On Tuesday, Apr. 10, Literati presented Rochelle Riley in a conversation and signing of her new book, “The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery.” With a room full of students and adults of diverse backgrounds, the conversation spurred was thoughtfully rich, honest and inspiring. Riley began by listing the names of some of history’s enslaved people in the state of Mich. She begins each talk in each different state in this same way. Setting a tone to the night, she asserted: “I will not shut up about slavery.”
The book is a push against the many who argue that slavery “was not that bad,” and that this is a conversation stuck in the past, a conversation that people are just using to get reparations. To the contrary, Riley argued on behalf of repairing relationships through conversation, and that this is the only way that our country can truly heal. Riley often referred to the notion of American excellence, and how African Americans are a reminder to Americans of what America is not: a country with a pristine history. They are a constant reminder of a history that textbooks, politicians and citizens work to forget. They are a reminder of a history that needs to be remembered.
A collection of essays written by 23 well-known African Americans — such as actress Aisha Hinds, actor and director Tim Reid, former Detroit News columnist Betty DeRamus and many others — Riley’s book reveals 23 different issues. No two discuss the same problem; each is a story, an essay, a dialogue in its own right. All revolve around the burden that is passed down from generation to generation, the burden of seeking permission to put the issue of racism down for good.
While the room was not made up of one single demographic, the majority were white students and adults. When Riley asked for questions, there was an initial nervousness in the room, myself included. I was scared to be taking about an event that I was unsure I was even allowed to speak on. The evening with Riley changed my own thinking: not only about whether I was allowed to speak but that I must speak.
One student asked how individuals can take on the role of being a white ally without intruding or stepping out of line. To this, Riley stated, “Don’t be afraid of overshadowing the conversation.” While the evening initially revealed this fear of overshadowing through the timidness of the audience, Riley created a space for open conversation.
Creating an open space for conversation is often the problem itself, in the grand scheme of things. Riley referred to what she calls a necessary “shock and awe” to get words flowing and to break boundaries. When differences are so fundamentally engrained, there is a necessity to break through ego and underdeveloped ideas to even get a conversation started. Last night, the conversation centered more on progress; it centered on what we can do and what we should do to move forward.
In the end, the burden is America’s burden, and Riley discussed both the large and small ways in which individuals of any race and background can make a difference. She discussed the butterfly effect, and how this can help our nation move forward.
There may not be an outward shock that will effectively allow us to move on from the underlying racism that plagues our country. Rather, through changing the subtle and underlying problems, through teaching our children and ourselves not to hate, there will be a shift within the nation. And it will be a transformation which opens the gates to healing.