My podcast partner Danielle and I met virtually this week with author, filmmaker, theologian, poet and PhD candidate, Phil Allen Jr. to discuss the themes in his new book Open Wounds: A Story of Racial Tragedy, Trauma and Redemption on the Arise Podcast. We talk about the layers of racism that are highlighted through the storytelling of his grandfather’s murder in 1953. We explore how racial trauma is intergenerational, effecting each generation a little bit differently and how resiliency is built through the healing practice of intergenerational storytelling as well as practices of wellness (caring for and tending to our bodies and their response to trauma). These themes lead to a discussion of the difference between reconciliation vs. solidarity and where theology and the gospel fit in to conversations around race.
You can listen to the conversation HERE or anywhere you get your podcasts.
Here are our episode notes from our conversation:
We start our conversation by checking in with Phil on how his life has been impacted by COVID. Danielle asks him to share how he’s doing during the pandemic and where he is located. Phil is located in Pasadena, CA. He is perpetually quarantined. He reads and goes out running, when out he wears a mask and is vaccinated. He’s been good through the pandemic. He’s highly introverted, learning this about himself about 7 years ago. The pandemic hasn’t affected him emotionally or mentally but in fact has allowed him to be very productive—he’s has nowhere to go, nowhere to be. He said since it hasn’t been too bad for him there, he’s more concerned with others.
His new book Open Wounds came out this year in February; Danielle asks how the process was to write the book.
Phil got the idea write book while taking a class at Fuller Seminary called Theology and Ethics of Martin Luther King. They were watching the series Eyes of the Prize about the Civil Rights Movements and he saw a picture of Emmett Till. Right then and there he made the connection to his grandfather’s murder (which happened in 1953)—he imagined that’s how his grandfather would have looked. He was in the river several days before his grandfather’s body floated up and they found him.
“I can’t see Emmett Till without seeing my grandfather.”
The response of his classmates really surprised him – he didn’t think it would matter to them but they were in tears. It was then that he realized he needed to tell this story. But he didn’t start writing right away. He went to Sundance [Institute] for a filmmaking class on directed reading, which turned out to be the most impactful class he has taken in his PhD studies because it’s produced the most work, and he did the same thing: He told the story of his grandfather and people were blown away.
He says he had made the content of film they were studying at Sundance real for his classmates. It became personal now because he had shared his family’s story. They encouraged him to make a film. He didn’t know he was going to make a film when he took that class. He didn’t start writing the book until after that. He outlined everything, wrote four chapters but had no prospects and thought maybe he would self-publish. A professor of Phil’s advocated for him with Fortress Press (publisher) and sent what he had over, they loved it. Phil said he has a tendency to start something and not finish it. With half the book written and having a full class load, he didn’t want to keep working on the book unless it was going to be published (not self-published). Once he signed the contract with Fortress Press, he wrote the rest of the book in three months. It was at the start of the pandemic, went through four rounds of edits, and got it done for release in February 2021.
Phil did not expect the process to be so emotional or taxing. He said the editing process was triggering—He said, after you’ve written it you have to be out of your emotions and back in analytic mode. He described incidents that would happen after he would be writing for two or three hours. He would go out and encounter someone, say at a grocery store, and it would be an older white guy who would do something or say something that would trigger him. One time he was almost hit (with a car) in a parking lot, the guy never slowed or stopped but came within 12 inches of him and Phil had to maneuver his body to jump out of the way. This led to an altercation with him. After writing for three hours, Phil said he was already at an “8” or “10” and then had this encounter happen. He realized then how much the writing was affecting him. He added accountability and ways to check in with trusted people so as not to be an outflow of the intensity of writing the book because it wouldn’t be healthy.
Maggie named that what happened was a blurring of past and present. Phil had been deep in his story and how his past has shaped him when in the present he encountered this altercation/incident. She said that is what is so profound about his book—it is a way to look at the past and how it is shaping us in the present. One the things in his book that impacted Maggie was how he described the layers of racism involved in his grandfather’s murder: structural racism, passive and active racism. Often times we want racism to be inside a tiny little box, but through the sharing of his family’s story Phil illustrates how much bigger and how layered racism is.
Phil says when he was writing that section of the book, he wanted to make sure people could understand the layers, dynamics and iterations of racism. He said racism goes beyond bigotry—that is active racism—the racists acts that you can see; these are the ones we would put in the tiny little box and label racism. “If it’s in that box you can say ‘oh I don’t do that thing’ or ‘I don’t know anyone who says those things’ … so ‘racism is not that big of a deal.’” The point he is illustrating is that his grandfather’s story is a microcosm of what plays out in our country.
Racism, he believes, is not like just any other sin or injustice. He believes racism is so destructive because it permeates all aspects of society. “Our society was organized along race, class and gender. But even among class and gender, when you overlay race you will see the distinction between the experiences” like between a white woman and a Black women, for instance. Between the two, the Black woman still comes out on the bottom. “There is still that hierarchy based on race.” He says a poor white guy still has the potential to “have it better” than a middle class or even wealthy Black guy because of race.
The bigotry or active racism in his family’s story was the person who shot his grandfather, or the guys who held him down. “Those are in the [racism] box. We can see that. That’s wrong.” But what people don’t often see is the passive racism of the witness who saw something but said nothing. Or the men who held his grandfather down; maybe they didn’t think he was going to get killed but just scared… but “their conscience wasn’t pricked enough to say anything.” They were complicit and chose not to report it. Silence and doing nothing is a form of passive racism. Another example of passive racism is the lack of investigation by law enforcement—they are complicit because they were unwilling to look any further even though there was a bullet hole in his grandfather’s head. Then there was the medical examiner who signs off on the death certificate that it was “accidental drowning.” There was a whole network operating cohesively coherently together—that is the picture of racism that he wanted to convey in the telling of his grandfather’s death. Racism is not just one thing, it’s a network that our whole society is organized around. To talk only about bigotry keeps the conversation narrow. And to ignore that would be to dismiss people’s experiences so we must talk about both—we need to view individual acts of racism like bigotry in the context of the institutional, structural or systemic racism. It is the latter than keeps perpetuating racism and allowing it continue generation after generation.
Phil describes a conversation he had with a pastor he knows who can’t understand why we keep talking about the past. The Pastor wanted solutions for moving forward and Phil challenged him by asking “how can you get solutions to move forward when you don’t even know how we got here. You’re just compound the issue or potentially cause more trauma, more problems because you don’t know how the past shapes us today. The legacy of the past is living out today and you want to skip past that…That’s not part of the solution…. That is the solution, that’s the first step! To know how we got to this place so that we can start to undo and get to the root causes of the issue in our society when it comes to race.”
Phil said that the Pastor didn’t want to hear that and it’s been the battle. The pastor told him he didn’t like all of Phil’s post on social media that were focused on the past. And Phil responded, “Then stop preaching the gospel! Stop quoting scripture because the entire Bible is a story about the past.”
“So why can’t we do the same when we talk about the past?”
Maggie said Phil did this really well in his book—weave the past and the present—especially with his theological reflections which were at the end of each chapter. In his book, Maggie liked how he returned a number of times to the story of the Good Samaritan, a story so many are very familiar with and in fact has made its way into our collective conscious. There were two things that Phil pointed that were new thinking for her: the winding road as an active part of the story / an active participant in what happens to the man, which translates to structural and systemic racism today, and (what you won’t hear in white evangelical spaces) is the fact that Jesus intentionally and purposefully identities the ethnicities all the characters. For their ethnicities to have not been included the story, the story would have a far different meaning.
Phil said the Good Samaritan story is so rich you could write an entire book on just that story alone. He said the first time he heard about the analogy of the winding road was from Dr. King in one of his speeches and also in his book Strength to Love: He (MLK Jr.) talked about having to fix the winding road so the next person traveling doesn’t have the same experience. No one really wants to change the winding road; the winding road has always been this way. And only certain people are experiencing problems on this road but it’s not that big of deal, and that’s how we look at injustice. The question really is, Phil asks, “who really benefits from the road staying the way it is?” The powers that be don’t want to answer this question; who benefits from the status quo?
Danielle says we live in a democracy that was created for white men; they were the ones with the right to vote and they created a system for themselves. This was not a system who was created for everyone. The Indigenous peoples of this land were not even seen as human and they were not included in the concept of “democracy” or “rights.” She says, “When we look at the Declaration of Independence, it is not a declaration for anybody other than white male men and then therefore benefits their spouses and families.” She believes it’s important to name that. There’s a difference between she says, looking at our history and feeling so shamed by it that we become paralyzed and can’t move, versus than looking at our systems and saying we actually want to create a move equal system. She believes we are up against powers, structures and principalities and that manifests in the real terrorism against Phil’s grandfather.
Phil says that the reason change is so slow is because those who dominate power, those who are in control, have to give something up. He believes that the problem is not just about policies, it’s about personnel. “Who’s sitting at the table making decisions? Who’s representing who?” This is where a lot of the fight is. The foundation of this country is built for white men. Phil’s spiritual dad told him; “You cannot build on another man’s foundation. If that foundation is compromised, why do we continue to build on it? Why do we think we can just tweak it and all will be okay? Why do we think we can use cosmetics—tokenism and things like that—to make it look better. The system is still compromised.” He says until we get a change in personnel, the people who are sitting at the table making decisions for everybody, we’re going to be having this same conversation a generation from now. Saying that the country was built for white men upsets many white men, but it’s the truth. Until we reckon with that, Phil wonders what are we doing?
Danielle says there’s the idea that “the truth will set you free” but she believes it also makes you miserable if you have to face it. There’s a bind there for white men—the concept of freedom and yet it’s been taken from all these other people and assumed rights, therefore you’re miserable.
Phil adds it’s these very people that are trying to claim the very thing they have a right to – freedom.
Danielle said this leads her mind to Phil’s discussion in his book about the difference between reconciliation and solidarity.
Phil used to say “racial reconciliation” all the time until a professor, Dr. Love Sechrest, would cringe when because it has been so diluted and watered down and weakened. This usually happens, he adds, when the masses get ahold of a term. Her argument was that reconciliation deals with the interpersonal relationships. Phil uses the three of us an example—We can be good and have a reconciled relationship and not be in solidarity. “In other words, we will be friends but if there another entity, outside of our community, that’s affecting me but not you, and you do nothing about it; you step aside and you allow me to keep experiencing this thing but you’re not willing to stand in with me against that outside entity, then the question is are we really reconciled?” Solidarity says I stand with you against entity that is affecting you, even when it’s not impacting me. There’s risk involved. We can’t get to reconciliation without solidarity.
In 2 Corinthians 5 it says we’ve been given the ministry of reconciliation; we are reconciled to God. But Phil asks, what allows us that to happen? He says it is the solidaric act of God. It is because God took on flesh – that’s solidarity! God could have remained in the mystery and invisibility of God’s self and still be God. But God chose to take on human flesh (John 1:14) and dwell among us—that’s solidarity. For Him [Jesus], that solidarity led to fatigue, temptation, suffering and ultimately going to the cross to die on behalf of humanity and creation. That is solidarity. And Phil says it is solidarity that gets us to the conversation of reconciliation. Reconciliation, he says, asks us to forget so that we can be good, united and get along. If we keep remembering the offenses it’s going to be hard to be reconciliation. Solidarity requires us to remember, that’s the very thing that brings us together and inspires us.
Danielle asks, “Is our faith big enough?” She says, “We don’t to have to believe. We don’t even have to have faith as big as a mustard seed to reconcile because we don’t have to remember. We don’t have engage our faith. Faith is about remembering. Faith is not just about the present. When we talk about a mutual faith, we’re talking about a mutual remembering. We do not share faith unless we remember. And faith cannot be engaged without justice and mercy.” Danielle goes on to say we have to remember what happened to Phil’s grandfather if we are to have a shared faith.
Amen amen amen, Phil says, that’s it.
Maggie recalls from Phil’s book when he talked about solidarity being required for the kind of communal trauma that we’ve all experienced, he wrote that trauma disorients and solidarity reorients.
Phil says with trauma we’ve become so good at compartmentalizing and fragmenting that we don’t appreciate how much of a shared trauma we have. When he thinks about to his home town people might say, “what happened to your grandfather,” but what he wants to say “no, what happened to us.” The community was wounded, Black and white folks alike, but they don’t recognize it. He said it made him look at his community differently because they don’t even realize that collectively they were traumatized. Even the white folks don’t realize that it’s affecting them too. Phil believes this is where the sickness remains: we are unwilling to diagnoses or be diagnosed with what the trauma has caused. “I present this as ‘this is our story’” he says, “and not just my hometown but even beyond.”
Phil recalls a white guy coming up to him in tears after he was speaking and the guy told Phil about the pictures of his grandfather standing in front of lynched bodies. The pictures were all around the house and what is a little kid, 7, 8 or 9 years old supposed to do with that? That’s not normal, it may be normalized but it isn’t normal. This white man has been carrying that around inside him for decades, he’s carrying trauma. His mind was forcing his soul, his being, to accept that as okay until he heard a young man (Phil) preach on it and now he’s forced to remember and he’s in tears and he doesn’t know what do with that but his body is responding.
Maggie says Phil invites all people (in his book) to listen to their bodies. Trauma fragments and disconnects us from our bodies, both white people and people of color. These are the coping mechanisms that we have used to get through collective trauma, shared trauma.
Phil said this is something he just recently learned for himself: to listen to his body. He said, “we have submitted to the sovereignty of reason. This is the way we know things. And the reality is that our bodies know things too. Things that our minds may have suppressed.” He says this is where the healing happens if we are brave enough to step into what our bodies remember.
“What was my grandmother’s body saying to her when I asked her the question about my grandfather’s death? She didn’t know. She didn’t have the language for it.” And Phil says he didn’t know at the time either but he knows now that her body did not want to remember or revisit—her alarm system was now on and she didn’t know what to do about it. Phil thinks if she had the resources, someone could have walk her through it.
Danielle asked him, how do you see, through your studies and through embodying healing for his family, the resilience of your ancestors and the resilience he is creating to make new paths forward?
He clarifies her question, how am I understanding the redemptive part?
Yes, she says, how do you see the ways of your ancestors for building resilience in the face of collective trauma and how do you see your own resilience? What old ways of resilience does he notice and what new ways of resilience is he building?
Phil replies, “I think telling the story, narrating my story, it’s empowering. Even if it’s painful, it’s empowering. Once I began to tell my story it was like I was unleashed. It empowered me and strengthened me.” The fact that he could go through the process and make the film, write his book are evidence of resiliency. Phil said it really began the second time he asked his grandmother the question (about his grandfather’s death), and she was able to answer. It was a very difference response 5-10 years later. He said it was as if this time (when he asked her) she was prepared.
He sees the resiliency of his dad and his sibling to have the conversation about how their father died. By Phil asking questions of them, it gave permission for them to tell the story and to talk about the thing they hadn’t allowed themselves to talk about. It opened up new pathways of healing. Telling that story fired up the juices of resiliency for both he and his dad.
Phil says it is the same as going to therapy—being asked a lot of questions helps to you start telling your story. It’s painful but if you can get passed that initial pain and realize you’re okay, then you’re more likely be able to continue telling the rest of your story. “Someone is listening. And I think that empowers people or stirs up this resiliency in people.”
Maggie was struck by what Phil said about his grandmother—she was more able to engage the second time he asked her about his grandfather; she had had the space and freedom to be thinking about it after Phil had initially asked her. “It’s not that we just tell our stories one time. It’s that through the telling and the re-telling, that’s where the resiliency is built. That’s where we hand down the wisdom...” like when Phil was talking to his father about his father, it’s in that space of storytelling that we are given the room to grown and stretch. This reminds Maggie about when Resmaa Menakem (In his book My Grandmother’s Hands) talks about clean pain vs. dirty pain—clean pain is pain that leads to growth and healing. Dirty pain is the pain of avoiding and denial that ultimately leads to more pain. Storytelling is the clean pain that leads towards healing, resilience and invites the community to do it as well.
“And towards solidarity,” Phil adds. He said when you add creativity to storytelling, things like filmmaking, sketching poetry, you tell the story creatively that adds to the healing and building resiliency.
Danielle says there is such beauty in that and yet there is also a cost—a cost to his body and to his grandmother’s body to do this kind of storytelling. She feels the weight of that, that there even has to be resiliency there.
Phil says he has felt the cost to his body as he was going through his PhD program with his research: The intersection of race, racism, theology, justice. He was reading, writing, researching and reflecting all the time. For him, he runs. He says he tries to match the weight of what he is doing (with work, with the history he his remembering, with the future he is envisioning) with practices of wellness. And not in a reactionary way but a proactive one. For his 48th birthday ran a marathon. As he was saying this, he recalled that his grandmother went on walks everyday for 2 or 3 miles—she too knew her body needed movement and she had practices like working in her yard, going for walks, that were the practices of wellness that sustained her just above survival, helping her to maintain, be strong and accomplish things.
Maggie mentioned that in his book Phil remembered her grandmother rocking, her body responding. There was a sweet moment where he pondered if she danced with her husband.
Phil said, “That hit me.” He sighs. “Whenever I pictured her rocking she was holding herself, bracing herself.” When he wrote that he asked “Could she have been remembering my grandfather? Imaging him hold her dancing.” When Maggie said that it took Phil back to being a kids and seeing her rock. “I wasn’t ready for that one.”
Maggie said, this is exactly what we’re taking about: where the past meets us in the present. And then feeling it in our bodies. And the question is are we going to listen to that or ignore it? The invitation then is to engage in kindness, the wellness practices as Phil called them, in a proactive way to build the kind of resiliency needed to just live in his skin in this world without becoming disruptive.
Phil says “I’m going to be reflecting on that all day: grandma rocking. Was she dancing with my grandfather. And now framing that as a proactive of wellness for her. I just wish she had the language to recognize what she was doing, and that was good.
Danielle says that he carries in his body, these practices that are from long ago, before his grandmother, honed and passed down.
Phil says we talk about my people we like to dance. And that goes back to before his ancestors got here. Dancing is built into many cultures. That’s why we so naturally, the beat comes up, and we’re home. Music is a safe space. And this (dancing) is a practice of wellness that is woven into their DNA.
Maggie remembers one other piece from the book about a white pastor (Bobby) who was going to meet with some folks to pray about something that had happened in the community and all of a sudden the pastor was life, “is this a Black Lives Matter march?” The wellness practices with your feet, here talking about dancing, and in the book it was taking your feet to the streets. Marching is the rhythm, what our feet sound like together. Our bodies know what to do.
Phil says this goes back to reversing our fragmentation through integrating our bodies and appreciating our bodies. Christianity holds a binary where the body is bad and doesn’t matter; All that matters is our soul. Seeing our bodies, integrating and moving our bodies in practices of wellness, is an important part of our healing. And Pastor Bobby needed it—he will do more than just remember what he saw, he will now remember what he felt in his body in the march.
Phil remembers what he felt in the Summer 2020 at the protest he attended. He remembers who he was standing next to, whether his feet hurting, how the sun was on his skin. This is inviting his body to be a part of the process of remembering.
Get his new book is Open Wounds: A Story of Racial Tragedy, Trauma and Redemption
Check out his podcast "Intersections with Phil Allen Jr." wherever you get your podcasts.
Support his organization Racial Solidarity Project committed to justice through solidarity, community building and healing.
Phil is reading Willie Jennings
Phil is listening to 80s and 90s Hip Hop and R&B: “the golden era.” He also listens to worship as he’s running.
Phil is inspired by the next generation who are seeing what's happening and are stepping in to make an impact. As an example he named Amanda Gorman and the young adults who were organizing protests in the Summer of 2020.
This was originally posted on The Arise Podcast blog, 9.29.2021