Perhaps the greatest single characteristic of humans that makes them unique among all other living beings is our ability to transfer complex thoughts, ideas, concepts, and feelings from one human being to another. Communication among most animals is limited, at best, to a few emotions or ideas that are essential to their survival. Human beings communicate on a totally different, more complex, and more nuanced level.
I can write “blue” and stimulate a visual image in you. I can say “screen pass,” and tens of millions of fans understand a complex, choreographed play on a football field. I can write “tears,” and you think “does he mean the one that rhymes with ‘beers’ or the one that rhymes with ‘bears’?” It’s a remarkable facility that allows for an infinite variety of human relations and cooperation.
Our communication skills are not limited strictly to written and spoken language, and not to the transmission of ideas. We are amazingly skillful at communicating feelings. Again, animals manage to communicate fear or danger in threatening situations, but humans share a broad range of emotional reactions using visual, auditory, and tactile outputs and inputs. We can laugh together, cry together, worry, be excited, be subdued. We can feel what others feel.
And so it is that I invite my white friends to feel, either again or for the first time, how a black man feels about racism. Watch Van Jones reacting to the news that CNN had called the election in favor of Joe Biden. I invite you to use your uniquely human ability to be inside another human being’s brain, to feel what he feels, to experience something of what it feels like to be Black in America. Let yourself cry with him. Feel his body shake with emotion. Struggle with him to find words. Feel all of what Van Jones feels.
If white Americans can feel, just for a moment, what Van Jones is feeling in that moment, we can begin to understand what it means to be Black in America. Feel it. What in our experience as a white American makes us sob like that? This is a man expressing how it feels every day to be a Black American, how it feels to be unwelcome in a world where you are supposed to be free. What in our experience as white Americans do we carry with us daily that compares with the hurt, the fear, the despair that Van Jones feels?
Many of us have complained that Blacks are overly sensitive to micro-aggressions, that life is getting better for Blacks year after year, but Van Jones gives us a chance to see the real impact of the totality of American culture on Black people. This is a hard-working, successful, thoughtful man and father. This is a Black man who has taken advantage of the opportunities modern America has afforded him, a Black man who by all accounts has “made it” in America, and yet his heart is burdened with pain and fear and hurt that few white Americans are asked to endure. It’s a burden Van Jones and Black people all over our country carry with them day after day, year after year, a relentless burden. Tote that barge, lift that bail.
When white America feels what Van Jones feels, we will change our country. It’s time.