The most transformative thing any human has ever given me was not their opinion. It was their story.
I think this is because information hits the brain, but it doesn’t have the power to change the heart. A story on the other hand, paints a picture that once seared in your minds eye, will never let you go.
The story I am about to share is displayed in full color in the new film The Reunited States, highlighting four stories including our journey across America. This one story taught me more about myself and our country than any class, book or film ever has. I don’t share this story with the hope that it will change anyone’s mind. But I have full confidence it will at least take a crack at transforming hearts.
This piece is dedicated to Maria Janine.
The Great Exchange
“Now we see each other through a glass dimly…but soon, we will see each other face to face…”
We had been in Tulsa a total of four days. I was tired and confused after several conversations with community leaders, activists and gatekeepers who seemed to be trying desperately to help us understand something that simply would not compute. We left Texas one week earlier under the assumption that division in America was mostly political in nature. But everyone we met in Tulsa seemed to think our problem was something bigger, something that runs much deeper than our political divisions. They felt it had to do with race.
Tulsa, it seemed, was a place with a long history of inequality, which in my mind at the time, had to be the exception, not the rule. Little did I know then that I’d be hard pressed to ﬁnd an exception to this narrative of inequality anywhere in America today.
We sat through countless meetings encountering phrases like “red lining,” “food desert,” “Jim Crow” and “urban renewal.” These were foreign terms I had either ignored for most of my life, or simply felt were no longer relevant because they were not used in any of the worlds where I had ever lived. My world was place where the narrative of inequality was a thing of the past, and a minor thing at that. So apart from a glossed over history lesson on slavery, the civil war, reconstruction and the civil rights movement, I was totally disconnected from any present-day expression of inequality in America.
As I listened to various gatekeepers showcase Tulsa’s dark past, I knew the implications mattered deeply. Yet I was, in all honesty, ﬁnding it hard to connect. I found myself dismissing facts and figures that didn’t make sense – they simply didn’t line up with what I knew America to be. For me, stories of inequality in a country that stands on the very principal of “justice for all” sounded nonsensical, and therefore impossible. I learned later that what I was experiencing has a name: cognitive dissonance, which Webster describes as the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes.
We were trying to wrap our heads around this proposition that injustice is as much a current event as it is a piece of our history, searching for a place to land, trying desperately to compute in a worldview that had no category for what we were hearing.
In our minds, America wasn’t perfect, but it had already righted its wrongs. Slavery had been abolished by the 13th Amendment. Jim Crow, voting rights and segregation had ended with the civil rights legislation passed in the 1960’s, and now it seemed, it was time for everyone to just get over the past and move on. This was all we could see of race in America from where we sat. This was our understanding, which therefore shaped our views and opinions.
And so, it was in this place of disconnect that we entered into Tula’s Greenwood Cultural Center, searching for answers, desperate for clarity, and eager to make the connection between race, history and our current division.
As we strolled in unannounced, I felt in my soul a deep longing, almost a cry for someone to bring it all home in a way that I could comprehend. Ten minutes later, we were led into the ofﬁce of Ms. Mechelle Brown, Program Director for the Greenwood Cultural Center, who was about to do just that in a way that would change my life forever.
Mechelle’s job is one of storytelling and preservation. She spends every day working to protect and share the full and complete history of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, an event that left the most thriving black-owned business district in the country, then known as “Black Wall Street,” in a heap of ashes after the white community raided and burned 36 city blocks within 24 hours, destroying businesses and homes, and taking hundreds, possibly thousands of innocent lives.
Intrigued by this story, and wanting to learn more, we fumbled through an introduction as we sat down to chat with Mechelle.
“Well,” Dave began, “We just embarked on a 50-state journey to learn about the root causes of division in America, and to discover what it would take to bring unity and reconciliation.”
That sounded good enough, I thought, not knowing Dave had touched on a couple of buzz words that send a lot of people of color into a deep state of internal eye-rolling.
We didn’t know it then, but talk of unity in America today is a lot like discussing paint colors for a house that is burning to the ground. It’s just ludicrous to discuss what color you want to paint a wall if that wall happens to be on ﬁre. Reconciliation is the ﬁnish line of a race that has barely even begun in this country. Before we talk about the ﬁnish line we need to discuss the race itself. Before we talk bout paint colors, we need to put out the ﬁre. It’s just that simple. But, again, we didn’t know any of this when we stepped into Mechelle’s ofﬁce.
And yet, we didn’t get an eye roll or a lecture on how we white folk just don’t get it. Mechelle was gracious. She was honest in a way that didn’t carry offense. She was patient in a way that embraced tension between our ignorance and her experience, which invited us in. When Mechelle smiles, it’s real, even in the midst of what would be a well-deserved eye roll. And in that awkward exchange of smiles and words, she somehow saw in us, despite our grandiose words and obvious confusion, a genuine and sincere desire to learn.
“Well”, she started off, “generally speaking, I have to honestly say that I don’t have a really great feeling towards white people. A lot of it is because of my own experience, and also because of what I’ve seen my parents and grandparents experience.”
Dave and I just stared in utter silence.
No one we had spoken with so far had been that brutally honest with us, probably because they thought we might not be able to handle it. But thankfully, Mechelle, despite only knowing us for a matter of seconds, believed that we were.
And let me tell you, this was a tough thing to hear. In my mind, I felt our intentions in setting out on this journey were so pure, so noble. I had yet to discover that this trip itself was a picture of the privilege I had yet to discover I possessed.
I was also a little hurt to know I was automatically a person Mechelle didn’t have “great feelings toward.” But fortunately, my curiosity about why Mechelle felt that way towards white people far outweighed my disappointment at the sentiment itself.
Mechelle meanwhile was having to deal with my shock, and the inevitable confusion that comes when a white person is surprised to learn of a reality that is so blatantly obvious to the one suffering it.
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.
This conversation, I can see, is not going well, but as I looked into Mechelle’s eyes, I suddenly felt compelled to risk it all and go a little deeper. Something inside me said let her in – tell her more about why you are sitting in her office today.
And so, lacking eloquence or grace, I suddenly started to share about how meeting our daughter Grace had served as the catalyst for our desire to understand division and had ultimately set us on this path. Grace was born with down syndrome, and an uncanny ability to undo my paradigms. It was Grace who ultimately set us on the path of wanting to help heal our nation’s wounds. Because she has been used to help heal the deep wounds in us. She had been the one who gave us the courage to travel off the beaten path and follow a crazy dream.
I could feel as I spoke, that Mechelle was getting a real and accurate picture of us and what had led us to her door that day. Somehow, as I became vulnerable about our experience of meeting Grace and her impact on our lives, the conversation seemed to open something.
Mechelle shifted in her seat, and looked me straight in the eye.
“When I was 17 years old,”she began.
And immediately I knew. Mechelle was about to bypass the facts and figures and take us straight to the heart of the matter – her own lived experience.
She proceeded to share the gut-wrenching account of how she, as a virgin teenage girl, waiting to have sex with the man she would someday meet and marry, was raped, and shortly after learned she was pregnant.
Like a so many girls and women who have been forced into this reality, Mechelle was stricken with shame, and fear of what this would mean for her life. But with the support and love of her family, she bravelybchose to keep and deliver her baby girl, whom she named Maria Janine.
As her pregnancy progressed and her belly grew, the shame and fear she felt in the beginning began to give way to love and hope. Mechelle had never imagined something so awful could be transformed into such a thing of joy.
By the end of her second trimester, Mechelle had transitioned from dreaded horror about her pregnancy, into full blown elation to soon become a mother.
On a shopping trip to the mall for baby clothes with her dad when she was about 32 weeks along, Mechelle felt what she thought was her water breaking. Her father immediately rushed her to the hospital.
When they arrived, Mechelle was taken to a room in the labor and delivery wing, where an older white nurse demanded Mechelle’s father leave her side and wait in the visitors area. She then approached Mechelle, scowling as she shoved her ﬁngers into her cervix.
“You’re not ready to have this baby,” she said grufﬂy, “come back when you are ready to have this baby.”
And with that, the nurse left.
Confused, scared and in pain, Mechelle remained on the table in that room, laboring for the next several hours. As a ﬁrst-time mom, she knew very little of child-bearing. She knew nothing of breathing through contractions, or about timing them. She had no idea if the pain she was feeling was normal or not. And she only vaguely understood that the state-of-the-art equipment surrounding her, that no one was using, was meant to help doctors and nurses monitor her progress and the progress of the precious life inside her.
Through cries of pain and fear as the contractions grew closer and stronger, doctors and nurses passed by her room. Mechelle labored alone. When she felt she would either pass out or die from exhaustion, she gave one last blood-curdling cry for help, to which a doctor responded, entering her room to ﬁnd that Maria Janine was crowning.
They rushed Mechelle to a delivery room, where she quickly delivered her baby girl, but in the moments that followed, the room was eerily silent.
“Is my baby ok?” Mechelle asked repeatedly to the nurses around her. No one answered.
“Does she know?” The doctor asked the nurse.
“Yes, she knows,” replied the nurse.
“Know what?!” cried Mechelle, sensing the awful words she was about to hear as the doctor continued to sew up her torn body on the bloody table.
“Your baby didn’t make it.” answered the nurse ﬂatly.
Your baby didn’t make it.
I’ve thought about these words so many times since the day I ﬁrst heard this story. These were not words of apology or condolence. It was, in truth, an accusation. As if either Mechelle or her baby, or some combination of the two had failed to “make it.” The nurse didn’t mention herself or the doctor. There was no “we” in her statement, like “we weren’t able to save her,” or “we couldn’t get her out in time.” No we, just your. Your baby, your problem, not mine.
“Then they wrapped up my tiny, lifeless baby girl, and placed her for just a few minutes in my arms.” said Mechelle through heavy tears.
Her story was over. I couldn’t move.
I sat in stunned silence, tears streaming, heart aching. Three words ﬂashed before my eyes in a way I had never seen them before.
Black Lives Matter.
It suddenly became crystal clear for me – this is why we need to say out loud that black lives matter. This was something I had previously struggled to understand.
Mechelle’s story, and Maria Janine’s hit me not as a white person, or as a product of a privileged class, or as a college graduate or even as a woman. This story hit me right between the eyes as a mom, and ﬁnally helping me locate that connection point, seeing for the ﬁrst time the glaring disparity between her reality and mine in a way that is seared into my heart forever.
As Mechelle recalled the horror of that day, I could see it play out in my imagination like a bad dream mixed with ﬂashbacks of the three delivery rooms where I ﬁrst laid eyes on the three crown jewels of my life. My children.
Each of my three delivery stories were unique. And while each of those deliveries had its own set of challenges, the one thing they all had in common was the fact that every medical professional in every room was ﬁghting for me and for my babies. I never once questioned their total devotion to our family.
It was a devotion I could actually feel, a commitment in each one of the doctors and nurses who treated me, to carry us safely through the transition from labor to delivery with the level of care you’d expect if it had been their own family member lying on the table.
This was my experience of childbirth. I and my babies received care and honor in a way that Mechelle and Maria Janine did not. The fact that my life and the lives of my children matter clearly needed no explanation at the hospitals where I gave birth, but for this doctor and these nurses, the fact that Mechelle and her baby’s lives matter, did.
Mechelle said something very poignant to me as we wept and processed through what she had shared with us that day.
She said, “I am convinced that my life and the life of my child did not matter to that medical staff as much as the person in the room next to me, solely based on the color of my skin.”
This very simple statement changed my life. It changed my purpose for traveling to all 50 states. It quite literally sent me on a quest, to use the gift of our journey to ﬁnd out why this was the case. Why would people who take an oath to care for every patient, in the end only care for some? And why did that some seam to rest on something as arbitrary as the pigmentation of a person’s skin? Why is melanin wreaking havoc in delivery rooms like Mechelle’s and creating precious memories in delivery rooms like mine?
Over the course of the following year, I was committed to making sense of this insanity, and to locating exactly where this kind of racism comes from and how it continues to operate.
My old mindset on race would have discounted a story like Mechelle’s, especially if it had been told from a liberal news source, choosing to think of it as an aberration of how things operate in America. I secretly prayed even as we left Mechelle’s ofﬁce, that we would discover that the world was as equitable as we had once hoped. But I quickly learned Mechelle’s story it was not a one-off, isolated event. The truth, as I learned from Mechelle and others, is that healthcare in America is systemically unequal, as is nearly every layer and sector of our society.
Shortly after meeting Mechelle, New York Times Magazine did an extensive piece entitled “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis,” reporting on childbirth outcomes for women of color in America, speciﬁcally black women. The results were astounding.
It found that “black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants, a racial disparity that is actually wider than it was in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women in America were considered chattel.”
The assumption might be that these results are tied to poor education, lower income or inefﬁcient prenatal care, but in reality, even a black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to lose her baby than a white woman with less than an eighth grade education.
The risk of pregnancy-related deaths for black women is 3 to 4 times higher than those of white women according to the CDC. And the striking reality driving these statistics is undeniably rooted in the day to day stress of simply being black in America.
Because of our ongoing biases and unequal treatment of people of color, they experience much higher levels of stress while doing what I might consider a pretty stressless or mundane task. Stopping at a trafﬁc light, popping into a store to grab something, even walking down the street are examples of what can become an escalated, stressful event in the daily life of a person of color. Knowing this collectively can help us combat it. Knowing this forced me to recognize the reality that race continues to be a very real problem in America right now, because regardless of how we tackle it in our halls of congress or in our courts, the problem persists in the one place it matters most…in our hearts.
Mechelle’s problem was not simply one racist nurse who was unwilling to help. It was an entire value system that had inﬁltrated the hearts and beliefs of individual healthcare providers, as well as the medical industry as a whole, resulting in the death of not only Mechelle’s child, but thousands of others.
This system of unequal treatment is not only imbedded in the medical industry, but is in fact wrapped around and baked into every industry, nuance and facet of American life and culture. And these systems don’t just work to imprison people of color in a place of second class status. The truth is, it imprisons us all.
Deeply imbedded within this system that didn’t value Mechelle’s life based on skin color was the even greater lie that the life of a person with white skin can matter more. It is all one-in-the-same, and the overarching function of that entire ungodly structure is to lie about human value, imprisoning its victims and its victors in a false structure empowered by nothing but our collective belief in it.
For the ﬁrst time in my life, I was beginning to connect the dots, recognizing why we needed the lens of meeting Grace to take us on the journey of seeing what has been hiding in plain sight all along, of learning things you can never unlearn, and then deciding what in the world to do with it.
And so, this is how our journey began.