Wesley Lowery on reckoning with America’s original sin

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

On this historic Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as we look towards the inauguration of our next president, a reckoning is awakened inside us. As hate groups declare victory, and our most vulnerable populations are under siege, we are forced to look at the collective unconscious of our nation. At this pivotal moment, we don’t have the luxury of allowing our ancestor’s decisions—choices that embedded injustices into the very fabric of our nation—to remain unconscious.

In this second part of our conversation with Wesley Lowery, he juxtaposes our national guilt in facing our “original sin of slavery” with our urge to prove we are better now. We want so desperately to show that we wouldn’t have made the same decisions of our forefathers.

There is an alternate path to healing, Wesley suggests. This path is not based in guilt, but instead, motivated by empathy. Actions motivated by the power of love in empathy rather than shame-inducing guilt have richer transformational potential.

At Obama’s farewell address last week, he, too, urged empathy when he quoted a great protagonist of 20th century literature: Atticus Finch.  “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Wesley goes even further: lack of empathy, he believes, is one of our greatest inhibitors to justice.

Reading and listening to Wesley Lowery, it’s clear that his empathy is expansive. His brand of generous compassion includes all facets of our nation’s broken systems and the people impacted by them.

His empathy opens to the motives of the protesters . . . and to the police, who face dangerous challenges of understanding rapidly changing communities, and whose freedom is inextricably linked with the community members they are called to protect and serve . . . and most significantly to the grieving mothers and fathers he encounters almost daily.

One of Dr. King’s tenants of nonviolence state that “Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not evil people.”

Dr. King challenged us to love our enemies: “While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist.” To live this out requires muscular empathy. Wesley reminds us that when we have been courageous enough to look at our most entrenched systemic divisions and face the inequality head on, we all rise. All boats are lifted. The unseen force that connects us awakens and frees us all.

Dr. King and the civil rights movement taught us these lessons.  With two steps forward and one step back, our nation has learned and changed and grown. But we have so much further to go. Our generation now has leaders like Wesley Lowery who carry those messages forward.

The challenge is ours to accept: to listen with empathy, to let go of guilt, and to face our reality with unflinching courage.

Follow @WesleyLowery on Twitter or read his new book “They Can’t Kill Us All”: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement

Part Two – Wesley Lowery on the empathy good journalism requires

Last year, as part of his Washington Post reporting team, WESLEY LOWERY won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for coverage of police shootings in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and Cleveland.

With writing just as electric and compelling, his new book, “They Can’t Kill Us All,” might just win him another.  In it, Wesley provides historical context and expansive, vivid stories curated from hundreds of interviews to bring to light our generation’s struggle for racial justice.

To share intimate space with Wesley is to be invited into his world of intense brilliance. Here is an incredibly gifted young man, who is cutting the edge of what it means to be a reporter in the internet age. He refers to himself as the Post’s guinea pig for using social media to cover breaking news.

His vision for the ideal relationship between reader and journalist is one of transparency. If what motivates, angers, saddens, or impacts our journalists is concealed behind a false cover of objectivity, Wesley reasons, readers cannot challenge writers’ perception or potential bias.  There is a fallacy, even a danger, in perpetuating the outdated notion that reporting can ever be truly “objective.”

In this snippet of our conversation, as in his book, Wesley lifts veil of what it was like to bear witness to the pain and trauma in the years since that Ferguson shooting birthed a new movement for racial equality in America.  As a reporter covering policing and justice, he writes that his email and voice mail boxes have become “depositories of death: pleading messages from mothers and widows of those killed begging you to tell their stories.”

What kind of toll does that take? Especially when, as Wesley writes, “the last seven months of my life have been a constant stream of black death . . .The dead looked like my father, my younger brother, and me.” How does one continue to show up with an open heart in the face of the incessant drumbeat of killings?

For Wesley, the answer is empathy.

The primary paradox of fine storytelling is that smallest details about an individual’s emotions, experiences, or views convey the greatest universal truths. Tiny moments in the lives of the young people whose stories grace Wesley’s book serve to awaken universal empathy.

Perhaps empathy is the only way he can navigate covering one of the most controversial, complex, polarizing issues of our time.  Intentionally cultivating empathy protects his heart from callousness. Do we dare to trust that cultivating empathy for those different from us could heal our divided country?

In a touching moment in our conversation, Wesley calls his optimism that journalists can transform the world “adorable.”   Having the ability, the imagination, to enter someone else’s worldview may just be our most significant, urgent, and most redemptive quality. Forget adorable. Wesley Lowery’s brand of empathy is downright revolutionary.

Follow Wesley Lowery on Twitter @WesleyLowery

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