Think Black: Remembering C.T. Vivian

I note with sadness the death yesterday of the Rev. C.T. Vivian. For those of you who do not know of him, he was one of the core leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

I met Rev. Vivian in 1984 in Atlanta. At the time I was living and working at the Open Door Community, an intentional community modeled on the Catholic Worker communities. The Open Door provided permanent residence to about a dozen men and women who would otherwise be homeless without prospect of shelter. We also provided daily morning and noon meals to hundreds of other homeless women and men, daily showers and changes of clothes, and an ongoing ministry of visitation, advocacy and street actions against the death penalty in Georgia.

C.T. Vivian had no direct involvement with us, but he was at that time running day-long workshops that he called “Think Black.” The leaders of the Open Door thought that their young, naive volunteers would benefit from a course in racial issues awareness, so we were required to attend Rev. Vivian’s workshop, without knowing exactly what we were getting into.

It was an intense experience. With the passage of time, my memory is unreliable but several aspects of the day have stayed with me.

First, Vivian was a powerfully energetic man. There were times during the day when he broke his chalk, he was pounding it so forcefully against his chalkboard as he illustrated the centuries of crimes against Black people in America. I worried sometimes about his health; he was angry, and yet that anger was never fully vented. His was a commanding presence, unlike anyone I had ever met, even MLK himself. MLK’s presence was also commanding, but at least to my six-year-old self, it was quiet and self-contained. C.T. Vivian felt like he was constantly on the verge of combusting.

At the beginning of the day, he laid down several rules of engagement, of which I remember two:

1) If you agree to start, you stay until the end. No one leaves part-way through.

2) No personal stories.

That second one really got my attention. I don’t think I had ever heard anyone tell us not to tell our stories. The personal story, or the national, or the cosmic story seems to be the hallmark of the human experience. We are story-tellers. We love our stories. We love telling our stories. I had no idea what he hoped to accomplish by cutting us off from our stories.

In time I might remember more about this day, but I can tell you this: very few of us managed to abide by those two rules. Several left the gathering, in tears or in anger. Nearly everyone tried at some point to justify their opinion of something by telling their personal story. Vivian was relentless in shutting down those attempts. He did try to convince people not to leave, to abide by their commitment to him, but he failed in at least two cases.

For much of the day, Vivian seemed like a hyper-critical father for whom nothing you do is ever good enough, and nothing you say is ever right. He led us through a series of group exercises during which he challenged every comment and every self-justification. One of my colleagues, a Quaker who prided himself on his long life of nonviolent activism, very nearly came to blows with Vivian and was so red in the face I thought he was going to blow a gasket. He is one of the people who left before the day ended. One of the others who left mid-day, left in tears trying to tell her story of having an abusive father, and how she was being triggered by Vivian’s uncompromising manner.

There is probably legitimate criticism that could have been leveled at Vivian’s tactics. Only at the end of the day did he explain what he had been doing. He wanted this mostly-white group to feel during this one day, what it is like to be Black in America every single day of your life. Your opinions don’t matter. You are treated like a sub-human. Someone is always trying to throw roadblocks in your path no matter what you try to do. In order to approach equality with whites (which you never are likely to achieve the way the dominant society is structured), you have to work ten times harder than anyone else. Nobody cares about your story. In any other context, it would have to be called abusive behavior. Can you justify abusing a group of people in order to illustrate viscerally how abusive their status-quo culture is? It’s a questionable tactic.

At the end of the day he took time to meet with each of us (who had remained) to reconcile, to say something affirming and encouraging. To thank us for daring to subject ourselves to a host of uncomfortable truths about racism in America and in ourselves. His rule about staying was for this: he did not want anyone to leave before having that reconciling one-to-one meeting.

In addition to his central message about the violence and abuse heaped on Black Americans every day of their lives, I learned a couple of other lessons that day.

Lying not too deep beneath the veneer of nonviolence covering several of my colleagues, lay deep aggression when things did not go their way. I was pretty shocked to see my friends explode in anger when their much-vaunted self-image was called into question. We didn’t talk about White Privilege then, but if that term means anything then I think this is it. White folks see themselves as good, and peaceful, and fair and unbiased; but when the dominance of their worldview is challenged, they erupt in frightening and ugly ways. I went away wondering: how much of the “peace and nonviolence” in the community I moved in was just such a veneer covering over a deep dedication to white privilege and dominance?

Time and time again, when confronted with some belief or attitude that was racist, participants would resort to their personal story to try to explain their racist beliefs away. I learned that day how powerful a weapon the personal story is. We use it constantly to avoid the unpleasant, to explain away the status quo, to justify our own beliefs and behaviors. That day was really the beginning of my understanding of the role that our stories play in the creation of our sense of identity. The story is an ever-evolving series of self-justifications. We use it to keep our sense of self intact while reality continuously bombards us with self-challenging situations. We are deeply committed to ourselves, and we will fight to the death to preserve our sense of self in the face of a reality that contradicts us. The personal story is the primary weapon that we use in that battle of self against reality.

To me, the hallmark of spiritual awakening (although I hate that term; it’s more like a slap upside the head), is the unequivocal realization that I have spent most of my life, and spent most of my energy, in defense of a fictional narrative of selfhood. And that fictional narrative has run roughshod over every living person and every living thing that might at any time have posed a challenge to the structure and dominance of my almighty-self. Seeing through the story of the self cascades out into our relationships with everything and everyone. But, as C.T. Vivian knew, that story is a perpetual-motion machine. It is active every waking minute (and many of the sleeping ones) of every day of our lives. It requires a powerful intervention to interrupt the bulldozer of the personal story. And it isn’t usually too pretty when it happens. Try lying in the path of a bulldozer and see how it feels.

That is what impressed me most about C.T. Vivian that day. It became clear to me over the course of the day that he was willingly lying down in the path of our several bulldozing selves, and although he was not willing to be squashed by us, he took the blows, and the shouts of anger, and the threats and the insults (coming, remember, from a bunch of good, liberal, peace and justice, white folks), and never once did he retaliate in kind. Just as he had from Sheriff Clark on the steps of the Selma Courthouse, he took our blows and kept on keeping on with his argument that despite the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and decades of nonviolent struggle, Blacks in America still face an unending struggle to be treated as equals, not least by good liberal white folks who think they care more than anyone about racial injustice.

Well, they do, we do, until it upsets our status quo. Until we have to sacrifice some of our privilege. Until we have to restructure the society that works for the few, so it can benefit everyone. Until someone comes along and disrupts the perpetual motion of our self-justifying stories. Then, what we care about more than anything in the whole world, is putting our personal story back together again, with minimal disruption to our familiar, and entirely fictional, world.