Ferguson reminds us that we must have ‘faith in strangers’ — our democracy depends upon it

In this column, members of the Georgia Humanities Council and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.

By Jamil Zainaldin

“The wise man devotes himself to saving mankind, and rejects no one.” — Lao Tsu

Tulip bulb x-ray. Photograph by Arie van't Riet

Tulip bulb x-ray. Photograph by Arie van’t Riet

Learning how to live together peacefully is a theme again — actually, it has been a theme all throughout American history. Ferguson is the momentary focal point, and based on our history, we can expect other cases to emerge like lava flows, evidence of the colliding forces hidden just below the surface. Ferguson raises a question: How can we learn to see each other clearly and without the lens of prejudgment?

There is perhaps no more difficult yet essential act we can take. Yet for many, every fiber of their nature seems to make it difficult to cross the divides.

In a remarkable story, and a lesson for our time, African American author and boogie-woogie pianist Daryl Davis has done the impossible. While playing in a country-western band in a Maryland lounge in 1983, Davis had a chance encounter with a Klansman that changed his life. Davis, who had spent most of his childhood outside the United States and attended highly diverse schools (he was the son of a Foreign Service Officer), became fascinated with the fact that the KKK could hate and despise him simply because of his skin color. He wanted to understand why.

What followed was a series of clandestine, one-on-one meetings with Klansmen, sought out by Davis and spanning a 23-year period. Because of these encounters, more than 20 Klansman have resigned from the KKK, ceremoniously sending Davis their hoods and robes (one was a state’s Grand Dragon). In no small part due to Davis, the Klan in his home state of Maryland seems to have fallen into disarray.

What is it about what Davis is doing? First, he wants to understand why people believe as they do. He approaches each conversation, as best as he can, with an openness to really listen, and not prejudge, although that would be the easiest and most natural human default. So much of what we assume, hear, think, and see is our brain’s shortcut way of trying to make sense of the world. These unexplored assumptions can hinder us from truly seeing and understanding the other. Davis grants each Klansman he interviews respect; he listens, and responds, expressing honestly his own views. In essence, his conversations become one-on-one storytelling dialogues that might last for years, and their cumulative effect is to grant personhood to the other, even trust, which makes it harder to hate.

It goes without saying that Davis exercises caution and care, and is not without his critics. To those who accuse him of condoning voices of division, he responds that winning their trust has led some to relinquish their Klan membership. As he describes it, the “glue” of hate that held together their worldview gradually dissolves with familiarity, conversation, and even associations (he once invited two Klansmen to his wedding, and was a pallbearer at a Klansman’s funeral). They no longer believe what they once did.

Is it significant — or not surprising — that Davis, who lives in a southern state (Maryland), turns to personal story sharing as a first resort in exploring differences and commonalities? Stories develop empathy.

When our founders created this nation in 1789, they did so with the confidence that free speech, self-government, a free press, and the rule of law would ensure its survival. There was a fifth ingredient needed for our success, however — one they recognized but had no name for. Southern historian and journalist Taylor Branch calls it “faith in strangers.” Democracy depends upon trust.

What we have today is faith in commodities, faith in products, faith in consumerism, enhanced by humanity’s normal quota of egoism. The warning of Ferguson is that without faith in strangers there can be no civic trust. And lacking trust, our self-government stumbles into disunity. In truth, though we are the oldest (and the first) national constitutional democracy in world history, our self-governing experiment is still young. There are no guarantees.

Daryl Davis’s story of his work with Klansmen seems to me a uniquely southern kind of story, because it digs deep into the heart. Whether poetry, literature, biography, food, faith traditions, music, sports, and patriotism, southerners do it with heart.

Can the nation bridge its chasms and build trust? Can we rediscover our faith in strangers? This is soul work, not an overnight job. And if it can be done, look to the Southland and its storytelling tradition to light the way.

Kelly Caudle of the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.

4 replies
  1. ken holewinski says:

    I believe as soon as we stop making race an issue and stop asking the race question on all surveys and declare ourselves Americans, the problem will resolve itself.Report

  2. Noel M says:

    Wow – this is an amazing piece that echoes a good mantra: “Seek first to understand before being understood.” Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jamil, and the experience of Daryl Davis.Report


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