Piece 16: Hope and Hard Pills

Peace by Piece

Music is a balm for me. When I am tired or distracted, the right tune can energize me and improve my mood. When I need the emotional release that accompanies a good, long cry, the right playlist will take me to that emotional space almost immediately. And, too, when I feel lost, forgotten, and unable to remember who I am, music can anchor and center me. Force me to sit still and quiet the voices without to listen to the still, quite voice within.

I stumbled across the Hope and Hard Pills podcast for the first time last summer. Having followed Andre Henry on social media for a short while, I noticed with interest when he promoted his podcast on his Facebook page. One particular episode – with Candice Benbow, another Christian thinker whose voice and insight I value – is my first recommended resource this week. Henry and Benbow speak frankly about loss, grief, and the complicated relationship we sometimes have with our church families (and they with us). The faith community they speak of building is the very thing I didn’t know I needed during my early twenties, when I was just trying desperately to accept the doctrine that had been presented to me as absolute truth during my college years. What a vastly different, spacious, inclusive theology would have done to transform and open my young heart, I’ll never be able to go back and know for sure. What I appreciate particularly is how much the church experiences Henry speaks to mirror my own. There’s a satisfying, deep sense of catharsis when strangers so aptly analyze experiences that left me frozen and almost unable to cope in real time. The healing that comes with such catharsis is thorough and – at the moment, anyway – ongoing.

The Red Couch with Propaganda and Alma is a podcast that provides unique perspectives from a black spoken word/rap artist and his Mexican wife, who is a professional academic. The couple speaks earnestly about their life experiences, their interracial and cross-cultural challenges, and raising their two daughters in the context of their blended family. Whether I glean new levels of meaning in world politics from Prop’s “Hood Politics” segment or collecting gems from Dr. Alma’s multicultural, data-informed insights, I learn something new from this pair every time I listen. The Red Couch with Prop & Alma is the second resource I suggest this week. 

The third resource I suggest is the always incisive “Combing the Roots with Ally Henny.” Every episode Henny publishes touches on a truth that resonates with me. For context: our backgrounds are similar. We are both black women in our thirties, with roots in the black American church, who married white men and ultimately became Episcopalians. With these commonalities, it’s no surprise that Henny’s experiences and perspective feel so similar to my own. Time after time, Henny combines her wit, candor, and vulnerability with commentary regarding the political climate and the state of the church, to boldly illuminate a new aspect of truth I need to hear. Her style is systematic and unflinching, two descriptors that seem to be missing from too many public conversations around justice and race today. 

As you listen to the voices of these activists, artists, and Christian thinkers this week, I hope you will consider these questions:

  • When you sense yourself feeling resistant to new ideas and perspectives, where does that resistance come from? Were you taught or conditioned to feel this resistance, or is it a natural response you have always felt?
  • How has broadening the scope of voices you listen to impacted your life? Has this led to deeper, more meaningful relational experiences with your friends and family?
  • How are you doing with recognizing and checking your biases? [confession: I’m a definite work in progress on this one]

Keep doing the heard work, all y’all. We will create peace for ourselves, our communities, our world, one piece at a time.

Piece 15: Anthem

Peace by Piece

In piece 14, I asked what actions you are taking to make the world a better place for our children than it has been for us. I asked if you were holding your breath and hoping, or if you are actively seeking ways to make change happen. In recent months, I’ve had the opportunity to become involved in several local efforts to get involved in making necessary, overdue changes in the community where I have lived for 20 years – the entirety of my adult life. I hope that you have exhaled. I hope that you are looking to join work already in progress. And I hope that you are looking for ways you can use your unique gifts and skills to uplift your community as well.

Photo by Edward Eyer from Pexels

This week, I’ve put together a playlist of anthems to invite you on an emotional journey. For me, to be black and American has often meant wrestling inwardly. To push forward, toward goals that I think I can reach which, once attained, may put me in a position that makes people who are not black and/or women feel threatened and therefore lead them to push me backward; or to stick to what I know will keep people around me comfortable, even though it means shrinking myself and leaving lifelong questions unanswered? To put on an affect of dialect or style of dress or carriage of my body that fits a stereotypical, accepted picture of what it means to be black; or to show up in the fullness of who I am and weather having my identity called into question? To accept others’ assertion that what they perceive of my personal identity is insufficient and therefore I have no claim to stake in a black cultural identity; or to embrace the unique genes and experiences that comprise who I am and therefore expand a popular but incredibly narrow concept of what it means to be black.

For me, the anthems in this playlist represent specific moments in time. They’ve lifted me when I was low. They’ve reached out to offer commiseration when I’ve felt alone. They’ve met me where I was when I felt I wasn’t equipped for a task. They have assured me that I am enough just as I am. I hope these songs will help you to empathize with the push and pull that I and many [if not all] black Americans live with daily: to strive or to sit; to reach for more or to accept what is; to risk our safety as we try to succeed, or to hope we may go unnoticed if we stay small and try to live in peace.

Sam Cooke’s infectious, timeless “A Change is Gonna Come” leads this week’s playlist. Shortly after Cooke wrote and recorded the song in an unprecedented short amount of time when compared to his prior work, the singer was shot and killed under mysterious circumstances. His haunting anthem, though, has outlived him, resonating with audiences a short two years later as Bloody Sunday transpired on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and decades later as systemically unjust policies and practices continue to disproportionately harm communities of color. The injustices about which Cooke felt he could no longer be silent are among us still, dwelling alongside us, insisting at times that we ignore the reality of their being. And Cooke’s work has survived to keep helping us to see clearly the change that is still needed and has not yet come.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

When Common and John Legend accepted the Oscar for “Glory,” I cried. When I had first heard the song in the context of the movie Selma, I had cried then as well. In truth, I own an unopened copy of Selma, which I was only able to watch one time – in the theater with my husband at my side, holding me while I wept at the sight of actors reenacting that Bloody Sunday massacre that was intended only to be a peaceful march for voting rights. What “Glory” stirs in me is that inner yearning for the already-not-yet that I believe comprises the kingdom of God: the yearning for something we already have experienced by virtue of our Creator, while at the same time the elusive thing itself remains nebulous while we live our lives in these mortal bodies here on Earth. 

The playlist begins with Sam Cooke and Moana, progresses to Andra Day and Chance the Rapper, and ends with the soothing balm of Mahalia Jackson, Common, and John Legend. There are love songs, gospel songs, rap songs, cussing songs – all of which for me work together to express emotions intertwined with feelings that are inextricable from my experience of being black and American.

I hope you listen. 

And as you listen, I hope you will consider the following questions:

  • If you can, imagine yourself in the position of constantly feeling at odds with yourself/your expectations/your family, culture, or society’s expectations of you. If such a state of being was your constant and you could never truly rest from it, how would you cope?
  • Where or to whom do you turn for comfort and solace? Have you ever witnessed someone else trying to twist that object of comfort and solace into something wicked and unworthy, in order to satiate their desire to maintain a sense of superiority over you?
  • How have you navigated the inner turmoil that results from competing expectations of self and others, in your own life?

Keep reading and thinking and pushing yourselves to be braver, more compassionate human beings. We will all be better for it. And come back here to join me next week, so we can keep working for peace, one piece at a time.

Piece 14: Where Does it Hurt?

Peace by Piece

Last week, I asked if you have diversified the sources of information from which you draw, beyond sources I have specifically recommended here. While I am writing this series primarily with materials I’ve read, watched, and listened to over the past three or four years, I’ve found that when I conduct my brief research each week, I find fresh voices to follow. I’ve begun to follow several women of color on social media whose words and work are agitating the too-long accepted status quo, pushing their audiences to think and feel more deeply, and pulling them into a dialogue and a cultural awareness that will ultimately liberate marginalized people groups from the unhealthy, unrealistic expectations the dominant culture has placed on them for centuries. This week, my focus will turn toward several people of color who are actively involved in justice work. I hope you’ll join me in following them.

A year or two ago, a friend recommended the podcast “On Being” to me. I was not at that time a regular podcast listener, so I wasn’t optimistic that any could keep my attention, particularly since one of the specific episodes my friend recommended contained names of people I’d never heard of before. Even though the host was award-winning journalist Krista Tippet, I’d never heard of her. And even though the interviewed subject of the episode was active in SNCC during the Civil Rights Movement, including marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge herself, I had somehow never heard of her either. This week’s first suggested resource is Ruby Sales’ interview on “On Being with Krista Tippett.” I’m so glad I took her my friend’s suggestion and listened to this episode, though, because Sales’ message has stayed with me. Near the end of the interview, Sales opens up about a pivotal moment that taught her how to help young people – particularly young activists – to heal. While getting her hair done one day, Sales asked this question of her stylist’s daughter, who was clearly in pain: Where does it hurt?

As I have plugged into a few local efforts, a key motivation for me has been young people. So many young adults and teens are paying attention and participating in current movements and uprisings in this country. And each time I feel a surge of pride at their activism, I feel immediately after a sense of heaviness that this is the cultural climate they have inherited. The problems we have not fixed, the segregated water fountains our parents stared down, the civil struggles our grandparents watched unfold with baited breath: all of these comprise this generation’s inheritance. We haven’t fixed this for them, so they are forced to try and fix it for themselves. The burden we ourselves never wanted our children to bear is waiting in their future to yoke them, and bearing this burden doesn’t at all promise to be an ultimately liberating endeavor. 

Each time I see a young person step into a position of leadership in social justice, I hear the words of Ruby Sales, recalling the young activists she’s worked with who have wondered aloud how black adults could have thrown children into a den of people who don’t love them. I picture Elizabeth Echols and Ruby Bridges marching resolutely into freshly “integrated” schools while hateful mobs bore signs that advertised their desire to keep black students out of their schools, while spit and rocks where hurled at black students, while National Guards made a show of protecting and escorting students even though in some cases they blatantly allowed deplorable, trauma-inducing actions to be visited upon these children.

And even in my pride and admiration at Naomi Wadler and Vanessa Nakate, as well as their contemporaries and fellow activists, I cannot forget the pain in the question Sales has heard in her work: how could we send our children into a world that doesn’t love them?

Naomi Wadler became an internet sensation overnight in the wake of the Parkland shooting on Valentines Day & Ash Wednesday a few years ago. The student-led movement that followed, with Emma González and some of her classmates at its forefront, culminated in a nationwide student walkout and rally in Washington, D.C. The speech Wadler gave at March for Our Lives was soul-stirring and incredibly insightful. At the time of her speech, Wadler was only 11 years -old. Her Twitter page – which showcases her unique, incisive voice and work – is this week’s second suggested resource.

Vanessa Nakate’s activism is rooted in climate change-related work. In her own words, this young woman became interested in the impact of climate change when she was getting ready to graduate from high school and began to research problems facing Uganda. Having never been taught about climate change in school, Nakate quickly realized the wide-reaching impact of climate change on her home: food insecurity due to droughts, deadly floods, desperate families marrying off their distraught teenage daughters to old men because they have no hope of being able to feed and care for them. 

Putting her newfound knowledge into action, Nakate joined Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for the Future and organized Uganda’s first walkouts to raise awareness of climate change and pressure governing officials to take action to help people whose lives are so adversely impacted by climate change. Nakate’s passion, vision, and persistence are inspiring. To see her love for her people and country, and how this love has motivated her to fight for global change, is astounding. This week’s last suggested resource is Vanessa Nakate’s Twitter page as well as the two organizations she has founded: Rise Up Movement and 1 Million Activist Stories

This week, I want to leave you with questions that will facilitate future-centered introspection. 

  • What actions are you taking to make the world a better place for our children than it was for us? Are you holding your breath and hoping for change or actively seeking ways you can get involved in making change happen?
  • Do the children and young adults in your life find an audience with you when they wish to express their griefs, woes, ideas, and hopes regarding the distressing events we often see in the news? Are you listening to the young voices around you?
  • Where in your community can you step up and support young people doing important work? What needs do they have that you can provide? How can you come alongside them and join their work?

Our babies, the babies they may have one day, and the babies of those babies – all deserve a future brighter than our present. Let’s keep showing up for our fellow human beings – including the future ones – by working diligently toward peace, by pursuing it one piece at a time.

Piece 13: When They See Us

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

In piece 12, I shared a bit about voter suppression, what it looked like in post-Reconstruction America, and what it looks like in our country today. I will echo a question here that I asked at the end of last week’s post: have you done anything to hold your elected officials accountable for their actions? I have written letters and emails, spoken once during public comments at a commissioners’ meeting and once at a city council meeting – knees knocking and voice shaking but speaking nonetheless. And I’m not done speaking up to advocate for what I think is best for this community, which at the moment is not having a confederate heroes monument looming over the Gregg County Courthouse. 

This week, my focus will shift from voter suppression to wrongful imprisonment. 

There is a scene at the end of episode two of “When They See Us” when one of the characters practices his trumpet in the middle of the street as the camera pulls backward slowly. The tune the young man plays is not recognizable to me, but its mournful tones resonate as deeply as the sorrow in his eyes. 

There is another moment, too, after the boys have been arrested, when they are being interrogated. At one point, one of the boys is asked about to describe his role in raping the young woman who was attacked while jogging through Central Park. The boy’s response is that he “did it to her.” The scene is so deeply uncomfortable because it is transparently clear that the boy is so inexperienced and naive that he is truly perplexed by the specifics of sexual intercourse, let alone the mechanics of a vicious sexual assault.

For these reasons among many others, not the least of which is that a now-prominent politician took out a full page ad in the New York Times calling for the death penalty to be reinstated to execute these then-children, the first resource I am recommending to you this week is the limited-run dramatic series “When They See Us.” I don’t know that I’ve ever before seen such a poignant examination of just how short-lived black childhood truly is in this country. Even today, well into their adult lives, there are people who stubbornly refuse to believe that the now-exonerated individuals who were jailed as a result of this case, had nothing to do with the crime that took place that night in 1989. “When They See Us” does not pretend to be a documentary that presents facts in an unbiased way. Rather, it calls its audience to pause, think, and empathize with the real men after whom these characters are modeled. We are invited to see these wrongfully convicted adult men as the innocent children they once were, and to mourn with them the childhood they lost that can never be returned to them. I recommend watching this series slowly, no more than an episode at a sitting, as it is emotionally heavy. I also recommend staying tuned for the interview between Oprah and the cast, the Exonerated Five, and the visionary director Ava DuVernay. I will be honest and tell you that I wept watching this series and the interview. Even if you are not moved to tears by this tragic story, I hope that you are moved to learn more about this case and others like it, to pay attention to disparate sentencing for similar crimes among different ethnic groups in this country, and that you check yourself for biases you may have when you read news headlines or encounter black strangers in real life.

The second resource I suggest this week is a short TedxTalk from writer Clint Smith. “How to Raise a Black Son in America” succinctly captures the terror of raising a black son in America. He references “the talk” that black parents give their children, the protective, firm admonition to always keep your hands where police can see them. He contextualizes the statement that black lives matter, explaining why it’s necessary to say such a thing and how it isn’t a term meant to exclude anyone but to affirm the dignity of black people’s lives. Smith is a perennial fave of mine. I’ve enjoyed his poetry, his history-based commentary on Pod Save the People, and the occasional Instagram pics he shares of his growing family. This particular TedxTalk, though, was my introduction to his work. It’s as resonant today as it was when I came across it a few years ago – maybe even moreso. I hope that as you watch his brief talk, you’ll fully listen to both the literary and historical context he provides and the personal experience he shares. 

Since this week’s piece is a quarter of the way through the series, my reflection questions will be more cumulative than resource-specific:

  • How do you feel your thinking has changed since you began to read this series?
  • Have you diversified the sources of information from which you draw, beyond the resources I specifically recommend in this blog series?
  • Are you consciously, actively striving to check your biases when you notice them in your everyday life?
  • What action have you taken to advance efforts toward justice, peace, and equity?

As you take in these resources this week, I hope you’ll take deep breaths as well. Breathe through the emotions each piece brings to the surface, allowing yourself to feel deeply the humanity of the children arrested in 1989, of young Clint Smith as he played with friends one night in a hotel parking lot. Come back again next week, and we will keep working together to unlearn racial bias and cultivate peace in our lives and homes and communities, one piece at a time.

City Council Special Session

meeting room

When I came home from work today, I quickly prepared the remarks below to share at a special (virtual) meeting of the City Council this evening. I share my words here so that should I be quoted or referenced, the entirety of my message will be here, published on my own platform, in its entirety. I have removed the names of specific people I referenced since I didn’t seek their permission before sharing here.

My name is Querida Duncalfe, and I live in Longview, Tx. I moved here twenty years ago to attend LeTourneau University, met my college sweetheart, married him, and together we have made Longview our home. It is for this reason – that Longview is our home – that I speak to you today.

Photo by Emre Can from Pexels

I’m incredibly grateful for the efforts of innumerable individuals who have answered this call for justice in our city. Even though they have been verbally harassed, threatened, and outright ignored by county commissioners, they have persisted. They understand, as do I, that Longview is home to a rich, diverse group of people who love this city and each other. This warm, inviting city that has become become my home, has no ideological place for a 35 foot tall statue dedicated to so-called “confederate heroes.” 

I hear the argument that this is not a city council issue and it should be left to the county. As a citizen who recently reached out to my elected representatives and has yet to receive any response aside from deflection and “it’s not my job,” I want to share what may be a helpful analogy. To be clear, I generally dislike using analogies; in my mind, the only thing like racism is racism – there is no adequate comparison. Therefore, I won’t attempt to make an analogy about racism, the Confederacy, the Civil War, or even monuments and statues in other places.  Instead, I will attempt to speak to your elected position in our city.

I am a year-ten teacher, it is my job to teach the students entrusted to my care. It is also my duty to do my best to meet the needs they present to me. When students and parents bring concerns to me that I cannot personally address, it would be completely unacceptable for me to tell them that their problem isn’t my job. I am duty bound to pass along their concerns and needs to administrators who can help or intervene – and this is true regardless of my perception of the relative magnitude of the problems they present. In this city and county, are our elected officials not duty-bound to hear and address our concerns rather than dismiss them?

I hear, too, that the statue represents history. It’s vital to note too that the statue doesn’t represent all of Texas history. There are more appropriate, joyful, meaningful historic events that can be captured and memorialized in its place.

Photo by Kelly Lacy from Pexels

I hope and pray that as citizens who have not felt they had a voice before, continue to come forward, that you will listen to our calls for action. Remove the monument. It does not represent the onelongview I call home. It has no place here.

Thank you for your time.

Piece 12: About This Right to Vote

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

Last week, I asked about when you may have pushed back against the voices of people of color in your life when they’ve told you they’ve experienced injustice. I did a version of this very thing myself just a few weeks ago, when a trans friend mentioned JK Rowling’s controversial, bigoted views, and I speculated aloud that Rowling’s particular brand of feminism probably didn’t include the experiences of black women. While my speculating may have been understandable, it served only to push myself to the center of a conversation that wasn’t about me. I was just as wrong in that moment as the white woman in the workplace who listens to her black colleague’s account of being treated differently, only to assert that the reason for that different treatment must be because she is a woman and not because she is black.

Honestly, in both cases, discrimination isn’t necessarily spread equally across marginalized groups because we want it to be so that we, too, can feel included in the exclusion at hand. This week’s piece will focus on a different kind of exclusion: that of voters.

When I began this series, I did what teachers do: I made a plan. Although I have adjusted that plan by moving topics around to reflect current events or to include new resources as I have come across them, neither of those is the case for this week. I planned to write about voter suppression this week because it’s an election year – I had no idea at that time that USPS would be under attack, thereby threatening to slow down or prevent ballots from being received by mail during a pandemic that makes mail-in ballots a necessity for more people than in most election years. When I made this schedule, I didn’t know that the primaries in some states would have already been a virtual catastrophe: social distance ignored in some places while voting locations closed in others, even while people were still queued outside waiting to exercise their right to vote.

Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels

In light of all this, it’s an especially important time to act to end voter suppression. Therefore, this week’s resource isn’t something to read, watch, or listen to. Rather, this week’s suggestion is to act. Sign the petition, request your ballot early, call your representatives, and buy a sheet or two of Forever stamps. Should you take these steps, you will undoubtedly be helping the Us Postal Service in its time of crisis.

However, this is not enough.

Across the nation – and especially in the south, including Texas – election years find polling locations closed and voters purged from rolls in areas overwhelmingly populated by ethnic minorities. What this means is that people who are American citizens, who are here legally, who have not lost their right to vote as a result of having committed crimes (which shouldn’t happen anyway), are unable to exercise their right to vote. The very right to vote that heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rep. John Lewis, Diane Nash, Rev. CT Vivian, and Annie Lee Cooper fought for us to have, is still being denied to people of color. The same right to vote exercised by many Black Americans during the too-brief era of Reconstruction, before Jim Crow and grandfather clauses and literacy tests, is still being denied to people because of the color of their skin – and presumably, because of how they will likely vote.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Even if you do not consider yourself a patriot, even if you do not vote yourself for your own personal convictions, even if your state or community is not impacted by closed polling places and long lines and early closing times, I hope that you are bothered by the idea that people who have the right to vote and want to do so, can’t. I hope that bothered feeling moves you to act on their behalf. Donate to the causes working on behalf of voters across the nation. Share the petitions calling on our elected officials to properly serve their constituents. Text the numbers that automatically generate emails to your representatives.

And vote. Even if you can’t vote for every category because of your own conscience, please exercise your right to choose who represents you and works on your behalf, making decisions that impact your community. 

Several years ago, one of my students looked at me and earnestly asked me why people should vote if they really don’t feel that any of the people on the ballot represent them. I thought a minute and then answered him directly: If you don’t vote while you can, then you may not be able to vote when you want to. In many places – Texas included – voter rolls are purged of people who are inactive voters. It’s not right. I don’t believe it’s constitutional. But it happens. And voting at every opportunity is the surest way I know to ensure you continue having the ability to vote in the future.

As for me and my house, I am the only person who can vote. I have young children and an immigrant husband. My vote represents us all. Your vote represents more people than just you as well.

Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels

When you reflect this week on what the 2020 election might look like, and for whom you may cast your ballot, I hope you’ll consider the following:

  • What can you do to help ensure that people in your community are registered to vote?
  • How often do you vote in local elections? Do you keep informed of the issues on the ballot and/or do research before going to the polls?
  • Here in Longview, we’ve had some tense county commissioner meetings regarding the community effort to remove the confederate monument from in front of the county courthouse – the very place where these meetings take place. Much of the recent attempts to sway the commissioners to move the monument have amounted to one basic tenet: holding our elected officials accountable to represent us. Have you held your elected officials accountable for their decision-making? Do you feel they are adequately representing you as part of their constituency? Is your voice being heard? What about the voices of marginalized people groups in your community – are they being heard?

Keep showing up each week to do the work, y’all. Even and maybe especially when we are worn down and want to give up and go home, it’s vital to keep moving forward toward the way of justice and equity. Peace – when we attain it – will not be a victory easily won; we will have fought for it, one piece at a time.

An Open Letter to First-Year Teachers

mask

Dear First-Year Teachers,

It isn’t always like this.

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

My first year of teaching, an experienced teacher said to me over lunch one day that if we could just get teachers to stick with it for five years, they were much more likely to stick with teaching for the whole of their career. She was speaking generally of trends in teachers leaving while the job was hard, before they really got the groove of what they were doing. But I think she could sense my unrest. My unease. My then-untreated anxiety.

Her words have stayed with me, through multiple teaching jobs across different districts, in both public and private schools, and even during my time spent as a stay-at-home mom to my two sons. Although I am sure she did not intend to impact me this way with her words, I came away from that conversation with a weight: if I couldn’t stick it out for five consecutive years, was I really even a teacher? What if I didn’t stay in one place that long? If I left my job to start a family with my husband, did I have any right to come back later?

Here is what I want to say to you: whatever questions, doubts, and anxieties you have this year – of all years – it isn’t always like this.

On the other side of this pandemic are peace and calm.

On the other side of first year jitters is a second-year stride.

On the other side of learning content and curriculum jargon for the first time is a deeper understanding of what’s expected of you with each year that passes.

On the other side of that one student that just seems to try and find ways to butt heads with you is a tried and true strategy for connecting with similar kids you’ll meet in twenty years.

It isn’t always like this.

Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

Please take heart in knowing that the muscles you are developing now as you navigate hybrid in-person and distance learning, magick up new ways to introduce yourself to children you may not see in person for weeks or even months into the new school year, will not only make you strong for the kids in your care, but they will also make you strong for yourself. You will be resilient. You will be wise. You will thrive.

None of us has done this before, not even the fifty-year veteran teacher who has had to walk to school uphill, both ways, in the snow, has taught during a pandemic on this scale. Do the best you can each moment, and know that it’s enough. Protect your physical health and wellness as best you can. Find your marigold. Ignore the tone-deaf advice to always put on a brave face for the kids or to develop a thick skin against criticism [that way lies madness; so stay soft]. Perhaps most importantly, safeguard the boundaries you put in place in order to remain balanced and whole outside the classroom.

Your expertise and abilities are enough. Your creativity and unique personality are needed. Your care and concern are valued.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

It isn’t always like this, first year teacher, and it probably never will be again.

Keep showing up in the most fearless, honest version of yourself you can muster. And we will all get to the other side of this, together.

– Q, a year-ten teacher who believes in you

Who are we?

Who were we in the past?

Who are we now?

Who do we want to be in the future?

Longview native Matthew McConaughey recently stated that based on where we live and where we grow up, we may have “allergies” to certain aspects of our nation’s history. In other words, we may be unaware of prejudices we have that blind us to other people’s perspectives.

This seems to be the case here in Longview. While one part of our local community respects heroic Confederate soldiers who died in service to a romanticized Lost Cause, “lest we forget,” as the statue’s inscription states, a different part of the same community despises the society that seceded from America to protect a way of life that included enslaving their ancestors.

Primary view of object titled '[Bodie Park]'.

The confederate monument that currently stands on the courthouse lawn was erected in 1910 and stood in Bodie Park, at the corner of Fredonia and Tyler.  In 1932, the statue was moved from Bodie Park to its current place just outside this building. An honest look at the political and social unrest prevalent in this country during that time period will reveal the motivation for both erecting this monument and for moving it to stand in a place of prominence on our courthouse lawn. 

What message do we want to send to visitors and citizens who come here? Is our message that a portion of our courthouse grounds is dedicated to confederate “heroes,” as the monument’s inscription states? Is our message that confederate soldiers are more important than veterans of other wars, as the unequal sizes of both monuments on the courthouse lawn suggest? Is our message that if you want to come vote, renew your car registration, or get a marriage license, that you must first observe this monument to history apparently honored by our community? Is our message that we have allergies so severe that we can’t properly contextualize this aspect of our country’s history?

If we are indeed one Longview, as Mayor Mack says, then we need to change that message. We need to look at our community: talented artists, beautiful outdoor spaces, cultural events that represent our community’s diverse population, family-friendly activities to keep our children actively engaged, and savvy entrepreneurs opening small businesses that are thriving even amid our country’s trying economic times. 

We can choose to keep this statue in place to protect a status quo that harms, intimidates, and traumatizes a broad swath of our community, or we can choose to craft a new vision of our city, where old and young, ethnically and religiously diverse, dedicated, hardworking, and talented people work together build something new: an accurate, current, unified message about who we are.

We are one Longview – Strongview, Texas – we have within us everything we need to bring positive change to our community.

Who were we in the past?

Who are we now?

Who do we want to be in the future?

Piece 11: Kalief Browder

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

A driving reason I think it is so important to reflect on the stories we are told about people who don’t look like us, is so that we understand the biases we may be susceptible to. If, for example, all we ever see of black people on TV is that they are either getting into trouble or being rescued from trouble by people who are not black, then we begin to expect the same of black people when we encounter them in real life. It’s for this reason that if we offer a handout or social invitation to an acquaintance of color, we may become deeply offended if they don’t accept. We were so obviously being magnanimous in offering them an experience they wouldn’t otherwise have access to – which we know, of course, because it’s all we have seen.

It’s super important to check the source of these biases so we can root them out of our minds thoroughly. 

Conversely, young Kalief Browder believed in the goodness of being American: the inherent dignity and legal rights he was owed. He believed that his blackness did not in any way negate his entitlement to equitable treatment under the law. And instead of our system of justice fulfilling his rightful expectations, it let him down with fatal results.

I first heard the name of Kalief Browder several years ago, in connection with Jay-Z. No doubt I heard about his story on a morning show or saw him in a picture with a celebrity who amplified his story in hope of helping him to get justice. A short time later, he was gone. 

Even though he had been released from prison after a three-year stay in one of the most notorious prisons in the country – Rikers Island – Browder succumbed to the lingering ghosts of the horrors he had experienced. 

But let’s begin at the beginning.

Kalief Browder was adopted as a baby, brought into a loving home where his mother had already fostered and adopted other children. By all appearances, he had a loving, open relationship with his siblings and mother but a rather fraught one with his father. After his parents divorced, Browder remained with his mother. And like some of his siblings before him, he turned to his surroundings for connection and guidance. In Browder’s case, his surroundings included gang activity that led him to make some wrong choices. As a result, he found himself on probation at the age of sixteen. So when he was stopped by police on suspicion of having stolen a backpack, and was subsequently arrested, he was unable to be bailed out by his family even after they scraped together enough money, because the arrest was a violation of his probation.

When you watch Time: The Kalief Browder Story, you will no doubt find yourself angry at the circumstances of his arrest – a secondhand witness whose story kept changing, a years-long stay on Rikers that included months of solitary and multiple suicide attempts, a judicial system that kept putting off his case, which forced him back into an environment where he was repeatedly beaten. I have no doubt, too, that you’ll want to scream at the guards, judges, and attorneys who time after time allowed his case to be delayed while he remained in custody on Rikers. And I suspect that you will agree with me that Kalief Browder didn’t take his own life any more than his mother died as a result of heart trouble; rather, our country’s inefficient judicial system killed this young man and by extension his mother as well.

So why, then, would I suggest that you watch such a horrific, disturbing story? How could any modicum of peace possibly be found in such heartache? 

Because it happened.

There’s no embellishment or spin that sensationalizes Browder’s story away from the truth of its happening. Every detail of it is factual. The system worked exactly the way it was designed to work. And the result of that system and those facts was that Browder died at a tragically young age, after suffering from physical and psychological abuse made even more harrowing by the fact he endured such abuses during his formative years, before his brain and body had even finished developing.

When I re-watched Browder’s story recently, it struck me that at the time of his arrest, he was the same age as many of the students I have taught. Sixteen: that awkward age when boys’ voices may still be changing such that they don’t hear how the bass in their voices carries across the room, making it impossible for them to whisper. That uncertain age when hormones fluctuate so frequently and everyone else seems to develop faster than they do, yielding sometimes awkward excitement about their facial hair. That wonderful age full of hope and expectation, of unspeakable joys and indescribable lows. I could have been his teacher, constantly pushing him to do his best and then one day wondering where he went, if he had transferred or moved, only to discover years down the road that he had been arrested and later died.

James Baldwin once said that he didn’t know if labor unions and their bosses really hate black people, but he knew black people weren’t in their unions. He said he didn’t know if the real estate lobbies have anything against black people, but he knew their lobbies keep black people in the ghetto. He didn’t know if the board of education had anything against black people, but he knew the textbooks they give our children to read and the schools that we have to go to. Baldwin said, “You want me to make an act of faith on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen,” echoing Langston Hughes’s assertion that America is the land that never has been yet.

Kalief Browder, beautiful, hopeful, full of potential, and brimming with the expectation that the system would eventually work in his favor, never got to see that America that never has been. He held fast to the act of faith Baldwin speaks of, believing that in America justice must exist. And the system failed him utterly. It killed him.

If we are interested in pursuing peace and reconciliation, we must acknowledge stories like Browder’s that block so many of our friends and neighbors from feeling that sense of carefree idealism that we may take for granted in ourselves. In other words, there is no real peace without real truth. There’s no reconciliation without a reckoning.

As you watch Time: The Kalief Browder Story this week, I hope you will consider the following:

  • When have you turned a blind eye to the agony of your neighbor in order to safeguard your own sense of peace?
  • Have you pushed back when people of color in your life have told you about their experiences of injustice, silencing the voices of their experience?
  • Where in your life and relationships can you find space to breathe peace into your friends of color by offering them a compassionate listening ear?

Keep showing up to this space each week, and in time, peace will be ours: one piece at a time.

Piece 10: 12 Years a Slave

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

As this series has taken shape, I have begun each week’s post by answering a question or two that I posted to you the prior week. So I’ll share with you what makes people worthy of the title “hero” in my eyes. To me, a hero is a person who is consistent, trustworthy, and visible in the lives of the people who love them. A hero is true to who they are and treats others with kindness whenever possible. A hero leads with ferocity and integrity. In all they do, a hero leads by example. Heroes are people like Solomon Northrup and Beyoncé.

Years ago, when the movie 12 Years a Slave hit theaters, I had no idea it was based on Solomon Northrup’s real life experiences. With only Oscar buzz and the movie’s title as my informers, I assumed 12 Years a Slave was another antebellum revenge fantasy. Following its release, the beautiful, talented, and undoubtedly deserving Lupita Nyong’o received an Oscar for her role in 12 Years a Slave. And even in my joy and excitement at witnessing Nyong’o make history with her win, I felt a deep underlying sadness at the nature of the role for which she had received this critical acclaim. The one thing that had kept me from seeing the movie was not what I suspected was a revenge fantasy, or even the particular type of weariness that arises from repeatedly seeing the same trodden-down narrative of black people play out on the screen; rather, I was held back from seeing the movie by the anecdotal knowledge that Nyong’o’s character had a brutal rape scene. As a personal practice, I don’t watch or read anything that includes that particular kind of violence. This isn’t a critique of actors or writers who portray such scenes; I am simply too visual a person to put those kinds of intimately sexually traumatic images into my mind.

So I avoided 12 Years a Slave even though I wanted badly to see this beautiful actress’s award-winning debut role, even though I was a fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor, even though it was a movie telling a decidedly black American story – which is typically exactly the type of movie I want to see. I kept 12 Years a Slave at arm’s length until I stumbled across the fact that it was based on a true story, and I became interested in that story. The first resource I recommend this week is Twelve Years a Slave – the book, not the movie. I remain resolved not to see it, especially after I listened to this memoir – which does not include the brutal rape scene depicted in the film. The character and the crimes perpetrated on her while she was in bondage are between the lines of Northrup’s prose, but graphic details of brutal, forced sex acts are blessedly absent. 12 Years a Slave employs the kind of language that 21st century Americans like myself almost have to cut with a fork and knife in order to digest it. His vocabulary and sentence structure are educated, expansive, and positively drenched in his inherent sense of dignity and a dogged determination to win back the freedom stolen from him; none of that language includes a detailed description of sexual assault. 

The second resource I recommend this week is Beyoncé’s Black is King. Where the popularity and overwhelmingly positive critical reception of the film adaptation of 12 Years a Slave illustrate a disturbing American fascination with glorifying black pain – even if doing so means manufacturing some of that pain, as the opening scenes of the film do – Black is King diverges. Black is King tells a story of love, hope, and a steadfast connection that transcends time, space, and even remains once our physical bodies die. Black is King skillfully weaves African artists, imagery, religion, scenery, and timeless beauty, to exalt black joy, black strength, black dignity. To study these two stories and the popular response to both is, I believe, to see with fresh eyes the expectation of the dominant culture in America. Black people are always expected to be submissive to their pain and struggles while observers who are not themselves on the margins with black Americans cry for a moment and then move on with their lives: never changing, never changed.

Truly, what Black is King aims for – and I believe achieves – is an unapologetic, unflinching display of black beauty. If our cultural response to such a stunning feat is to criticize Beyoncé’s wardrobe, to point out that the only white actor in the film is a butler, or to condemn as heresy the visual album’s audacity, then we show the black people in our lives just exactly how we expect them to view themselves and by extension, how we view them: as broken, as weary, as vessels through which to filter our own pain – and nothing more. [Bonus: Lupita Nyong’o makes a brief, glorious, affirming cameo in Black is King.]

As you decide which of these suggested resources you have the time and emotional breadth to absorb this week, I hope you will reflect on these questions:

  • Recall your favorite books and movies that feature black characters. What stories are being told about those characters – are they in pain, struggling, or being helped out of a struggle, particularly by characters who are not black?
  • How often are you taking in stories, books, and movies that showcase black people telling black stories? 
  • Where in your own mind and heart are you celebrating the prevalent cultural narrative that black Americans are situated rightly only when they are in pain, shepherding non-black people through their pain, or magnanimously forgiving others for pain inflicted on them?

Keep sticking with this hard, necessary work. It’s worth it to show the black people in your life that you are doing the work it takes to show up for them, alongside them, with them. Meet me back here next week, and we will keep working together toward peace, one piece at a time.