Author: DeRay Mckesson
Publishing Date: September 4, 2018
Pages: 240 pages (Hardcover)
When I sit down to write I ask myself: Who is this for? I think about you, the experiences you have had and the knowledge you bring to your reading of my work. Your experiences and knowledge inform how you engage with what I have to say, and so it must inform how I communicate my thoughts with you. It is important for writers to write with their audience in mind. The same is true for readers; when we pick up a book, we have to read it with an understanding of for whom the book was primarily written.
DeRay Mckesson did not write On the Other Side of Freedom for me. And, if you are my primary intended audience, he was not picturing you when writing either. He wrote it for the weary activist always being told, “You are asking for too much change, too fast.” He wrote it for his niece and nephew. He wrote it for people who look like him, with black and brown skin. But,
it is because this book was not written for me that it is perhaps the most important book I’ve read in the last year.After all, “[o]nly through exposure [do we] learn to see the world differently” (27).
Mckesson became an activist and organizer when he traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. “On TV, it looked like the protesters were angry and unruly. On Twitter, it looked like the police were out of control and reckless. I wanted to see what was happening with my own eyes” (35). So, on a bit of whim, he took off a couple of days from his job in education and drove to Ferguson. What was supposed to be a long weekend turned into 400 days. Documenting all he saw and experienced, Mckesson was witness to and participatory in the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement.
With poetic flare, Mckesson broadly reflects throughout the book on what he has learned about oppression, power, community organizing, and hope since August 2014. Embedded throughout are references to systemic injustices, including police violence, redlining, and mass incarceration. But rather than anchored in these issues and the social science and statistics that uphold their problematic presence, the book is anchored in stories. Mckesson assumes his reader is at least vaguely familiar with the issues at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement. And, as a person of color, Mckesson grounds his work in individual and communal experiences that I imagine connect vividly with his intended audience. This book is not an explainer of issues; it is a message of solidarity, hope, and encouragement to those who continue to work for “a world of equity, justice, and joy” (10).
As a reader you don’t need to agree with everything Mckesson has to say, but you do have to value his voice and recognize his experiences as valid and important.Because of the assumptions Mckesson makes about his audience’s experiences and knowledge, not every statement is provided with supporting evidence. That is not to say the research doesn’t exist. But, for the scope of this book, Mckesson uses personal experiences to speak to a community he identifies with. That community is not white Christians. The premise every reader must accept is that what he has to say about his experiences, both individual and communal, matters.
For white Christian readers like myself, reading this book requires a posture of humility, listening, and learning. There is much with which to grapple. But, not everything is new or uncomfortable. Both Mckesson and Christians can agree on two key concepts: First, that the world and everything in it is touched by brokenness. Second, the world can and will be restored. Mckesson himself does not identify as a person of faith, but the themes of total depravity and restoration are pervasive anyways.
By focusing on the beliefs we hold in common, readers like myself can warmly engage with Mckesson’s book.
For example, by accepting that the world and everything in it is touched by brokenness, we can agree with Mckesson’s presupposition that “[w]hat is made by human hands requires maintenance” (11). With humility and honesty, we can acknowledge with Mckesson that our institutions are imperfect. And, we can agree that this includes the institutions we have created to secure justice.
As another example, we can agree that a world of equity, justice, and joy is inevitable. We can agree with this vision even while also disagreeing with Mckesson on who is going to ultimately be the restorer. Mckesson has faith in a world redeemed through the work of humanity. As Christians we know God will redeem and restore creation, righting every relationship. The difference of to whom the ultimate glory will belong is significant. But Mckesson’s clear and fervent hope in a coming redeemed world is the result of common grace. And, in acknowledging the commonality of the hope we have with Mckesson’s hope, we can also take an additional step with Mckesson. He says, “to have faith that a world of equity and justice will emerge does not relinquish one’s role in helping it emerge” (8). The moral arc of the universe does not bend towards justice on its own accord in our broken world. Mckesson says we do. And by the grace of God, we know we do as well.
On the Other Side of Freedom is not easy to read as a white Christian. The consequence of reading a book that is not intended for you is that you are privy to a world with which you are not acquainted. It’s uncomfortable. As outsiders to Mckesson’s conversation, we are forced to grapple with the inadequacy of our individual and even congregational responses of reconciliation and “color doesn’t matter” because the problems Mckesson refers to throughout the book are not personal, they are systemic. The encouragement Mckesson is giving to his intended audience is not about persevering against racist individuals, it is about persevering against racist institutions, policies, and practices.
In All Things readers, Mckesson did not write this book for most of you. Read it anyway.