Teri Vance: Finding America in the silence

What is usually a holiday marked by outdoor gatherings, lights flashing through the night sky and the echo of explosions, for the first time in my lifetime, this Fourth of July will be silent.

While I will miss the celebration, in a way, I think this may be the perfect way to honor this Independence Day.

In the middle of this pandemic, which has caused fireworks shows throughout the region to be canceled, we’ve also had to come face to face with race relations in this country.

The very definition of patriotism is being called into question as a nation grapples with its racist history and its current relationships with people of color.

Maybe, it’s a time for self-examination as well.

I can’t help but reflect on my own harmful behaviors. Early in my career, I was tasked with writing a newspaper article about the results of the U.S. Census (I tried looking up the original story, but couldn’t track it down).

As was my custom, I searched through the data to find any interesting or surprising numbers.

I found it when I saw the number of black residents living in Carson City. It was much higher than expected and what my experience in this town would support.

So, I did some digging and found that the population in three (at that time) prisons in Carson City were included in the results for the city. The majority of the blacks in Carson City were incarcerated.

I wrote this in my story.

Then I went on to list other notable findings: Number of single-parent households, median income, average age, etc.

When I returned to work the following Monday, I had a voicemail from a relatively well-respected black man — I decided not to use his name as I believe strongly in not telling other people’s stories without their permission.

He was upset.

He asked if I knew how black men are incarcerated and with longer penalties at a ratio much higher than their white counterparts. I didn’t.

He said he was appalled to read something that felt hateful with no larger context on Easter morning. He offered to give me some of that context if I wanted to call him back. I didn’t.

I was uncomfortable with the intensity of his emotion.

I hadn’t intended to make it an analysis of race, I reasoned, I was simply stating facts.

I ran it by a few colleagues and friends — all white — and they agreed with me.

I concluded that because it was an issue obviously close to his heart, he took what I had written out of context.

I had done nothing wrong.

But that one voicemail continued to haunt me for more than a decade.

As I learned over time of the injustices embedded into our justice system, I realized I had been too cavalier in my reporting.

When I understood the obligation I had as a community mouthpiece to tell all the stories of all the people, I realized I had failed.

I realized he had taken on a great emotional burden of attempting to explain something I should have known, and I let him down.

Many times I thought of reaching out to him. To tell him, that though it took years, I finally heard him.

But I repeatedly talked myself out of it. I’m sure he didn’t even remember. I don’t want to make him uncomfortable. I don’t want to come across as making it about me. And the list goes on. So I never did it.

Then I watched “Just Mercy,” earlier this year. The movie highlights the alarming rate in which blacks are convicted of crimes they didn’t commit or given lengthier sentences.

I walked out of the theater and immediately Googled the man who had left me the voicemail nearly 20 years ago.

I committed to reaching out to him, regardless of consequence, to tell him he was right. And that I was sorry.

But I found he had recently passed away.

My unspoken apology still weighs heavy on my heart.

So on this quiet Fourth of July, I will sit with that regret. And I will resolve to do better. To listen more. To believe.

I no longer believe patriotism is only about waving the flag and shooting off fireworks. It’s about fighting for liberties for all, especially the disenfranchised.

I think it’s similar to the feeling Abraham Lincoln must have had upon visiting Gettysburg, wondering whether a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could “long endure.”

Like Lincoln I have a hope that if we can learn from the mistakes of the past and resolve to remedy them, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”


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