By Annie Rim
It’s been just about a month since returning from the Ruby Woo Pilgrimage. Life is back to the routine of making lunches, remembering last-minute Crazy Hair Days, creating a magical and abundant Christmas while also teaching my three- and six-year-old about the longing and ache of Advent.
In many ways, the journey seems much more distant than just four weeks. But of course, it’s infused into my daily life when I stop and notice.
About a week after I got home, a friend and I went to hear Rev. Broderick Greer host a conversation with Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney about her book, Womanist Midrash. At one point in the conversation, Dr. Gafney talked about the discomfort that white people experience when they want to expand the narrative without giving up their own history.
This deeply resonated with me. While on the Pilgrimage, we were confronted with the partial narrative again and again. From sitting in the pews of the Seneca Falls Convention, listening to a National Parks Ranger tell us about the white women leading the movement but without reference to the indigenous matriarchal influence to walking through the “Peopling of America” exhibit on Ellis Island—that began with white people “discovering” an apparently unpeopled America. I saw myself and my ancestors (whether actual or global) in these exhibits.
At the Tenement House Museum on the Lower East Side, I could imagine people who looked like me arriving in New York City, making their way in this crowded neighborhood of immigrants. But for many of my fellow pilgrims, their ancestors weren’t represented. They didn’t see themselves in the story, even though women of color were an active and integral part of suffrage, immigration, and voting rights.
As a white woman raising white girls, I wonder what to do about this. Part of me wants to swing the pendulum—to only focus on the marginalized who have been dismissed from the story. But I also recognize that part of my own early journey toward social justice included reading books featuring young girls who looked like me. The protagonists may have come from different economic circumstances and certainly came from different life experiences but I could easily imagine myself in the story. How do I help my daughters see themselves as they learn empathy while also giving them a complete history?
Dr. Gafney addressed this conundrum through the illustration of stained-glass windows depicting white Biblical characters. On the one hand, there’s a desire to smash the windows and replace them with racially accurate representations of those familiar stories. But there’s history. Smashing the windows would put up walls, not open discussions.
On the pilgrimage, after our visit to Ellis Island and an inspiring lunch with Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis of Middle Collegiate Church, we were given a tour of this oldest continuous church in the United States. The stained glass windows were made of Tiffany glass and priceless. Bible scenes filled the sanctuary but all of the characters looked like descendants of northern Europe rather than the Middle East. This newly diverse church was faced with a dilemma: How do you represent a more accurate story? For Middle Collegiate, the answer was using a darker light to illuminate the face of Jesus, making him look slightly more Palestinian.
Dr. Gafney suggests keeping the windows but hanging banners in the in-between spaces. Fill the walls with historically and racially accurate textiles. Bring back the women, raise the marginalized, and help people visualize a more complete story. She was speaking of both literal and metaphorical windows, of course.
Maybe one day we’ll have the courage to actually replace the seemingly priceless windows altogether. In the meantime, how can we add banners to the story? How do we redeem the narrative?
I came home wondering what my next steps would be. I’d love to drop everything and run for local office or get a job rewriting the curriculum for the National Parks Service. My reality is that we have two young daughters who need my time and energy. But I can start to hang banners in our home. I can read books that help my girls see themselves in history and I can add books to our collection that help them understand a fuller picture. We can observe cultural traditions like Thanksgiving while taking time to honor the indigenous lives lost to nationalism in this pursuit of liberty.
As white women find their voices in this conversation, maybe our job is to help hang the banners. I’m listening and learning to my sisters of color as to what should be depicted, the materials used, and the best ways to hang them. But I’m here to help make space for these additions. I’m here to help spread the word that there is a fuller story to be told.