Building Radical Empathy

Zach Wyner
Nov 24, 2017 · 12 min read

Lessons from the Mississippi Freedom Trail and San Quentin State Prison

Compassion is crucial, and it’s no longer enough. (By Zboralski [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

August 28th, 2017, marked the 62nd anniversary of Emmett Till’s vicious lynching, the 62nd anniversary of his mother’s decision to open his casket and make public her extraordinary pain, and the 62nd anniversary of the capturing of an image that still haunts the American psyche. It’s an anniversary that urges us to reckon with the violence this society has visited and continues to visit upon Black and Brown bodies, a violence that our #notmypresident recklessly emboldens out of one side of his mouth, even as he uses the other side to flat out deny its existence. And it is this denial, even more so than his belligerent rhetoric, that might be the most dangerous aspect of his behavior, because it makes possible the collective amnesia from which our country is suffering, and allows the scourge of white supremacy to root ever deeper in our soil.

Contemporary examples of the perils of denial abound — from Arizona, where, after 13 years, a court has finally overturned an unconstitutional ethnic studies ban that prevented young students from exposure to important Latino and Chicano history; to the high schools of Texas, where McGraw-Hill American history textbooks referred to slaves as immigrants and workers; to the stadiums of the NFL, where the motives of activist athletes — motives that have been clearly articulated since Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem — are impugned and maligned by a president who knows that his only path to reelection is through fanning the flames of racism and inciting a culture war.

For centuries, Americans of conscience have fought to document our racist history so that we might avoid arriving here — a moment in which the hateful, the demoralized, and the deluded seek to consecrate history’s most accomplished bigots and erase even the most public of our national disgraces. In late June of this year, this erasure claimed another victim — a memorial plaque on the Mississippi Freedom Trail placed on the spot of ground upon which Emmett Till was falsely accused of having whistled at white shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant before being brutally lynched. The vandal scraped and peeled away text that had commemorated this vicious and horrific flashpoint in our nation’s history, a flashpoint that, given our appalling lynching tradition, might have gone unremarked upon had it not been for Mamie Till’s courage.

Unlike Till’s mother, the vandal fails to see the value in confronting the truth because he is unwilling to examine the truth about himself and his country. Instead of acknowledging the genocide, slavery, white supremacy and terror from which he has sprung, instead of taking James Baldwin’s advice and asking himself “why it was necessary…to have a n***** in the first place,” he chooses to shape an alternative narrative in which these horrors never were.

This act of vandalism was just one headline from the day’s news — every day brings more — that captured our society’s pathological inability to accept the consequences of our history; one headline that demonstrated how our system has fostered and nurtured bitter discontent and acute self-loathing, has promoted tribalism and racial hatred; one headline that measured the current distance, in light years, between those compelled to record the truth and those compelled to erase it.

And for those of us made weary by the deluge of hate, this was one more headline that suggested the zombie apocalypse is not what Hollywood has imagined it will be, but is in fact a condition that is upon us — that we are walking and talking corpses, gnashing our teeth, and feeding on one another’s fear and loathing, not because they might sustain us or save us, but because we are programmed to consume, and all that the plutocrats have left us to consume is each other.

Some days when I wake up, I peer through weary eyes and the assault on all that is decent and humane and beautiful and true does precisely what it’s designed to do — it blinds me to the community and generosity and hope and love in the foreground of my everyday. Other days, my embarrassing abundance — my child’s laughter, my wife’s kiss, the dappled sunlight through the curtains — bolsters my resolve to fight for those who must look a lot harder to see it.

But the truth of the matter is that all thinking, feeling, loving people should be weary. We should be demoralized. We should look around at a society that trashes its eco-system, eats its young, sells out its sick, oppresses, murders and imprisons its poor, terrorizes its undocumented, and humanizes white supremacists, and recognize that, if we are not actively building resistance movements, we are hastening our doom. And as we build those movements, as we respond to our weariness with outbursts of love and hope and indignation and energy, we must make certain that our legitimate fear of extinction does not relegate those structural inequities that must first be repaired if we are to effectively resist.

We must remember that, to build something capable of withstanding the storms we’ve unleashed, it is crucial to uplift and amplify the voices of those whose lives have been on the line since our country’s inception — the systematically maligned, disenfranchised, stigmatized and ostracized.

And we must seek connection, not only in communal spaces where the #woke convene, but in those places where, despite pitch institutional darkness, beauty and light persist.

One such place is in the cavernous modular classroom on the periphery of the massive yard at San Quentin State Prison, where, a few weeks ago, I spent nearly five hours amongst a group of about 20 men who, if given the proper platform, could do more to change misconceptions about criminality than any ensemble cast Netflix could ever dream of assembling.

The metal folding chairs were arranged in a horseshoe, a podium placed in the gap near the wall. The podium was a new addition to what, for me, had become a familiar scene. It set a slightly more formal tone than past workshops, but then, this was a more formal kind of day. On this day, we were honoring the work that participants had done outside of workshop hours by setting aside a chunk of time at the outset so they could read their longer-form pieces. We were also honoring the moving-on of Big Mike — our massive, warmhearted, just-happy-to-be-here facilitator, in whose grip my hand disappeared like a baseball into a catcher’s mitt — who was preparing to transfer to another penitentiary closer to home.

Big Mike was the second facilitator in the past year to depart. The first vanished suddenly last fall when he went into voluntary solitary confinement because of threats to his life. He’d been an incredible organizer, bringing together a diverse coalition of men that included Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Caucasians and African Americans, a group which betrayed only the slightest whiff of the segregation that governed the yard just outside the classroom’s doors. While the workshop had begun with a core group of juvenile lifers — men sentenced under draconian Clinton-era legislation to 25-to-life sentences at the ages of 15–17 — it had long since opened its doors to include anyone who wished to join.

One of the juvenile lifers was Nguyen, a Vietnamese man in his early forties with an unshaven face and strong jawline. I sat in the unoccupied seat next to him, eager to strike up a conversation with someone with whom I hadn’t previously bonded.

Nguyen was immediately apologetic for his English, which, despite emigrating as a child, was a little rough around the edges. I asked him about his day-to-day; he asked about my work at juvenile hall. I told him about the units I work in, and about how the kids love to read the essays and poetry composed by the OGs in the pen. Nguyen smiled. He was glad. He’d written a piece that he was going to share with the group and he hoped the kids would get something out of it, too. After talking for a few minutes, Big Mike encouraged the men to step up and start sharing. Someone said Nguyen! He blushed and shrugged and hound-dogged his way to the podium.

An hour into the workshop, perhaps the emotional content of Nguyen’s piece wouldn’t have surprised me. An hour into the workshop, I’d watched three of the hardest men I’ve ever met break down in tears as they described their regret, their shame, their relationships with their fathers. But when Nguyen stepped up to the podium, I wasn’t prepared; I hadn’t recognized it for the precipice that it was.

Nguyen described being born in a Vietnamese concentration camp. He described how, in the process of getting his family out, his father died. He described being raised in his new homeland by a mother who couldn’t escape the pain of that loss, a mother who had a difficult time showing her first-born son the love for which he so desperately yearned. He described the deep hurt this caused him, and his subsequent search for connection in gangs. He described committing murder and how, after his arrest, when his mom came to visit him in jail, she told him for the first time that she loved him. And then he couldn’t speak. His jaw clenched and unclenched; his stubbly cheeks quivered; his fingers turned white as he gripped the podium’s edge.

After taking some deep breaths and being exhorted by the group, Nguyen continued. He lamented that, as a young man, he couldn’t recognize his mom’s depression for what it was. He lamented the outlet he found for his anger. He lamented having thrown away the life that his father had given his life to save. Then he nodded his head and folded up his papers.

On the 62nd anniversary of Emmett Till’s lynching, an anniversary that came on the heels not just of Charlottesville, but of the erasure of a public landmark meant to remind us of our violent past, I thought of Nguyen. I thought of his impulse to write his history and transform his pain into a torch that might illuminate a path out of the darkness. And I thought — that’s not zombie behavior. That’s the behavior of a man who, despite his incarceration, believes that the truth will deliver him to a better place. And if there are people brave and humble enough to tell painful truths and let this bitter, judgmental, resentful, hateful world ogle their naked selves, we still have the capacity to awaken the kind of spirit that will annihilate the forces amassed against us.

Nguyen returned to his seat as several of us discreetly dabbed our eyes or wiped our cheeks. I was glad he was sitting next to me, glad that we had gotten familiar enough with one another in those opening minutes that it wouldn’t seem inappropriate for me to put my hand on his shoulder.

I thanked him for sharing his story and he asked me if I was hungry. I laughed. Well, I said, it’s gonna be a long day. I guess I should’ve eaten a real meal this morning. He reached into his pocket and took out four cookies sealed in thin cellophane. Are you sure? I said. He nodded. Prison cookies, he said. Eat. I did as I was told.

One by one, the rest of the readers stepped up to the ledge and delivered their elegies. By the time they were finished, the group was both energized and exhausted. We took a break to decompress, chat about families, jobs, 45 and the Golden State Warriors. Then we reconvened, read a series of prompts, discussed the different directions we might take them, and embarked on the crafting of new work.

Ordinarily, the first 40 minutes of our standard 45-minute writing period are filled with conversation, while the last five are consumed by furious scrawling, as participants try to fulfill bargains they’ve made with themselves or a facilitator, or simply write down newly crystallized ideas so they won’t vanish the second they exit the classroom and refocus their attention on the myriad unwritten rules of the yard. Although this had been a different kind of day, the same rules applied.

At Big Mike’s urging, I tackled the prompt about compassion. It’s a word I still believe in, a quality I still believe must be encouraged and nurtured in all human beings. In a world boiling over with bitter enmity, compassion — the capacity to be open instead of closed, to listen without judgment to another human being’s experiences, to let these experiences in despite their lack of resemblance to your own — is essential. Essential and insufficient.

I wrote that compassion is crucial and it’s no longer enough. The world needs more from us, just as we need more from one another. Because we are short on time, it’s no longer good enough just to listen. Our experience of the world cannot be confined by the parameters of our privilege, ambition, education or lack of imagination. It cannot be limited by the routines of our daily lives.

I wrote that the time has come to cultivate a radical empathy — to seek connection, build relationships, and know what it means to walk a mile in the shoes of those we’ve been taught to other. The time has come to act, not feel, on their behalf, and to know that, when we are acting, it’s our own souls that we’re striving to save.

Having witnessed the intensity of my scribbling, Big Mike encouraged me to step up to the podium where I was ambushed by shaky hands and an unsteady voice. Unaccustomed to sharing in front of this group — I usually spend the entirety of the writing period helping the guys brainstorm, reading work and giving feedback — I suddenly felt a tremendous pressure to justify my presence in that room, to earn the trust that they’d long since placed in me. I wanted them to know that I saw them — the men they’d grown into, not the darkest moments they’d lived. I wanted to assure them that, to me and others like me, prison is not a closed casket; that we seek to rectify the pain and suffering we’ve inflicted in the name of justice. I wanted my reading to be an act of the kind of radical empathy I was selling.

The piece was well received, but immediately after finishing, I recognized the folly of my ambition. Immediately after finishing, it was clear to me that, while they might’ve liked my words, those words would’ve fallen flat had they not already known me, had they not known that I would be back. Their approving smiles had less to do with the content of my writing than with the act of participation. Like them, I’d made myself vulnerable. My quivering voice and shaky hands had been a testimony to how much their opinions meant to me.

One of the greatest lies the powerful have ever told is that allowing oneself to be vulnerable is an act of weakness. And in our society’s steadfast assertion of our inherent greatness, lies our greatest flaw. Take away our rabid insecurity and we are left with some easily observable truths: we are not great; we are not evil. At our best, we are a people who aspire to be a better people.

If we’re going to realize this aspiration, we’re going to need to channel the moral courage of the San Quentin writers, men who stubbornly refuse to internalize the message our prisons were designed to impart. We’re going to need to share our stories so that the teller and the listener might grow symbiotically.

On August 28th, 1955, Mamie Till opened her son’s casket. She did it to send us an indelible message: if we are ever going to be the people we’ve so loudly proclaimed we desire to be, we need an honest accounting of who are. She did it because we needed to get to know Emmett — not just his violent fate, but the person our world was deprived of. She did it because she desired to cultivate radical empathy by imprinting in our collective consciousness an image that no amount of rationalizing could ever deny.

We cannot erase our past; we cannot compartmentalize our present. Emmett Till resides on a continuum that connects him directly to Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Richard Collins III and Philando Castille; to the trans women being murdered in droves in this country and to lives suffocated by concrete walls from San Quentin to Guantanamo Bay to Gaza. And attempts to erase his brutal murder, to scrub him from our collective conscience, represent an assault on our hopes and dreams — not to be the greatest country in the history of the world, but to be an honest one and a modest one; a country that celebrates its successes, but, more importantly, a country that reckons with its failures.

Because, contrary to what the pundits might say, it is a collective aspiration, not simply a common enemy, that has the power to unite us, and united, we will evolve.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a roomful of San Quentin State Prisoners laid bare the precise qualities that might heal our communities, empower the disillusioned, and spur the apprehensive to action. If those qualities can emerge from fallow concrete, can flourish in place where the struggle to survive must, at times, supersede the desire to evolve, they can grow anywhere.


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Zach Wyner

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Writer, teacher, author of “What We Never Had.” Lives in Oakland.