Dennis Powell, addressing the Black Lives Matter rally from the steps of the Great Barrington Town Hall on June 6, 2020. Photo: David Scribner

It is time to listen to our Black leaders, like Dennis Powell

This is not a time for us to tear down. This is a time to show up, pause, and listen to our Black leaders with our whole selves. 

To the editor:

I feel saddened and frustrated by the remarks and media attention that have arisen in response to Dennis Powell’s speech at the Black Lives Matter Rally in Great Barrington on June 6, 2020. Like some of us, I am on my own journey of dismantling the layers of white supremacy that affect my personal and collective existence. I have stumbled and fumbled on my antiracist journey and will continue to do so for the rest of my life as I unlearn decades of engrained and socialized normalcy.

To my community members who have expressed concern about Mr. Powell’s remarks — I encourage you to please turn inward and reflect on what it means to listen and support Black leaders at this current moment in time. Dennis Powell does not deserve to be dragged through the dirt for exercising his freedom of speech. He spoke courageously from a place of pain — a place from which he and his Black community has felt unsafe and unheard. Mr. Powell owes no one an apology nor even a clarification. For too long have we placed the emotional burden on those who have been oppressed. He ought not to be put in a position where he has to defend his character. His energy is needed elsewhere.

To my community members and beyond who have written letters and statements condemning his statements I humbly ask:  Did you first use your voice to show your anger over how racism offends the black community in the Berkshires? Or have you only spoken up in an effort to defend your own identity? I ask these questions not to shame or invalidate your position, but because as white citizens whose very privilege permeates our existence, we often fail to ask: “How does interjecting my own voice about this issue take away from the matter at hand?” 

Please don’t get me wrong. Your reactions to his comments are real; his remarks carried a weight that disrupted a belief that you hold dear. Yet in calling him out for these remarks you shifted the narrative towards yourself. And as white Americans, this is where we have to do the work. Where we have to lean into the discomfort —  the sometimes visceral reactions that arise when we hear something we don’t like. Where we have to keep asking the questions and examining the intricate belief systems that fuel our responses. Where we do an accounting of the soul and truly come face-to-face and heart-to-heart with our own internal biases.

Yes, the Black community needs our empathy. Which is why many of you showed up at that protest on June 6th. But our empathy is useless unless it is galvanized with the concept that we, too, are contributing directly to these systems of injustice; the concept that those of us who have experienced oppression can also be the oppressor. The power of racism is that it can show up in these implicit and nuanced ways. This is not a time for us to tear down. This is a time to show up, pause, and listen to our Black leaders with our whole selves.

Jalani Cobb, professor of African American Studies at the University of Connecticut and contributor in the current Netflix Documentary, “13th,” said: “If you looked at the history of Black people’s various struggles in this country, one of the connecting themes is the attempt to be understood as full complicated human beings.” Please. Let Dennis Powell be fully human. Let him lead — let him share emotions, facts, opinions, and whatever he deems necessary — a right that he and his ancestors have never been fully allowed on this land. Let us recenter the narrative back to the heart of the movement and let us listen. Because it is our reaction to his leadership, both our words or lack thereof, that will serve as a balm towards the long journey of reconciliation.

Marisa Massery