Out of the Zoo: Our Snake of Bronze

Annie Thorn is senior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie reviews Daniel Hill’s White Awake. —JF

I did a lot of reading over the month of January. After buying Ruta Sepetys’ newest book Fountains of Silence I read it in less than a week, which doesn’t happen very often. Historical fiction books, especially Young Adult historical fiction books, are a guilty pleasure of mine. Even though they’re not always perfectly accurate, they’re easy, captivating, and don’t take a whole lot of brain power. Most of the time they have a happy ending, and sometimes there’s a little romance thrown in too. 

There was one book in particular that I read over break, White Awake by Daniel Hill, that wasn’t quite so easy to read. The book sat on my shelf for months after my sister gave it to me as a Christmas gift. I finally picked it up a year later, determined to make productive use of my socially-distanced free time. In short, White Awake leads readers down a path of cultural awakening and empowers them to be agents of racial reconciliation. It progresses through seven stages that define the white person’s journey from blindness to sight. Hill’s was challenging and convicting. It made me think about a lot of things differently–including a Bible story I thought I knew well. 

In the book of Numbers–Numbers 21, to be exact–there’s a story that Daniel Hill uses to talk about the “denial” stage of cultural awakening. In the story the Israelites, who the Lord had just delivered from the hands of their enemies, begin to grow impatient and start speaking out against God and against Moses. As punishment, God sends venomous snakes among them. Many of the Israelites die from their bites. After the Israelites repent of their sin, Moses prays and asks the Lord for healing. God then instructs Moses to form a model of a snake and to hold it up on a pole for everyone to see. Only by looking at the statue would the snake-bitten Israelites’ health be restored.

White people, Daniel Hill explains, are a lot like the Israelites in this story. Like them, we have a history of sinning and rebelling against God. Our particular brand of sin, however, is not that of whining in the desert. Instead, our hearts and hands and history are stained by centuries of racial injustice and white supremacy. Like the Israelites, our sins have consequences that hurt people. In fact, our sin of perpetuating racism has hurt people for hundreds of years. The reality of our nation’s history, Hill explains, is our own snake of bronze. While some might want to deny its existence or avoid it out of discomfort, we must learn to look at it. We cannot begin to solve our nation’s problems unless we are willing to view them in full. Hill writes, “we are free only when we lift up the truth.”

Monday, February 1st, marked the start of Black History Month–a month dedicated to sharing Black stories and listening to Black voices. There is no better time than the present to come face to face with our nation’s history. There is no better time than now to take a few steps toward healing. Who knows, maybe those steps will lead to a life-long journey of seeking justice and seeing more clearly–one that continues long after the first of March. Only by holding up the truth are we truly set free. Now is the time to lift it up.