THE APOLOGY

It’s been more than 20 years since Marianne Williamson gave the Apology. It was a Monday evening, May 1993, at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles. I had been attending her Los Angeles lectures on A Course In Miracles for about eight months.

I first became aware of Ms. Williamson through her book A Return to Love. I had seen the book in several bookstores but had never taken the time to peruse it until I saw Carmen, the Dean’s secretary, reading it one day on her lunch break. When I asked her what she was reading she just handed it to me — with a twinkle in her eyes:

Those were the words on the page she was reading. I was taken aback. I was moved by those words. They resonated through me. They deeply touched me. They made sense. They stuck with me.

Three weeks later Ms. Williamson gave a guest sermon at the church I was attending. I was awed by the coincidence.

I had been attending this church for only six weeks. A friend whom I had met through CODA (Co-dependents Anonymous) kept insisting I go there. After almost a year of Miriam’s unrelenting urgings and my own increasing wish for a churchlike setting for my newly discovered spiritual growth, I showed up the first Sunday in August 1992.

I had not been to a church in ages. I didn’t go to church. I avoided churches and people who went to them. I grew up in churches, and when I left home at the age of eighteen to go to college, I immediately stopped going. This was not a conscious decision. Without the will of my parents as a factor in my decision-making — they were a thousand miles away — I just stopped going. In college I became one hundred percent immersed in the new secular world I found myself. I forgot about church. I dismissed the conflicting and judgmental influence it played in my life. I developed a disdain for organized religions and a discomfort with religious and spiritual discourse.

As a result, I felt anxious going to church that first Sunday in August 1992 and each time I went. I didn’t know a soul except for Miriam, and she was too busy serving as an usher to give much attention to me. I enjoyed the music — it was stirring and uplifting; I appreciated the informality of dress, which was a far cry from the churches I grew up in — where everybody wore their “Sunday Best.” The membership was very interracial. The people were warm and friendly. For some reason though, I could not feel at home there. The sermons of the minister never resonated with me. His themes were spiritually-focused. Had they been biblically-focused, that would have been a turn-off for me. Still, something was missing for me. I had no idea what that was until Marianne Williamson gave the sermon in his absence one Sunday in early October.

I did not know until I arrived, and the announcements were made Ms. Williamson would be the speaker. I was surprised and excited that this church would feature a known author as part of its service. I felt privileged to be present that day.

After the prayer by one of the deacons of the church, deaconess, actually, and the rousing singing of the choir, a pastor came out of the wings and introduced Ms. Williamson. As she approached the center of the stage I blinked… and blinked again. She was radiantly attractive, telegenically attractive. Her bearing was not the religious reserve I expected or was accustomed to. She conveyed the confidence of a charismatic news personality.

When she spoke, I felt so touched by what she said and how she said it I got misty-eyed. She had the ability to make me feel connected to the spirit in us all — empowered to rise to greater heights than we have before. In essence, that was her message! For us to recognize the spirit residing within us and to embody that spirit. Clearly, she was that embodiment.

I had not felt this way in that church or any church before. I was so taken with her presentation that when she announced she would be speaking again in the LA area I knew I had to go. When I found out she spoke in LA at least once a month I was ecstatic.

And I bought A Return to Love and became introduced to A Course in Miracles.

I felt the energy of the long lines at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre when I arrived. The people did not look like or act like people who were waiting to hear a spiritual message. They looked like people who worked in the entertainment business — a young, fashionable, late twenties to early forties crowd, mostly Caucasian with a small but evident percentage of gays present. The lines began to form over an hour before the doors opened.

The theatre filled and at 7:30 PM the brunette Marianne Williamson would walk out rapidly to stage center fashionably coiffed and dressed, with the confidence and bearing of a hostess. The audience would stand and applaud. After the applause died down, she would ask the audience members to introduce ourselves to those to the right, left, front and back of us. After a few announcements she would introduce a live musical segment, and then depart offstage. Upon returning she would give a stirring prayer and then talk on a subject for approximately an hour. There was never any prior mentioning of the theme of her lecture. She would rarely announce her subject. She would just begin talking, almost as if she was picking up from where she last ended. She would always conclude with a Q&A session.

Her talks ranged from relationships to meditation to prayer. The special quality of her presentations was their ability to challenge us to rise above our limitations, to feel our connection to others and the cosmos, and to resolve to live in the knowledge of our true relationship to a loving God. It was not a fluke what I felt at the other church. The feeling continued at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre. When she increased her speaking engagements at the Wilshire Ebell to once a week, it became the church I was looking for. I stopped going to the other church, altogether.

Every week I looked forward to going to the Wilshire Ebell. It was my Monday night treat to myself. Generally, I would go alone. Sometimes I would go with my friend, Belinda. When I found out that Jerry, of my newly formed men’s group, went to see her as well, we became a threesome happily agreeing to meet up before and sometimes afterwards. The first of us to arrive in line would save a place for the others inside.

Each time I left I felt a sense of spiritual re-attunement. It became part of my regular schedule and routine, and there was nothing except work that would divert me from my attendance.

We began to speak of Ms. Williamson as “Marianne,” as others did, as if we knew her personally. She was special. She emanated her specialness; she emanated our specialness through her and so we all felt special.

On the day of the Apology she seemed to have more of an edge to her. Instead of the usual spiritual or relationship matters, she started to talk about socio-politics. She never talked about politics! In Los Angeles, the racial climate in the aftermath of the Rodney King trial and riots was still near incendiary.

“Man, she is fired up today,” Jerry whispered.

Her tone was serious and driven. There seemed to be something beneath the surface that agitated and bothered her. She began to talk about the Black and White racial problems we in Los Angeles and the nation were experiencing. Then she said, “You know, slavery was an evil, evil, evil institution.”

My attention became particularly focused.

I realized immediately I had never heard a White person say something like that before. I did not think that Whites were capable of such an acknowledgment.

She went on to describe how this country created a dynamic in the enslavement of African people that continues today and how it now disavows its culpability to the cause of African American suffering. She explained further how the problems are exacerbated by Whites’ refusal to acknowledge its role, and if nothing else, simply apologize.

I could not believe her forthrightness and non-equivocating attribution of the problem of Black and White relations to the White power structure. Black people know this, have always known this. It has always divided us from Whites who are unable to see or are unaware how important the issue of attribution is in race relations. Marianne was indicating she knew. It was astounding to hear.

Then she asked each African American in the theatre stand up. “If you are African-American, please stand.” It was a request, an assertive request.

I stayed in my seat. As much as I related to what she was saying I didn’t want to stand. I didn’t want to be put on the spot and serve as some token of the African American experience. And I had no idea why she wanted us to stand up. As I sat contemplating the request, the woman sitting next to me grabbed my arms and practically shoved me up.

I felt extremely uncomfortable standing there. As Marianne continued to speak I looked around to see how many of us African Americans there were in the theatre. I had often wondered. About twenty-five to thirty out of a population of a thousand was my guess — a very small percentage, and the same small percentage each Monday. An even smaller percentage of Latinos and Asians.

“Would the White person nearest each African American please stand up and make contact with him or her,” Marianne commanded. The woman who had gotten me to stand stood up beside me and took my arms in her hands. We touched awkwardly until we arrived at what felt comfortable between us.

Marianne then intoned, “Would the person next to them please make contact with them and let us all join hands so that everyone here tonight is joined and making contact.

“Will the White person standing with the African American please look them in the eyes and repeat after me? Will all the White people here repeat after me?

“I am sorry,” she went… She began this prayer of apologizing to the African American people who were there that night. She would say a sentence or a phrase, which was repeated by everyone else in the theatre that night, and then she would continue. She apologized for all the pain inflicted by racism, she apologized for Whites peoples’ ignorance of racism’s impact upon African American people, the neglect and suffering which the act of slavery had caused my people and me.

As I looked into the woman’s eyes and as I listened to the words she and the others repeated I was touched by the genuineness of her attitude and behavior. Being there in that situation was embarrassing to me. I was perspiring. I didn’t enjoy having the attention on me in that manner. I didn’t need their apology. I wasn’t that angry and resentful, and I felt uncomfortable being lumped into that category. Her sincerity, nevertheless, overwhelmed me. I was overwhelmed by the sincerity in the theatre. These people to apologize — not out of guilt — but out of the recognition of a wrong needing undoing that they wanted to undo. They sounded like they meant what they were saying, they sounded like they truly knew the profound impact that racism had on African American people. They really knew.

I was surprised at my reaction. I realized then I never truly believed White people really knew and cared. I realized at that moment I labored on a day-to-day basis with little expectation that we as African American people in this country would be able to get through all this racial madness. I did not know how against the grain I felt the struggle for racial equality was. I did not know the hopelessness within me. I did not know how pessimistic I really was until then.

I worked as a Program Director for minority students, underrepresented minority students (red, black and brown) in the majors of engineering and computer science at a local university. My appointed job was to help these students. And I did help them. I did do good work. This had been my job, my career for over ten years. Still, I was oblivious to the level of futility I brought to the task. Until then.

I don’t know how the other African Americans there responded to what was taking place, but I was appalled at my own lack of awareness of White people like these, who knew and cared. I was appalled to see the limited expectations I carried within myself. I was stunned by my own ignorance.

Those were my thoughts while I was looking into the eyes of the woman in front of me, while I was taking in her sincerity and the sincerity expressed by the entire population there that night. I could not deny the earnestness of her expression. She seemed to welcome the opportunity to apologize and let me know how she felt. She seemed to even know I wasn’t aware of the depth of her feelings, that my knowledge of her feelings was important to her. Her eyes filled with wet tears of love and compassion.

When Marianne ended her prayer/apology we spontaneously hugged each other, as did seemingly all the other African American/White dyads that night. The theatre was filled with an outpouring of emotion and feeling. An empathetic, synergetic connection was felt by everyone there. It felt like one heart and one mind. The woman introduced herself as Cheryl. We talked about how wonderful the experience had been for us and eventually I departed, in a daze of thought and reflection.

I felt such a communion that night. Still, as I drove home I continued also to feel and recognize how I had been confronted with my own ingrained personal limitations — limitations of my own ignorance regarding how strongly Whites could empathize with the plight of African Americans and the phenomena of my own negatively-oriented belief system. Heretofore, I had not seen myself as negative about the future of race relations. I was “fighting the good fight,” in a position designed to address the problems of racial inequity. I was not an angry Black man. My wife was White! However, because of the Apology, I had to admit I had been operating unconsciously as if the solutions to racial harmony were unobtainable and the problems insurmountable. This was clear.

I was disturbed about this self-discovery. I was glad to have become aware of it, but it was unsettling, given who I was, what I did and how I thought about myself. As uplifting as it was it also took me down a notch.

When I got home, I began to think about my past behavior and thoughts in the context of what I had just learned. What had I overlooked, what had escaped me, what actions had I taken, what decisions had I made, what had I experienced, what had I done, what had I seen, what had I missed due to my negative outlook? In what way had I not been responsive to the positive support that Whites brought to the arena of Black/White relations?

I thought about my boss, a White man who through his commitment to racial equality created the statewide program in which I work. Had I taken him for granted? I thought about Kay, a colleague at another campus who possessed extraordinary sensitivity and awareness about the dynamics of racial inequality. Was there some way I had not recognized how special she truly was? I thought about the Jewish contribution to the civil rights movement of the sixties. Have we African Americans, have I, underestimated or devalued the importance of their involvement in our development?

My mind raced with possibilities.

My thoughts shifted to movies, particularly A Soldier’s Story and Driving Miss Daisy, produced and directed by Whites and providing deeply insightful studies of the human psyche amid racial prejudice and bigotry. When I saw A Soldier’s Story I almost felt exposed. I was not aware that Whites were, or even should, be aware of the dynamics of racial self-hatred the movie dramatized. I was surprised at the insight of the White person who directed it. I realized I saw it as negative instead of positive, a White person having the level of understanding and knowledge to portray the racial self-hatred of African Americans so effectively.

I then thought about Driving Miss Daisy, and Morgan Freeman’s portrayal. I realized I had seen the movie one-dimensionally! I did not get it that Freeman’s character knew he didn’t have a problem, that Jessica Tandy’s character was the one with the problem, not him. I hadn’t seen that the first time I saw the movie. I had seen the end of the movie as a simple resolution. Now I was able to see it as his having forgiven her. And I began to cry.

I cried because I saw it. Right there before my eyes, tugging at my heart:

It is not enough that Whites need apologize to African Americans. Whites do need to apologize. What is most important is that African Americans need to, and must forgive Whites, before there is any peace in any of our lives.

This is the struggle of African American people, to overcome, through forgiveness, the prejudice, bigotry, discrimination and racism of our history, I realized.

“…darkened by the shadow of a vast despair.” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in the Souls of Black Folk, too many of us are consumed by the shadow of the past and its encroachment into the present. The spiritual lesson for us is to recognize how our freedom lies in our ability to forgive Whites for their racism. This does not mean we do not oppose racism and fight against it. It does mean we must recognize how we are enslaved mentally when our responses to racism are other than forgiveness. It was wrong, it was bad, it was evil — the slavery that still chains and lives with so many of us. We can choose, with spiritual guidance, to allow it to no longer be our problem, by forgiving those who are bound by their racist beliefs. Let it be their problem, not ours. It is their problem, if we don’t take it on and make it ours as well. I have come to believe that Forgiveness is the only reasonable solution for racism directed at African Americans. It is a spiritual solution and it is a logical solution.

Racism sets in motion a complex dynamic. The act of White racism, a negative act, produces an automatic defensive posture response for African Americans. Racism says, “Something is wrong with you and your people, because of your color.” We take on the negativity by defending against it. Racism is a negative belief system that enslaves the racist and potentially the object of his/her racism. It has psychologically, physiologically, economically enslaved too many of us African Americans. Forgiveness allows us to transcend the need to defend our position, and as a result, not take on racism’s negative belief system and incorporate it into our being.

I was not able to come to this understanding until I was faced with my own attitudinal responses in an environment of love and compassion. I was not able to see this until I was liberated, if you will, by the Apology.

I was able to affirm there are Whites who are as involved and concerned and knowledgeable about the factors of racism as African Americans. I was encouraged I can trust and have positive expectations about their assistance and participation in the fight against racism. The fight against racism and bigotry, in all forms, is a joint concern. We do not have to do it alone. We cannot do it alone.

To break beyond our limitations and attain the strength and knowledge that awaits within is what Marianne Williamson challenged us to do in those gatherings at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre. To achieve a felt sense of our individual and collective potential, and to put it into action, she facilitated for us. Call it spiritual, synergistic, cosmic, religious or whatever.

I thank Marianne Williamson for her courage, insight, wisdom, and inspiration.

-Milton Randle

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Milton Randle

Milton Randle

Born in Houston, TX. Lives in Inglewood, CA.