Can You Imagine The Strength?

It is high time that “We The People” really start to pull together to create true and lasting change – in this lifetime, right now.

When I went to RISExTORONTO, I thought that the most memorable moments would be filled with brilliant things that came out of Rachel Hollis’ mouth. Don’t get me wrong, I got a lot of good stuff from her, but if I’m being honest, the thing that surprised me the most and felt the most important actually came from her bestie, Brit Barron.  

To be completely honest, I expected Rise to change my life – and to some degree, it did. For those who might not know, Rise is a personal development conference put on by Rachel Hollis and her company, The Hollis Company, designed for women. It’s all about empowerment and strength and finding out who you are and who you’re supposed to be. It’s basically three days of keynote speakers, including Rachel Hollis (although the speakers change depending on the conference and location – Toronto included the likes of Jen Hatmaker, Trent Shelton, Stacey Flowers, Dave Hollis, and others). The speakers are high energy and they command the stage and your attention, sharing their stories and giving examples of how to live your best life, achieve your dreams, and basically design the life you want. It’s essentially Girl, Wash Your Face (and her other books) but on steroids – and completely amazing.

When I went to Rise back in March, I didn’t know that the world would shut down like it did. Coronavirus was a word I was hearing in relation to other countries, or likely larger cities – not something that would actually impact me in little ol’ Grand Rapids, Michigan. I didn’t know that George Floyd would be murdered and that would spark the match that lit up the vast and pervasive racial injustice and shine a spotlight on the racial disparities that plague our nation. I had no idea back then that the US would show just how much more divided it could get than it already was and that “We The People” would actually be fighting two pandemics – COVID-19 and Racism.

When Brit spoke on that first day of Rise, I heard her words through the lens of empowering women and how to grow into the person I was supposed to become. When she spoke, I couldn’t even fathom the depth of her words, and I couldn’t even fathom how true they’d ring today, all these days and months after she spoke them, after everything that’s happened in that time. I have a new lens, a broader perspective, a deeper appreciation.

I took notes while she spoke, and they seem jumbled now that I look at them in the dawn of a new day, with totally unexpected and unforeseen experiences under my belt (hello, living through stay-at-home orders and Black Lives Matter protests and just a general awakening of our country, I’m looking at you). My notes now are a little vague and definitely speak to that “become your best self!” vibe I was looking for when I was at Rise.

The one spoken phrase from Rise that stands out and keeps reverberating in my head, even without my notes, is this: “Can you imagine the strength?”

Brit spoke of her experience as a black woman, a black lesbian at that, coming into her own. She spoke of owning your past in order to become who you are meant to be and how to overcome fear in order to grow. She eventually told a story about how she was visiting the American South and learning more about America’s roots and history, in a place where racial tensions had peaked during the Civil Rights Era; she spoke of Martin Luther King Jr. and she talked about how she went on a tour and heard stories of American slaves up for auction. The story she told was of her change in perspective while on this tour, where a woman was leading a group through examples of the slave trade and the deep-rooted history of slaves in the American South.

Brit told all 4,000 of us (overwhelmingly white women) in this conference hall about how this tour guide, also a black woman, explained the journey that African slaves endured to even come to America, about how they had to board a ship and cross an ocean – and that was if they remained “well” enough in that endeavor alone. That’s to say that they didn’t get beaten or killed during their capture into slavery; that’s to say they didn’t die of disease or starvation on the transatlantic journey. Upon arrival in this new land, these enslaved human beings were then moved into holding pens and were placed up for auction. They were placed on an auction block, naked & likely beaten, stripped of all dignity, and sold to another human being, where they would never see freedom, die without freedom, and pass that lack of freedom onto the next generation, and so on and so forth.

Brit told us how this was upsetting to her to hear, that she could feel shame in the pit of her stomach. That she could empathize with the negativity of feeling racism in her own life and how her skin color bore the truth of that history. And just as she felt like she might not be able to bear one more moment of that shame rolling around in the center of her being, the tour guide, this fierce woman of color, said the most amazing thing of those who had endured and survived such a life: “Can you imagine the strength?”

My mind was blown in that moment. And Brit did the most amazing thing as soon as she said it out loud for all of us to hear – she was strategic in her use of silence in that moment. She let it sink in, we got to soak it up for just a moment before she said it again.

“Can you imagine the strength?”

They survived. They endured the worst of what could have happened, and they survived. Can you imagine the strength?

Before we get ahead of ourselves, I need to make it very, very clear here that I am not glorifying slavery. I am not trying to make light of it, I am not trying to belittle the extreme atrocity that slavery was and is, and I am not trying to pretend there’s any sort of beauty in that portion of American (and other) history.

What I am trying to say, and what I took away from Brit’s story telling of this epiphany for her, was that perspective is everything. Has American history been white-washed? Yes. Do I have work to do to broaden my own knowledge? Yes. Is racism still very real and very alive here in the US? Yes.

What I want to say here is that when I see what is happening in this country, in every state of our nation, here in my state, in my town, in my community, I feel deep in my soul that I want to do better, all of us to do better. What I want to say here is that in the face of the racial disparities in our country and the extreme injustice that has been done and the systemic racism in what appears to be every aspect of our way of living, I choose to see strength in those within the BIPOC community. I will not feel pity or shame for you; I will look at you and see strength for everything you’ve endured and still survived.

Can you imagine the strength?

With the list of names that keeps growing (Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbury, and so many, many others) and reading/hearing story after story of how prevalent racism is in our society, I say from a place of love that I honestly feel like I cannot imagine the strength it takes to exist in this space. To the mamas who lost their babies at the hands of racist violence, your strength is astounding. To those who are teaching, and have been taught, how to behave when interacting with police (or other people of authority) in order to increase the chance of actual survival during and throughout that interaction, your strength is astounding. To those who have been made to feel “less than” by the very systems within our country that have worked hard to protect and serve others, your strength is astounding.

It is high time, though, that people like me, white people who wish to stand as allies to a community to which we do not belong, start doing more to make it so that our BIPOC brothers and sisters don’t have to be so strong all the time. It’s time.

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, one where things didn’t have to be so hard, and that one day freedom would ring for all people; his dream and his legacy still inspire millions even today. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote about what a legacy is in the musical Hamilton, that it’s “planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” While I believe that to be true and a beautiful sentiment, it is high time that “We The People” really start to pull together to create true and lasting change – in this lifetime, right now.

Can you imagine the strength?


Leave a Reply