Eleven Million Chances

One of my students today, in the midst of a Socratic seminar on required military service for BTS Kpop band members in South Korea, somehow reached the point in the conversation where he felt the need to ask:

“Miss? Why is America so racist in everything they do?”

It was too hard for me to hold back, after students had already pointed out that maybe the band could move away from Korea, maybe they could move to America, maybe they could earn citizenship elsewhere… Students began to spill their citizenship stories, their trials and attempts to emigrate, their complexity of dual citizenship.

“It’s because our country was founded on white supremacy, murder of indigenous peoples, and slavery,” I say, too soon, too heated, too tired of two hundred years and too little progress.

“I know, Miss. Those slaves were from my country.”

At the end of class, he comes up to tell me the whole truth: “In my country, did you know that you can see where the British started the slave trade? There is a huge house, and underground, in the dark, is where they kept the slaves.”

I start to tell him about a book I read, Homegoing; I want to recommend it. I want him to read it because it explores hundreds of years of British-Ghanaian oppression and describes just this castle with the dungeon that he is detailing in his imperfect English.

But why would I tell him this when he has seen it himself? When he has lived in the birthplace of slavery, traveled across the Atlantic for a better life hundreds of years after the fact, only to be faced with blatant racism everywhere he turns?

I read this morning, maybe it’s not true (it was on Vox, after all), that as many as 11,000,000 Americans identify with the alt-right. Yep, I had to look at the zeros twice too. 11,000,000?

So it’s five houses down, two blocks over, every other face I see in the street?

A bigot, a racist, a person who would put human beings in a dungeon to be shipped and whipped and sold?

Sometimes it is so hard to take, so hard to be a part of this acceptance of our times, that I lose faith. I have lost friends over this red/blue battle that really ends in purple bruises of the soul. Because I am too old, too long invested in these students’ souls and experiences to discount them, to not see the beauty in their everyday struggles and arguments and discomfort, to accept for one second any person in my life who would say their lives are not as valuable as those of whites.

I want to take that 11,000,000 and turn it into smiles. Dollars. Refugees filling farm fields, engineering firms, schools. Anything but the truth.

I want to visit that awful castle in Ghana and take a tour. See where it all began. Take a breath, take a picture, take a collective sigh for the soul of humanity. Take the 11,000,000 moments between now and then and turn them into solutions, not hate.

I want 11,000,000 chances to say a different sentence than what I said to my student today.

And I wonder, with each ever-darkening day, how many chances I will have left to even speak the truth that is worth 11,000,000 words.