We, too, are America
My mother's birthday was a few days ago. That, and all the unrest in America lately, reminds me of so many things she taught me and my siblings. Often I write about myself as a backseat rider, in whatever vehicle we owned at the time, watching my mother drive - usually pretty fast but very easily, throwing her hands in the air, clapping, singing as she drove. We learned a lot in the backseats of those cars. She was one parent who seemed to know her children were always watching. For example, if she were driving too fast, or the police found it necessary to pull us over for any reason, we'd watch as she prepared herself for when the policeman (they all seemed to be men back then) inevitably showed up at her window.
"Good morning/afternoon, Officer," she would say, much before he had the opportunity to address her. Prior to his arrival, she would have instructed us to be still, which meant "be quiet," "be good little children," and "please don't embarrass me in front of this man." We generally feared our mother, not because she was mean or was a strict disciplinarian, but because we knew that she meant whatever she said. She did not lie, and if we went too far with our foolish behavior, we knew she'd find a way to make us understand how wrong we were. She had our respect. So we'd sit there and watch her interact with the policeman.
"Ma'am, you know you were twenty miles over the limit," the officer might say.
"Oh, no, sir, officer. I had no idea." Then she'd begin her explanation - that she was just so happy in the Lord and the speed just got away from her. He'd remind her of the speed limit; that it was there for a reason. He might mention all the children in the car, which she'd proudly name and count for him. They might talk like that for several minutes - her, addressing him as "Sir" with every statement she made. I think about this now that I am older myself. I know that she was teaching us to respect the law and its visible form there in the police officer, but now I wonder is she was simply teaching us as black kids how to survive in this world.
Think about it - this was the deep bad awful South that people always marvel about when I'm out in the world and I tell them where I was born and raised. I wonder if those same people see the irony of the George Floyd example - he, who lost his life for passing counterfeit money, not in the deep South, but in Minnesota. Do they, like me, wonder if we might be moving backwards in time, in societal values, in humanity, so that what actually happened to him feels more like the Middle Ages? Aren't we as humans always bragging about our ability to evolve, to change for the better? The example of my mother and all those years ago should not be lost on anyone. Please note that at no point did the police officer pull her from the vehicle, throw her to the ground, and put a knee to her neck, leaving us kids screaming and disoriented, crying, and begging for her release. The interchange was generally calm and peaceful enough, and my mother would pull away from the still parked police cruiser and drive onward, still singing, still praising her Lord.
Some might say that what my mother was teaching me and my siblings was how to bow down to "the man," to do whatever kowtowing was necessary to keep that police officer feeling respected and superior. That might be part of a bigger conversation. I might spend too much time addressing the racial hatred that I've seen first hand - the jobs lost, the apartments/homes not gained, the name calling, the times I walked into a store or restaurant and felt so many eyes wanting/needing me to be gone. I could go on. Please do not think for a moment that I believe racism is dead, or that my mother did not feel it on a daily basis. This discussion is about the clear and present definition of racism: when someone in power affects the life of someone of a different color or race most negatively, often to the point of that person of color losing his or her life.
Perception and symbolism go hand in hand, I think. For so long, the perception in America has been that blacks are inferior. Some people want to carry that belief to their graves, but mostly, they want to force that belief on other members of society. The thing is . . . a symbol gains power when it becomes an archetype. In other words, the original idea or thing or image becomes the thing copied, or in this case, believed. So, these people believe that as long as the archetype (of blacks being seen as inferior) is upheld, then their position in society (as superior) is maintained and is safe from extinction. As people often say of racism, it comes from fear - in this case, the fear of being less than. These people literally need to place their knees on another race's neck (and back) in order to feel good about who they are.
Did my mother feel inferior on those occasions when she was pulled over by a police officer? I have no way of knowing. In my heart, I think she did not. I say that because of the many times I've been pulled over myself and I showed a similar level of respect for the police officer. I have not felt inferior. Nor have I felt inferior anytime someone has tried to make me feel inferior because of the hatred that boils inside them. My mother taught me the valuable lesson of believing in myself. I often tell my students that they must be confident in their work, which begins with confidence in themselves. I believe it's that same confidence that has helped black people survive over these long years. The old folks used to say, "You know, the world will sure try to stop you." I know the world will try to stop blacks from achieving what they desire because that seems to be the nature of current humanity.
But what hurts me, to the core, is that this hatred (and desire to stop blacks from believing in themselves) seems to have taken on a noticeably new level. And that is saying a lot. We might think or assume that hatred isn't countable, or measurable - that hatred is hatred, and people who hate simply hate and that is all. We are being shown that this is not true. It is as if this archetype of painting blacks as inferior is no longer enough. Perhaps those who hate say, "We've hated for so long, but it does not seem to be working; those people are still living and getting stronger." Perhaps it is the leadership that is egging them on, or perhaps they feel emboldened by a strength in superficial numbers. So, they hate and hate and hate some more.
Then they mold that hate into whatever they want it to be and use it in their jobs by forcing their knee into a black man's neck for nearly nine minutes. They see a black man jogging down the street, and they shoot him. I could go on, unfortunately, because this is becoming the new norm it seems. We have been taught and conditioned to believe that hatred can never outlast love (God said it, and I believe it), and yet, we doubt because of what we see in society today.
So what will save us? What will turn the tide, as it were? Martin Luther King JR (and others) have said the overall problem in societies, at least the main problem that allows injustice to reign, is that good people stand by and do nothing. Yes, black people will fight for their justice and pray that one day the world will introduce a new archetype - one that shows every person, no matter what color or race, is equal and deserving of liberty and justice. Yes, there will be mean and unusually uncompassionate people who try to stop justice from being realized. But, in the final analysis, it is the vast majority of people in America - the ones who would rather sit back and remain detached from complex issues - that will eventually have to make the difference. They are the ones who will have to stand up and say, "No more!"
Many years ago, the great poet Langston Hughes wrote, "I, too, sing America" (line 1), in a poem that alludes to another great poet, Walt Whitman, who said, "I hear America singing" (1). Hughes writes of a time when America will "see how beautiful" (16) the black race is and feel "ashamed" (17) of how blacks have been treated. Hughes's tone is optimistic and leaves many a black reader feeling hopeful about such an America. Hughes ends the poem, "I, too, am America" (18). What Hughes is also doing is reminding, informing, and insisting that blacks are not inferior. We find it necessary today to repeat Hughes's words: we, too, are America.
Yet, I wonder what Hughes, or even King or Whitman, might say about what is going on in society. I inherently know that these men would feel disgusted by what they see. Hughes might say, "It's time for another poem - one that makes it clear because some people just didn't get it." Whitman might get up from pondering in the grass, and add another line or two, ones he might wish he'd been clearer about. And King, well, I think he would be saddest of all. He might feel that his dreams let him down, or that he just didn't dream hard enough. I would say to these great men, wait a minute, hold on, this thing is not over. The optimism that Hughes felt should never be forgotten. And if we doubt this, then we should take a look around, at the protests, at the joining of races, of the rightful cries of "Murder!" being heard around the world.
Let me begin to close with this: I plead with everyone in society to please stop saying "All Lives Matter" in response to the Black Lives Matter cause. You will have to look long and hard to find a black person who does not know that all lives matter. That is the very thing we are fighting for. Do you really believe black people, of all people, do not know that all lives matter? It's just that at times in life, the obvious needs to be stated. The slogan "Black Lives Matter," which should sound redundant, does not, because as I said earlier there is a contingent of people in our society who insist on propping up an old archetype so that they can feel superior. That is why what may seem obvious needs/has to be stated. I'm not necessarily one to quote Jeff Bezos, but I agree with him that because of the color of his skin, he doesn't have to worry that his son "might be choked to death while being detained," and yet black people DO have to worry. Could we at least try to change this disparity so that no parent has to worry?
Again, no one is suggesting that all lives don't matter - just the opposite. Take that thought a little further and see beyond the simple issue; get down to the complexity of the issue: include black people in "all" when you interact with them, when you think of their well-being, when you decide whether or not you want to help change the way they are being treated. Another thing my mother taught me is that when making choices in life, there is always a right and a wrong choice. She said I should make it simple and always choose what is right. I ask America to do that now. If you can look at the murder of a man (any man) in the manner in which George Floyd was killed, and not understand how wrong that was, then please take a moment and ask yourself why. Please explain why it's not wrong. Then think about justice and the fact that he never got to go to court and plead for justice because he is dead. If you need to, place yourself in George Floyd's place, or put your child there, or your parent, your sibling, or your friend there. I do not believe you will think it was right, on any level. It's time America to prove that all lives truly do matter.