I don’t think it was until I stood under a lynching tree in Selma, Ala. that I really stepped into my white privilege and began to feel a true understanding of the history of race in our country. The horrific images and sordid legacy of racism and white supremacy are a difficult reality, but one we must all look at directly if we are to understand how to shine our light of change.

I believe we all process and approach educating ourselves differently.

For some it’s more cerebral, quiet and internal, for others it’s bracing, loud and easy to hear. I make mistakes and sometimes say the wrong thing because I am just learning. But I have realized that it’s better to speak up, question things and risk making a mistake than to not say anything at all.

I want to thank the women from across the country who traveled beside me to Montgomery Alabama this past January. They allowed me the gift of gaining greater knowledge in my own time and in my own way. They challenged me look at things that are painful like this tree — and not look away. It was a life-changing experience and I will never walk through this world the same way again.

I am deeply grateful to Island resident Freedom Cartwright who was our fearless leader traveling down to Alabama. Freedom created an exploration of the history of race and racism for us that was thorough, difficult and cut deep. Freedom has worked tirelessly to create visits to Montgomery that provide a framework from which to learn and examine the history of race in our country, all while introducing us to incredibly inspiring activists, artists and thought leaders in Montgomery who are making real change amid the powerful darkness and evil that continues to exist.

I think of that lynching tree often. I remember standing firmly on the ground holding onto her trunk, looking up and forcing myself not to look away. I thought of all the things she had seen, experienced and witnessed which are some of the darkest and most traumatic moments of human history. However, each day her gnarled branches and hardened bark still keep growing, expanding and leaning toward the light, hopeful that this day might bring about change.

I have come to believe that just like the lynching tree, this is our work too. Day by day, step by step, mistake by mistake we must keep reaching out, expanding and learning. We must never look away from the images, voices and history that speak the truth of the legacy of racism.

One day soon we will all lean toward the light, forge ahead a little bit further for a little bit longer and together we will see the change we once believed was impossible, has finally come.

More about Freedom, her work and her racial healing journeys can be found online at: freedomrailtours.com.

Polly Simpkins

Vineyard Haven