The triumph of the United States is that it has shown the world the glory of freedom.

The shame of the United States is that it has not allowed African Americans to be free.

The denial of freedom for African Americans has been part of the country virtually from its beginnings. It became a way of life for white Americans and for black Americans. Racial inequality is part of our culture.

The great mystery of racism is how it evolved into a problem that white people can’t see. Black people can see it but they can’t fix it, because they don’t have the power. Race in America is a problem that white people must solve. Before we solve it we must see it.

For 400 years, white Americans and black Americans have been on a journey. They have been traveling side by side, free white Americans with black Americans waiting to be free. It’s as though we left on a trip 400 years ago, two trains on parallel tracks, whites on one train and blacks on another. We’re going to the same place, but we’re traveling separately. African Americans have sometimes told themselves they are on a train to freedom, but that isn’t true. Freedom isn’t a destination. Freedom is a way of living, and freedom is on the white train. Since Brown v. Board of Education and the civil rights legislation in the 1960s, white people have told themselves that anyone can get on their train, any time, even the people from the black train. That isn’t true, either. That is what has to change.

When George Floyd was murdered, it was as though our two trains stopped at the station, side by side, and we all got out to stretch our legs. We walked around Minneapolis, walked around Los Angeles, walked around New York City. We walked all around the country. Now it’s time to get back on board, and we have an opportunity. We can rearrange the cars, so white Americans and black Americans will be on the same train when we leave the station. We can make the second train the baggage train, and we can fill it with our white baggage and their black baggage. (We can put all those statues on that train, too.) The baggage train will follow us. Eventually, as we travel together, we will simply leave the baggage train behind, on a siding somewhere. Our baggage will be history.

The trains are leaving the station now. One way or another, black and white, separate or together, our journey will continue. The time has come for us, black and white, to travel together. The time has come for African Americans to be free.

The time has come for white me to look at white you and say “we need to change, you and I.” The time has come for us, maybe for the first time, to acknowledge and examine our racial baggage, the baggage that is largely invisible to us. We need to open our suitcases, look inside for a few minutes, then close them up and put them on the baggage train. We need to talk to each other, white-on-white, to share thoughts and feelings and uncomfortable truths about what’s in those suitcases.

The easy choice would be to board our white train and watch as our black neighbors climb back onto the black train. We need courage and determination to make the hard choice. The easy choice would be to forget the little bit that we’ve learned, to go back to not seeing and not hearing, and to move on with our comfortable lives. We must be willing to be uncomfortable.

If the promise of America is to be complete, we must all be on one train. White people have made the easy choice for too long.

Each person’s trip is different, because each person carries their own suitcase. We need to examine our baggage. We don’t need psycho-analysis; we don’t have to dredge up every event from our personal history and ascribe some greater meaning to it. There’s no blame to be assigned, there’s no guilt to agonize over. We’re not looking to assess responsibility. We just need to look long enough to understand what we’ve been carrying in that bag and how it has affected us as we travel. We need to see our culture so we can change it.

In some of these essays, I’ll look at my baggage. Maybe you will see things in my suitcase that you have in yours.

6 Replies to “WHAT I BELIEVE”

  1. The two trains on parallel tracks is an excellent metaphor. Likewise, the suitcases. However, your essay is too optimistic. Lots of people on the white train will never examine their suitcases with a view to abandoning their historical baggage.
    Racial bigotry is not confined to the baggage carried by some white people. It is in their genes, in their psyches; it is part of who they are. With wise leadership, some may change their attitudes, but not all, not nearly all. I wish – with all my heart – that I could share your optimism, but I can’t. Just pay attention to our President. Every day he says, in essence, “let’s keep using two trains and, by all means, hold on to and cherish your baggage.”
    I look forward to more of your essays in the faint hope that your optimism will be contagious.

  2. Great analogy with the trains, I agree.
    And I agree with comment number 2 as well; the problem is so large – how to make the blind see when they don’t want to…….
    But I am an optimistic person, and I am with you.

  3. Mark, I love your analogy with the trains and the baggage — great starting place for honest discussions. And yes, this the work of white folks it’s not up to the black folks to do our work for us — we’ve made them carry our baggage AND theirs as an integral part of the Great American Experiment. I would like to share this with the Racial Healing, Justice and Reconciliation Network of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. Thank You! Don Hamer

  4. As others have said, good analogy with the trains. Don’t leave it behind as you discuss issues; continue to develop your theme in the context.

  5. Thank you, again, Mark, for getting this conversation going. I like the train analogy, too, but I’m not sure it’s quite accurate. I think whites are on the train, and we’ve left the trolleys for the people of color to use. Those trains aren’t equal.

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