Black Belonging on the 4th of July

My 96-year-old father escaped Nazi Germany to America at the age of 16, leaving his parents behind in a concentration camp. He has always been relentlessly hopeful, never describing his experience as trauma. But the few moments of deep pain he has let escape from a well-hidden place relate to the feeling of rejection by his home country. I thought of his perspective when I listened to Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” performed by his descendants. One of them, a 15-year-old wise beyond their years, concludes with words of their own. “Somebody once said that “Pessimism is a tool of White Oppression.’ I think that’s true and I think in many ways we are still slaves to the notion that it will never get better. But I think there is hope and I think it’s important that we celebrate Black joy and Black life and we remember that change is possible, change is probable, and that there’s hope.”

I found myself wondering about the source of this young person’s hope, just as I marvel at my father’s relentless optimism. The research described in my new book The Power of Discord co-authored with Ed  Tronick,  who developed the classic still-face experiment  reveals that our core sense of hope emerges out of working through countless moments of mismatch and repair in our earliest relationships.

“A baby who experiences typical mismatch and repair develops into a person with an internal voice that says, I can change things. When people move through mismatch to repair over and over again in relationships, whether as infants or adults, they develop agency, defined as a sense that one has control over one’s life and the power to act effectively in the world. They come to new situations with a hopeful feeling, armed with a positive affective core…

When you feel hopeless, lacking in experience of repair, clinging to certainty gets in the way of listening and leads to a downward spiral of rigidity and hopelessness. In contrast, when you experience the joy of moving through mismatch to repair, in a kind of positive feedback loop, your sense of hope opens you to listen to others with curiosity, leading to further connection and growth. A core sense of hope, growing in relationships with space for mismatch and repair, gives people the courage to let go of certainty. When they have hope, they can open themselves to empathy and truly listen to each other. Then, together, they can come up with creative solutions to problems both large and small.”

When we listen to each other throughout our development, the movement from mismatch to repair in countless interactions gives us a sense of belonging. It is the process by which we come to belong to multiple different cultures- that of our immediate family, our social and work groups, our racial and ethnic groups, and our country.

My father has not been back to Germany since he fought as a soldier with the US Army in World War II. While he rarely talks about it, I sense that feeling of rejection still vividly alive in him. While in his early pre-Hitler childhood strong family relationships gave him a core sense of hope, he never repaired the rupture from his homeland.  

Frederick Douglass, like his wise descendent, did not give up hope on the American Project. He respected the core mission of creating a free country, the very one that gave my father his life. Douglass’ aim rather, was to call attention to the grand hypocrisy of American Slavery.

Perhaps on this 4th of July- in part as a result of the race-less, faceless coronavirus-we finally have come to a place where we see the necessity of engaging in the discord and finding our way to repair. By addressing once and for all the original sin of slavery and the centuries of brutal oppression that followed, all Americans may find a true sense of belonging.

In our book’s final chapter, titled “Through Discord to Connection and Belonging,” we write: “A dangerous fear of difference pervades our world today. Yet the very messiness of a diverse society made up of varied races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations lies at the core of our nation’s strength. When we reach one another by listening, moving through the inevitable mismatch that such differences engender, the power of the repair gives us potential for greatness.”

We conclude with the following observations:

“In our society today, we see people tenaciously holding rigid positions with fear dominating their social interactions. Empathy dissipates. Forfeiting opportunities to work through difficult moments and experience repair together, they lose the source of energy that moves them forward…Our sense of belonging grows not from holding on to an inflexible position but in engaging in the messiness of human interaction. When we listen to one another’s stories with curiosity, not always having the right answer to a problem, we create communities of connection. As unique individuals, we will always have different motivations and intentions. When we engage in the messy process of figuring things out together, we grow and change together.”

A strange convergence of events have opened up a space in which many Americans finally seem ready to hear Douglass’ words and take them to heart. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the danger of polarization like nothing else. We need to start listening to each other now. Our very survival depends on it.

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