Hands Up!: Mountaintops and the Dawn of White Limitation

(Originally published for Marginalia Review of Books on January 19, 2015. Reprinted here in full including images that were not included in the MRB post due to permissions issues.)

The hard truth is that neither Negro nor white

has yet done enough to expect the dawn of a new day...

With these words taken from Dr. Martin Luther King’s final book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, King prophetically and woefully suggests that for the dawn of a day without racism, more black blood and suffering will come hand in hand with white denial, ignorance, and indifference.

I remember well a day in middle school, during gym class. We’d just arrived to gym and were swiftly told that in lieu of P.E., we’d be attending the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day assembly. Some students were happy, others were sad to miss the glorified recess that is junior high phys.ed. One white student, I’ll never forget, spoke up and said “Martin Luther King, Jr. Day ... more like James Earl Ray day.” Amid awkward laughter from students and an even more awkward silence from the gym teacher, we walked to the auditorium. As our class sat down, my childhood emotion met with intellectual curiosity and I wondered, “Were we there to celebrate King’s life or to have our minds galvanized as to exactly what happens to those who profess to climb insurmountable mountains?

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Recently, mountains have been in the news right alongside ongoing black death, brutality from and against police, terrorist attacks, protesters chanting “Hands up, Don’t Shoot!” and worry (by some) that the “new civil rights movement” doesn’t have any leaders. If we press further the metaphor made famous by Dr. King the night before Ray assassinated him, then the social justice cause de célèbre we’ve seen over the last months (and years) and the current fervor surrounding American rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s historic quest to climb Yosemite National Park’s Dawn Wall might have more in common than first glances suggest.

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The Dawn Wall is a roughly 3,000 foot rock climb up the blankest section of Yosemite’s magisterial El Capitan, and is by quite a factor considered the most physically difficult large-scale rock climb in the world. On January 15, 2015, it was officially climbed. U.S. media outlets and much of the world latched onto Caldwell and Jorgeson’s effort in a way seldom seen in all of sport, much less of the largely white, largely privileged (though dirt bag) pursuit of rock climbing. The President, who some have criticized for being late to respond, if at all, to some of American’s social issues, interestingly offered quick congrats to the climbers. Their final climb, the single push, took 19 days. But Caldwell and Jorgeson’s efforts this past year actually began over Columbus Day weekend. For months, many climbers like me followed the ascent religiously via social media, long before popular press picked up the story and just as we have followed their efforts for years. As a rock climber, too, I can attest that effectively, Caldwell and Jorgeson have just climbed an impossible mountain. And their hands are up showing us just how brutal a journey it’s been.

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Climbing the Dawn Wall was a choice, a personal desire; but there are other mountains some of us are forced to climb and that all of us should climb. These summits may prove more difficult, and if history is any indicator, these other mountains — or, better stated for whites as “the mountain of the other” — might cast the Dawn Wall accomplishment into twilight. As you might remember, Columbus Day 2014 saw many Americans, mostly black and brown, traveling not to Yosemite, but to Missouri for the Ferguson October rallies, protests, sit-ins, etc. For those able to travel, the moment was a kind of pilgrimage. Activists protested the police execution of Michael Brown, ongoing disproportionate police murders and brutality of African Americans across the country, and the rapidly expanding military state, all of which are eroding even a semblance of hope for the Dream Dr. King envisioned. Born in tragedy and sustaining now (what is really a global) movement for racial justice, Ferguson October galvanized into what some are now audaciously calling a new civil rights movement demanding that black lives that have always mattered begin to actually be treated as such. 

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There are mountains to climb and then there are mountains to climb. The hands and faces of black bodies — the humanity they evince — showcase the other Dawn Wall of White America. On this day commemorating Dr. King, from my vantage point as a straight, white professor of religion who writes and teaches about the racial dimensions of religion and the religious dimensions of race and identity (more generally), it seems appropriate to suggest that both kinds of mountains have to do with what sociologist W.E.B. DuBois called “the souls of white folk.” My soul. Maybe yours. These souls are sustained by white religion and whiteness — what DuBois called a religion organized around the quest to take “ownership over the whole earth, forever and ever, Amen!” Where white souls hang between grandiose leisure pursuits and social activism might help us to diagnose our distance from Dr. King’s mountaintop.

Activism and rock climbing can be seen as religious practices, efforts at what theologian Anthony B. Pinn has referred to as a “quest for complex subjectivity,” a journey to make life meaningful in the face of historical circumstances and all the hardships, tragedies, and calamities that confront us at every turn. How we embark on this quest is not always good and not always easy. Where African American history and religion is concerned, this quest has been harder than most. Enslavement, Jim and Jane Crow Laws, stolen educational resources, government surveillance, and brutality have meant that part of this quest for black folk required fighting for the sheer possibility to embark on that quest. That is, to have others (white people, in particular) recognize their full humanity. Astoundingly, and ashamedly, this fight continues today. Humans die, but our lack of concern for those humans when they die (and die disproportionately early and severely — especially at the hands of the state) is indicative of our inability to see those humans as fully human. And, it demonstrates our tendency to think, act, and feel our(white)selves superhuman, even if most of us still won’t admit to this feeling.

For what ends and for whom are we putting our lives on the line? In what ways do we risk our lives for pleasure, goals of conquest, and feelings of superhuman complexity while others fight simply for the right not to be killed prematurely? We will know that black life matters to us (as whites) when we begin to risk our lives for black life. Presently, many of us risk our lives for the pure pursuit of pleasure or to do the seemingly impossible, but when will we do the same for the sake of black people? When will we realize that the greatest white accomplishment will simply, if oddly, involve recognition of black humanity?

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Dawn — the first appearance of light in the sky before sunrise. Dawn — to become evident to the mind; to be perceived or understood.

The Dawn Wall rock climb involves the effort to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles through the recognition and isolation of bodily limits, practice, and overcoming these limits through planning and commitment. Finding, overcoming, and self-imposing new limits are all part of this religious quest. Inwardly, in effort to excel, to grow increasingly “complex,” through training one finds their limits, sets about through yet other disciplined limitations to overcome those first limits, and in success, reorients themselves against yet other limits on the horizon. This is what religion looks like, white or black, if only we let it dawn on us that we make meaning in this world through various personal and social distinctions, boundaries, and borders all having to do with limits. When will we embrace those limits and hold our hands up in deference to something or someone truly greater than ourselves?

Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, Pearlie Smith, Ezell Ford. The list of African American men, women, and children murdered by cops (and vigilantes), often with their hands up, continues to grow. And surely, the current racial climate has many of us throwing our hands up in exasperation. But I wonder, for what ends are we white Americans holding up our hands? To awkwardly brag about a physical accomplishment, or in a posture of solidarity that says “No!” to continued dehumanization? Our collective humanity deserves to hear the truth — that the limits we most often seek to overcome are those that matter the least. 

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White religion, for its sake, has been successful in imposing limits onto others and very bad about addressing our white limits, white boundaries, such that we have trouble imagining any limit to our abilities or our value. But maybe there is a limit to our imagined white superhuman powers. Perhaps the limit of white religion, our Dawn Wall, is this: Can we see African Americans as fully human? Do we? Can we admit that black life matters? Do we even know how?

According to Caldwell’s mother, Tommy even referred to the Dawn Wall project as his “Moby Dick,” an eerily somber allusion to Melville’s allegorical wrestling with the white whale, white supremacy. Though likely unintentional (as is much to do with our white souls), to call his Dawn Wall “Moby Dick” when America’s Dawn Wall was precisely what Melville had in mind represents deeply the intense ignorance and paucity of historical acumen held by so many of us as white Americans. Caldwell’s reference to Moby Dick is not simply indicative of having accepted the thin, popular rendering of Melville’s mighty tome or the white religion that makes such blindness possible. It also speaks to the ongoing division between white and black America that still exists, as it did for Melville, at (and as) the very heart of the struggle to overcome white supremacy. Though I celebrate the climbers’ accomplishment, America’s real Dawn Wall has yet to be summited.

Will this new civil rights movement be for white Americans the dawning of our ability to register the full humanity of African Americans? Caldwell and Jorgeson succeeded in overcoming their Dawn Wall. Caldwell even encouraged others to go out and find their Dawn Wall. But do we white Americans really have to look very far to figure out our collective challenge? Will it dawn on us that this movement calls white America not to seek to overcome the physically impossible, but the psychological and the social? Sometimes, overcoming limits involves accepting them and ourselves as finite, contingent, human. We embark on the superhuman because we cannot bear our own humanity, much less that of African Americans. Maybe we’ll begin to see black humanity when we come to terms with our own.

...While much has been done, it has been accomplished by too few and on a scale too limited for the breadth of the goal. Freedom is not won by a passive acceptance of suffering. Freedom is won by a struggle against suffering. By this measure, Negroes have not yet paid the full price for freedom. And whites have not yet faced the full cost of justice. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.