I wasn’t expecting to plough through a book this morning before sitting down to work, but that’s precisely what I did.
What an incredibly important, thought-provoking, emotional, heart-breaking and yet hope-filled gem of a novel.
I cannot imagine what it is like to be a young, black man in today’s world. But, this book certainly does much to help me to understand the unreal expectations and choices, the absurd stereotypes they must respond to and attempt to dispel, and the unending pain and confusion and frustration and anger as well as joys tempered by bullshit that they face every minute of every single day.
Damn…. What a profoundly important and beautiful book. I need to sit with this for a while.
I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticise her perpetually.’
― James Baldwin
On 28 August 1955, a 14-year-old black boy wrongfully accused of ‘offending’ a white woman was abducted and brutally murdered in Mississippi. ‘Offending’ in that instance merely meant ‘flirting’ or ‘whistling’ at a white woman, an offence later recanted by the would-be accuser. Unfortunately, that recantation came too late for Emmett Till.
Emmett Till was beaten and mutilated, shot in the head and then thrown in the river by those who brutalised him. An all-white jury found the white men who killed Emmett not guilty. Those men later admitted, rather proudly, that they had indeed killed Emmett Till.
Emmett Till was 14. He was lynched, for the ‘crime’ of daring to speak to a white woman.
In 2020, we can now add to the list of names of far, far too many black bodies killed or brutalised first with questions only following later. Their crimes may not involve simply speaking to a white woman in rural Jim Crow Mississippi, but they are largely no less shocking: walking with Skittles in a pocket through a gated (read: white) community. Playing with a toy gun. Driving while black. Running while black. Sleeping in your own bed. Paying for groceries with a counterfeit $20 bill. Selling single ciggies on a street corner. Breaking up a brawl between two women.
A black man who *may* have a knife is shot in the back seven times a fate deemed justifiable because he seemed *threatening*, whilst a white boy carrying an AR-15 through the streets can shoot three people, killing two, is given the benefit of the doubt and granted the justification of ‘self-defence’.
For black bodies, there is no due process. There is no justice. And, there is certainly no peace. But, what sort of self-defence exists for them? They can scream with what little breathe remains, ‘I can’t breathe!’, and still they are choked and prevented the most basic of needs: air to breathe.
What’s worse, those who perpetrate those murders and far too many contemporary brutalities are emboldened by badges and guns or the simple cloak of their whiteness despite being sworn into duty to serve and protect.
Who are they serving? Who are they protecting?
At times, it feels to me like we have progressed so very little from 1955, or that any progress we have made is cosmetic rather than lasting, enduring or systemic. Systemic racism and racial injustice and inequity appear to be more institutionalised rather than less, primarily because we refuse to open our eyes and see the realities lived by those who are not born white.
If we ever hope to be truly free or peaceful or just, these atrocities must be acknowledged and we must accept our collective responsibility for the continued and persistent systemic racism that is woven into the very fabric from which our flags are sewn.
The video below provides an animated version of the Atlantic Slave Trade. For 2 minutes, dots of varying sizes indicating the number of black human beings transported from Africa to the Americas against their will move across the Atlantic Ocean from the Old World to the New.
If this isn’t horrific, I don’t know what is.
Today, 19 June, is Juneteenth, the day we should all celebrate as marking the end of a most horrific era in human history, the day when all black Americans learned that the ownership of other human beings (meaning, their ownership by their white masters) officially ended across the United States. Yet, few know that Juneteenth actually exists or what it specifically means and refers to. That lack of knowledge and skipped-over bit of history is problematic all on its own. It’s also emblematic of how far we still have to go in the United States and elsewhere in making racism and inequity and inequality a part of our past rather than current events so that we may truly claim freedom for all a reality.
That Juneteenth honours and remembers events from Galveston, Texas, when Major General Gordon Granger informed the people of Texas that all slaves were free, makes it all the more ironic if not outrageous to this particular Daughter of the Republic of Texas (yes, I am actually a member of the DRT). We are not taught this particular and incredibly important event in our ‘history’ courses. We are taught the history of white America, but not American history. Rather than being taught the history of Juneteenth in grade school or university history classes as a young girl or young woman, much as I learnt about the Emancipation Proclamation, I first heard the term Juneteenth within the last several years. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that most textbooks are written for and approved by the Texas Board of Education, an agency known to bend to the whims of political ideology and religious dogma at the expense of critical thinking or scientific knowledge and understanding of the world around us. At one point in time, before an outcry and complaints, one Texas textbook referred to slaves as involuntary ‘immigrants’ and workers. Talk about whitewashing history.
It’s shameful to me that in 2020 we are still woefully unaware of our own history. That history, whether we acknowledge it or not, shapes our lives today, and informs how we view and treat one another. From Juneteenth to the Tulsa race massacre and destruction of the Black Wall Street to the impact and legacy of Jim Crow laws to rewriting MLK and Malcom X as less threatening and more ‘peaceful’ to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Robert Fuller and today’s mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow, we need to revisit and rewrite history, making it less favourable to white America and more reflexive and inclusive of the voices and lived experiences of POC. It will be uncomfortable, and it will be difficult. But, it is necessary. And, it is right and just and honest and true, even if we find it horrific.
So, as a first step, let’s start today. Right now. Here’s to making Juneteenth a national holiday, celebrating freedom and a day of remembrance.
NB: Like many, I’m genuinely struggling to put into words what I feel or to process what we’re collectively witnessing and experiencing in this moment. This is my own first step, based on a personal experience from this morning and how it might help me, at least, move forward and do something — anything — to affect positive change within my own network. The specifics of this morning’s experience are anonymised in order to protect my friend’s identity. This is my own perspective and reflects that alone.
I am not necessarily good at difficult conversations. I have never have been, and it’s perhaps the flaw I recognise as most unfortunate about myself. And, the flaw I struggle with the most.
If I am completely honest, I see the ugliest parts of myself surface during those moments. Specifically, I do not deal with criticism well at all, despite being more critical of myself than anyone else could ever hope to be. Contrary to understanding its necessity in helping me do and be better as a wife, friend, instructor, writer, [insert descriptor/role here], constructive criticism makes me exceedingly uncomfortable in the moment. I have no problem questioning my own beliefs on my own, but publicly I find such instances particularly painful and typically shy away from them whenever and as much as possible. I am also working on this. Because I want to grow as a person and be a better person for those in my life as well as my own community. But, it’s damn hard work.
Given the current backdrop of various bits of chaos that has become 2020, and the unreal events unfolding in the United States specifically, difficult and uncomfortable conversations are necessary. So, when a friend with whom I share very little ideologically reached out to ask me about a sensitive topic, I took a deep breath and dove in head first.
And, you know what? I regret nothing. It felt good. It worked. It was respectful and honest. Unresolved, but solid and a step in a direction we both welcomed. And, that’s something.
Because neither of us approached this conversation from the perspective of needing to be right or correct or proving our point, it worked.
To me, this moment provided an opportunity, not only offering the chance to reach an understanding of a perspective and the thoughts of someone with whom I do not share a world view. But, also, a chance to help someone I know understand a bit more about where to find resources and perhaps look at their own world view in a slightly different way, one which might prove more beneficial to those unlike us who desperately need allies who look like us. This moment hearkened back to a time when liberals and conservatives / Democrats and Republicans / blue states and red states could discuss the issues of the day and find a way forward rather than ripping one another apart.
This friend and I conversed with the intention of listening and gaining insight rather than being heard and judging one another. We challenged one another (I hope), but we also chatted aiming to help one another rather than selfishly and myopically support and validate our respective viewpoints. We did not approach the conversation intending to pick apart everything; instead, we tried to unpack one thing. We asked probing questions and patiently waited for responses. We left labels aside, placed pins in other important topics which were tangential to this specific topic and focused instead upon the meanings we might have missed by using various labels previously.
And, we left the conversation with points to think about and consider, with an agreement return to our discussion later. We did not leave feeling frustrated, angry, hurt of belittled.
We provided ourselves with a way to move ourselves as well as our communities forward. And, that’s huge.
So many of us right now are hurting, whether we agree on what pains us or not. So many of us lament and despair the loss of innocent lives and the inhumanity we are collectively witnessing, all in the middle of a global pandemic that demands social distancing and has impacted our social and economic realities if the not the very fabric of our lives. We may not necessarily agree on what causes the pain or anguish, or indeed upon on what specifically what must change. But, we agree that the wounds run deep and divisions are killing us. And, that change is necessary.
To me, we must also confront continuing injustices such as institutionalised racism and a system rigged to maintain the status quo and extreme power differentials in place. Doing so requires finding common ground and understanding wherever and whenever we can. It won’t be easy, and perhaps might result in more than a little blood, sweat and tears, for some real and for others allegorically and metaphorically. But, the difficult, sensitive and hard conversations and discussions must take place.
So, here’s an invitation: Come talk to me.
I will listen. I will do my best to be open to those difficult conversations, without judgement or justification. I will do my best to be respectful and less reactionary or defensive. Primarily, rather than shy away from them, I invite those discussions and conversations, welcoming them and genuinely consider them. I may not always agree, but I will seek out ways to reach consensus where possible and check my own biases and privileges and assumptions as necessary. I hope all of us will do likewise. Otherwise, nothing will change.
Like much of the country, my country, I’m rather stunned this morning, and yet not. I’m heartbroken, again, to see hatred and bigotry out-screaming and dulling the goodness and diversity I love about my country. I’m rather out of words.
Earlier this year, I was fortunate to catch ‘I Am Not Your Negro‘ in the theatre at its only showing in Finland. James Baldwin’s words are more than moving, and more relevant than anything written today, to my mind. Given the time between when they were spoken or written, their relevancy today seems almost prophetic, yet its indicative of what we haven’t achieved.
Indeed, given yesterday’s events, it seems we’ve regressed.