I asked Dr. Susan Glisson, executive director of the William Winter Institute of Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. She and Associate Director Charles Tucker gave me a three-hour tutorial in my Washington living room about how people can have the necessary conversation and work toward true reconciliation. First, said Glisson, it can’t be a national conversation. “The best conversations are the most local,” she says.
To this end, the institute created a portable template for conversation called “The Welcome Table,” a physical table where up to 25 people of all races sit and talk. Really talk. As moderator, Glisson or Tucker might ask each participant to speak for three minutes about when he or she first noticed the elephant of race in the room.
Honesty is crucial, even if it smarts. Sometimes people’s stories lead to tears. Other times, to laughter. People often laugh over what Tucker calls their “nervous stories.” Tucker, who is African-American and grew up on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta, releases a rolling, baritone laugh from deep within his 6-foot-3 frame at my own nervous story. He has had plenty of personal encounters with racism yet seems to have a considerable well of compassion for the most foolish among us. This is in part because he has listened to other people’s stories and really heard them. Something about the telling of stories draws out our more human selves. Empathy displaces cynicism and guardedness.
Glisson, a font of knowledge and wisdom, paraphrases Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, saying, “My enemy is someone whose stories I don’t know.”