Gratitude and Hope: "What We Can’t Yet See but Still Believe"
For Thanksgiving, sharing an inspiring "demos found poem" born from a meeting of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center
Dear #WhiteTooLong Readers,
For those who are traveling this week for the holiday, I am wishing you all safe travels. I’ve been in San Antonio for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and just landed yesterday in Chicago for Thanksgiving with my in-laws.
ICYMI, I spent much of my week last week sounding the alarm about Trump’s escalating hateful rhetoric. I want to make sure that I say this as clearly as possible: Trump’s recent statements echoing Nazi rhetoric mark a new and dangerous turn that should jar us awake.
I place Trump’s rhetoric into historical context in the last WTL newsletter here:
Last Friday, I was also asked to comment on these statements on NPR’s Morning Edition. You can listen to the three-minute spot, “Former President Trump faces criticism for using language reminiscent of Hitler,” here.
Now, turning to this week….
At speaking events, I’m often asked what gives me hope, given the challenging history I’m uncovering in my writing. As we’re heading toward Thanksgiving celebrations in the U.S. this week, I’m feeling the tensions of celebrating a holiday built on a mythology that obscures the history of genocide of Indigenous People by European Christians. And even when I attempt to extract the holiday from these historical roots, I struggle to feel the lifting spirit of gratitude amid the compounding heaviness of the daily headlines.
I wrestled with a similar dilemma toward the end of The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future in a chapter entitled “The Search for Hope in History.” Here’s how I described what gives me hope:
At this point in the American story, a tidal wave of equity and justice, if that is what it might become, still seems a building swell far offshore. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that the waters of justice are rising in a way that indeed feels different from any other in my adult lifetime.
Buoyed on those waters are lights that are helping us find our way. A racially diverse group of kids fanning out in Sumner, Mississippi, filming documentary projects that tell their stories alongside Emmett Till’s. Daughters of plantation owners standing beside sons of sharecroppers to tell the truth in the Mississippi Delta. A white, Black, and Latino trio determined to commemorate the lynchings in Duluth, and the three thousand Duluthians who showed up for the unveiling of a city’s memorial and pledged their commitment to create a new history. A white church in Tulsa confessing its role in covering up acts of mass white racial terrorism.
In the book, I also share a remarkable poem written by activist Susan Glisson. During a research trip to the Mississippi Delta on a hot summer day in June 2022, I was privileged to witness Glisson—author and poet, gifted consultant, and founding former director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation—in action, moderating a meeting of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center board.
As the ETIC meeting closed, Glisson stood before the group with an offering. During our two hours together, Glisson had been carefully listening to the conversation and taking notes, which she had spontaneously transformed into a poem. She described it as “a demos found poem by community leaders of Tallahatchie County”—“demos” denoting its origins in a civic body; “found poem” indicating a genre of poetry that is composed by using existing words or phrases from outside sources. It beautifully captures the spirit of this group that has been working, for nearly two decades, to tell the truth about Emmett Till and to promote racial justice and healing in their community. With Glisson’s permission, I’ve included it below in full.
I am deeply grateful knowing work like this is being done, all over the country, by countless unnamed everyday Americans, working across lines of race. And that gives me hope.
What We Can’t Yet See but Still Believe
The ground is liquid.
But my great-grandfather fought for us to have rights to the water.
They tried to hide Emmett in the river. They thought he’d never be found. But the Tallahatchie keeps on moving.
My grandfather inspired Jerome Little to fight.
Is this enough?
I want my grandchildren to say, “I can’t believe people used to be so little. So little in empathy, so detached from reality, so unwilling to be humane and human.”
It seemed like it couldn’t change. But the ground is liquid. It changes. The river couldn’t hide Emmett.
It reflects a journey that needed to be taken.
I want my grandchildren to say, “They got tired of all the fighting and violence and meanness. They woke up one day and said, ‘No more.’ ”
The current changed. The water moved.
They said, “We can be better.”
They put a stake in the ground. They said, “We will go through this so our grandchildren don’t have to.”
They went on a journey. They weren’t superheroes.
In fact, they were just a few.
But they began to open a few eyes.
They changed a few perspectives.
Sometimes, you can only see the tops of things.
But radical imagination can show us what’s not easy to see, can change the tide, can build a future in this place. Imagination lets us smell the flowers in the seeds we plant.
Even the white people in their white churches finally saw themselves as part of a movement.
What if we cross? What if we make a connection?
They told the stories. They listened.
The current changed. The water moved.
Though they were few, they represented many. And the many became a chain of hearts as long as the river.
And they formed a family across time and across hate and fear.
A healed community came from hard work.
What had been desecrated and a place of fear became a place of honor and love.
They will say, “My family did that.”
They will say, “We stood and endured.”
They will say, “The river changes but eventually it goes to the ocean.”
They will say, “The river can obscure but it can also cleanse.”
They will say, “Hate seemed permanent. Fear seemed forever. But we learned the ground is liquid, and, together, we decide where we stand.”
And now, they will say, “We stand as one. We made the trail better than we found it.
And we will hold this ground.”