Insecurity, Vulnerability, & Empathy
Rabbi’s Message – February 16, 2021
Last year I read a powerful book by Isabel Wilkerson: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. This historical study of the the movement of almost six million African Americans out of the Southern United States to the Midwest, Northeast, and West from approximately 1915 to 1970 forever changed the way I understand Black History. In it, Wilkerson delves into the lives of three extraordinary people, sharing the painful truth of what it meant to flee the Jim Crow South and seek refuge in the rest of the country.
One of the most painful parts of reading Wilkerson’s book was seeing all of the obstacles that prevented people from escaping the Jim Crow South. It was never as simple as making a geographical move, even for those who were well integrated in their hometowns. I am thinking of Dr. Robert Pershing Foster, in particular. He was a talented Army surgeon who returned to the south after serving abroad during the Korean War. When he returned home, he sought to build his medical practice in California. Leaving his wife and daughters at home while he found a place to live, he drove from Louisiana to California. But the trip itself nearly cost him his life when it became a long, harrowing nonstop drive. Foster was not allowed to stop along the way due to segregated hotels and open hostility. No matter his status, even after becoming Ray Charles’ personal physician, he never was able to escape his vulnerability.
As I shared over the High Holidays, the inconvenience of our current pandemic has exposed all of us, regardless of race or status, to a new sense of vulnerability. Those of us who are white experienced, many of us for the first time, what it is like face restrictions in our daily lives. With Covid-19 we have had to consider risks before engaging in normal activities, such as going to the grocery, a restaurant, the doctor, hair salon, or department store. We have been limited in when and where we are allowed to go, such as hospitals, nursing homes, banks and bars. And even if we choose to enter those places, we must carefully watch the behavior of those around us to determine if we are in a space in which we feel safe.
There is no comparison between the racism faced by black Americans in the 20th and 21st century and the inconvenience felt by white Americans in a pandemic. Unless we have lived it, we can never understand the ways in which black and brown Americans here in Montgomery County are disproportionately limited and vulnerable in their everyday lives. To name only a few, our black community is at a greater chance of dying from Covid, facing limitations in professional success, and giving birth to children who may never reach a first birthday. However, our experiences will help to heighten our empathy, which I hope will encourage us to deepen our involvement in issues of social justice.
It healthy for our souls to take this time to recognize what insecurity in everyday living feels like – not so that we live in fear, but to help us better relate to those whose barriers will not disappear once this pandemic subsides.