men whose stereotypical views of each other get in the way of authentic relationships and the work for the Kingdom that must be done. I observe Asians and Hispanics who tend to keep their distance. Some of these people deny that race plays a role in how they relate to one another but at times I have to wonder. So I read “Encounters” with a mind open to receive new wisdom, and I recommend it to you to do the same.

The poets guide us in examining the stigmatizing nature of racism through scenarios that include being a Jewish girl in a small town; a Chinese child in Berkeley when Japan is declared the enemy at the start of World War II; a black man who talks about what passing means; and a 40-year-old pony-tail wearing Indian who muses over the uniqueness of being an Indian.  Here is Alexis Pauline Gumbs reciting her poem Mixed Use about a young black woman’s desire to be useful in society.

“We must break the silence on how race and ethnicity are used to stereotype people,” Paula wrote in the book’s Preface. “Only then can we truly encounter one another beyond superficialities and our own limited beliefs about humanity.”

Paula spoke with excitement over breakfast one morning about this latest project of hers. She is hoping that it will generate more discussions about race and identity and ultimately lead to reconciliation, which she views as a spiritual discipline.

“As a management consultant, I know a lot about helping people work through their differences, but until I embraced reconciliation as a spiritual practice, I didn’t realize just how transformative reconciliation can be,” she once wrote. “Practicing reconciliation means I commit to being in right relationship with people in my life and, when I’m not, caring enough to face unresolved issues and improve the relationship.”

What story can you tell about an encounter you have had with race and reconciliation? How are you deepening the conversation?

Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb

Ms. Shinhoster Lamb is a wife and mother, whose faith, even at its weakest, made a big difference in her home. She maintains that a faith-filled life anchored in a sovereign God is an adventurous and exciting one with so much to discover, so much unchartered territory to traverse.

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