piece 9: Get in the Way

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 wrote about the danger white women’s tears have historically posed to nonwhite people, particularly the lethal effect Carolyn Bryant Dunham’s tears had on young Emmett Till. Honestly, the personal experiences I have had with white tears are few. But even though I have infrequently been in the room when white tears are shed, I have been termed intimidating, told to smile [one of my least favorite things], not asked back to a job, called brittle and standoffish by an employer, time after time coerced into changing my behavior or my demeanor to suit white comfort.

The evening I began writing this post, Congressman John Lewis passed away. My heart is still hurting, and my vision during the last few days has frequently been blurred from tears: of gratitude, of sorrow, of hope, of overwhelm.

The passing of  John Lewis  hit me hard; so many greats who organized and nonviolently resisted on behalf of themselves, their children, and future unborn generations like mine, are no longer with us. Not only did I cry from gratitude, but I also cried because I know we the living have to pick up and continue where they left off. It’s up to us to pick up the torch Lewis and his contemporaries carried on our behalf.

This week’s three resources are all about John Lewis, a personal hero of mine whose life’s work was justice, equity, and liberation.

The March trilogy is an award-winning chronicle of John Lewis’s activism. The time-jumping tale navigates between Obama’s inauguration, where a young child meets Lewis and asks him to share about his life, to Lewis’s childhood preaching to chickens, to his adolescence and young adulthood participating in Freedom Rides, sandwich counter sit-ins, marches, and speeches. It’s beautifully illustrated, and my boys and I read it before we heard Lewis speak several years ago. I recommend it for school-agers on up. While some of the content is thematically difficult, very little of it is graphic.

In the week leading up to Lewis’s local appearance, I felt giddy with anticipation at hearing him speak. When I picked up tickets to the event, I got to speak with a local reporter about the honor and privilege of simply being able to be in the room with him. The day of the event, the auditorium where Lewis would lecture buzzed with anticipation. The phenomenal Wiley College choir sang a few songs, a local person introduced Lewis, and then there he was – a little shorter than I expected, and more powerful and moving a speaker than I could have imagined. I recorded his entire speech on my phone, soaking up his wisdom and experience, and excitedly glancing at my boys periodically to see if they were grasping the significance of the moment.

I remain deeply grateful for this experience I got to have and share with my family.

Get in the Way is an hour-long PBS documentary. Through interviews, archival footage, and contemporary news clips, we see the evolution of Lewis’s advocacy. Not only was he beaten on the Edmund Pettus bridge in 1965, but just a few years ago, he led a sit-in on the floor of the House in support of gun reform to help keep school-children alive and safe. More recently, we see footage of his marching and dancing in a Pride parade, speaking in favor of an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation. This year, my family crossed that bridge in Selma, Alabama while we were on our Spring Break trip. I paused and breathed in, beckoning my husband to snap a picture of this bucket list moment for me. I felt so connected to the pivotal moment in American history, when a march for voting rights turned into Bloody Sunday, but ultimately served in conjunction with other historic nonviolent resistance to speed along the passage of federal Civil Rights legislation.

When John Lewis first became involved in civil rights-related work, his parents told him not to get into trouble. Rather than obeying them exactly, he found “good trouble” instead. Good Trouble is the most recent film documenting Lewis’s extraordinary life. Released just this month, the movie details Lewis’s lifelong work to secure equality for all Americans. It provides a beautiful, timely examination of his struggle to redeem the soul of America.

As you reflect on what you learn about John Lewis’s life this week, I hope you’ll consider each of these questions:

  • What makes people worthy of the title “hero” in your eyes?
  • Are there people whom you consider personal heroes, who do not share your same cultural, ethnic, or racial background?
  • Where in your life might it be the right time to seize an opportunity to get into “good trouble” on behalf of people who may not be able to get into it for themselves?

Come back next week to continue the work of unlearning racial bias. I believe as we keep working together, we will find peace, one piece at a time.

Piece 8: The Blood of Emmett Till

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 you how you would fulfill your role within the larger movement for justice in this country. For me, in addition to working through anxiety and fear to write this series on my own corner of the internet, I will continue drawing attention to advocacy groups and marginalized voices. I’ve also been fortunate to join with like-minded community groups recently – one to start a Be the Bridge group and the other to erect a historical marker commemorating a troubling aspect of our community’s history.

Photo by Ylanite Koppens from Pexels

When I was a kid, having a summer birthday was rough. There was no opportunity to hand out invitations at school. And even if my parents had my friends’ parents’ phone numbers, there was a huge chance my friends were out of town and therefore unable to come celebrate with me. As a July baby, one thing I did to try and feel a sense of specialness when my birthday came around, was to flip to the back of Seventeen Magazine for horoscopes and celebrity birthdays. I would then try to manufacture emotional connections to the actors who shared my birth month, so I could feel cooler by birthday association.

Then a few years ago, I realized that I had an iconic birthday buddy: the slain Emmett Till, whose murder catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement. I grew up knowing some things about Till’s story. I knew that as a teen visiting his family in the South one summer, he supposedly whistled at a white woman in a grocery store; that when the woman’s husband found out, he got a group of men together to forcibly take Till from his family’s home and kill him; that killing him wasn’t enough; that the men weighed his body down and then threw it into a river; that Till’s body was so mutilated that his own mother could not at first identify him as her child; that Till’s mother decided to have an open-casket funeral so that people could see what had been done to her son; that Jet magazine ran a spread featuring Till’s story and funeral.

Over all this, I knew of course that black people – even children – could not truly be free around white people without being punished.

What I did not know when I was growing up, was that Emmett Till and I shared a birthday. I did not know the woman who accused him of whistling at her – the accusation that led to his murder – later recanted the story of what happened in the store that day. I did not know that two men were tried and acquitted of Till’s murder, that they later confessed to their heinous crime in Look magazine for a fee of $4,000 because they knew they would not be tried again due to double jeopardy. I did not know that in time, a marker in Till’s memory would be erected, only to be tossed into a river and shot at, ultimately replaced at least three times.

I learned most of these facts a few summers ago, when I listened to this week’s suggested resource: The Blood of Emmett Till. In this book, Timothy B. Tyson details eyewitness accounts, interviews, and public records to piece together the truth of Emmett Till’s murder. The depth and breadth of Till’s case definitively illustrate how fatal white supremacy can be for black boys in America. The mere suggestion that a black teen whistled at a white woman was enough for Till to be pulled from the bed where he slept next to his cousin and brutally beaten and killed. 

Luvvie Ajayi Jones touches on this insidious phenomenon in this week’s second suggested resource: “About the Weary Weaponizing of White Women’s Tears.” Jones’ blog post sets forth the idea that white tears can be a matter of life and death for black Americans. While Jones’ blog post draws on personal anecdotes, data does indeed bear out her thesis. The third resource I will suggest this week contains such data: Pushout, a book – and soon-to-be-released documentary – which closely examines how black girls are treated in schools. Dr. Monique Morris traces over-representation of black girls in the juvenile justice system, lack of consideration of students’ home circumstances, and the prevalence of vilifying black girls for behaviors for which girls of other ethnicities are not punished. 

All three of this week’s suggestions shine a bright light on disparities in the way our culture treats black and white people. In many ways, the dominant white American culture seemingly must always be protected and upheld,even at the expense of black autonomy and sometimes, like in the case of Emmett Till, at the expense of black life itself. I do not suggest taking on all three resources this week. Choose what you are able to devote time to, and what interests you most. For me, with Till being my birthday buddy, I’m always interested in facts about his life and death. For teachers who are looking for ways to do better for students of color in their classroom, Pushout may be a more logical choice. If time is short, you may only have time to read Luvvie’s blog post. Whichever resource(s) you choose to engage with this week, I hope you’ll consider these questions as you read:

  • When have I witnessed white tears used as a weapon against people of color?
  • In my personal relationships, how have I coerced people of color to change their conduct to suit my own ideals of propriety?
  • When my white friends complain about people of color in their lives, do I question their perception and bias, or do I accept them as tacit truth because my friends’ perception confirms my own bias?
  • Do I have different behavioral expectations of black children than white children?
  • Are my reactions to children’s behavior different – based on their race – even if their behavior is the same?

This week’s work is emotionally heavy. But I hope that as you exhale and peruse these resources to select one, that you will remember this work is necessary. Be kind with yourself even as you confront hard truths, and I’ll see you here again next week. We’ll keep doing this hard emotional work to actively pursue peace, one piece at a time.

Piece 7: Do justice

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.

Photo by Life Matters from Pexels

Writer James Baldwin once said, “Precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience you must find yourself at war with your society.” In answer to my question last week of when and where are the right time to protest injustice, I’d say the right time is as soon as you develop that conscience Baldwin speaks of, and feel moved to protest. If that conscience-developing moment comes when you are a young person who is tired of not receiving food service because of the color of your skin, then it’s the right time to sit in at a lunch counter. If that conscience-developing moment comes when you are a school-aged child who wants to attend integrated, well-funded schools, then it’s the right time to walk out of school with your classmates. If that conscience-developing moment comes when you are a celebrity who wants to use your platform to draw attention to worthy causes, then it’s the right time to start a foundation to help inform and empower the next generation of changemakers.

For the past month and a half, I have shared podcast suggestions, movies, TV episodes, and books. Today, I want to point you not toward sources of information to take in, but toward points of action.

Seek out and patronize black-owned businesses. Many businesses these days have online storefronts. Take Crayon Case and Honey Pot, for instance – these two businesses are founded and run by black women, and their high-quality products can be shipped right to your doorstep. I encourage you to look for businesses that provide goods or services you regularly use, so you can patronize them on a continual basis. Once you find a product you love, be sure to like and share the business’s social media pages with your emphatic review. By intentionally diversifying the businesses we patronize and freely sharing our positive impressions, we can draw attention to people in our communities who are sometimes overlooked, and we can contribute in a small but meaningful way to restorative work.

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi from Pexels

Donate to organizations that are actively involved in justice work. Through the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson has led a team of individuals dedicated to educating the public about dark, often overlooked aspects of American history, and advocating for incarcerated people, especially those whose families live in poverty. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund approaches race-related justice work through litigation and advocacy. The Southern Poverty Law Center is a hub for education and remembrance, in addition to carrying out the important work of tracking hate groups’ activities, to help people remain informed and safe.

Donate to victims’ families. The list of victims of police brutality is long and horrific, particularly when you consider that in most cases, the victims’ killers are never brought to justice. Although we cannot bring back any of these lives that were senselessly cut short, we can call, email, and write to legislators to advocate on their behalf. These cases need to be investigated and murderers brought to justice. And we can donate to victims’ families and protesters’ bailout funds, knowing that an immense amount of time, money, and expertise will be required to bring killers to justice and ultimately, to reform a historically jacked up legal system.

This week, I will ask you to consider these questions:

Photo by Alexas Fotos from Pexels
  • What actions have you taken in your own life to work toward healing racial rifts?  
  • Who have you begun to read and follow in order to broaden your understanding of marginalized people’s reality? 
  • How will you fulfill your role within the larger movement for justice in this country? 
  • What will you do to ensure that tomorrow is better for your black and brown neighbors than yesterday and today?

Once you decide which actions you can take and reflect on your purpose in this newly awakened racial justice space, come back next week so we can keep working toward peace, one piece at a time. 

Piece 6: Lift Every Voice

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.

At the end of piece five, I left you with a list of questions to guide you in some self-reflection. One reason I was able to come up with the questions quickly is that I’ve been on the receiving end of several of them. I’ve been shushed by a white friend in a restaurant for wanting to send back food that had hair in it. I’ve been confronted by the principal of the campus I worked on and told I was brittle and standoffish for not smiling in the hallways, for not always responding “hello” when greeted [even though in all likelihood the loud, crowded hallways prevented me from hearing his greeting to begin with]. I’ve had my campus principal called by a workshop host because in my frustration, I asked questions, and then, when it seemed I was asking too many so I shifted my focus to note-taking, the workshop presenter found my smile odd – apparently – when she came to ask how I was doing. 

Photo by Ralph Rabago from Pexels

I’ve been labeled intimidating because I am confident, introspective [read: quiet when thinking/regrouping], and opinionated. While this may seem harmless, when people feel intimidated, they tend to do whatever they can to knock down the people who intimidate them. In some ways, to me, “intimidating” is the new “uppity.”

But alas, this week, we’ll shift our focus away from the violence of stifling black people’s autonomy, toward a different kind of violence: the kind that invades a  sacred space.

Churches in this country are segregated not only by race but also by culture, ideology, theology, and politics. While white supremacist racism was the reason for the black church’s emergence separate from white churches in this country, it is not the only reason the black church has remained. Black churches are our haven. Here, we find catharsis, community, engagement, help, peace, family, acceptance, and connection. From the time we are pre-schoolers, we learn Easter speeches, watch our older cousins perform praise dances and mimes, pass out on our grandmothers’ laps during the sermon, and sneak more peppermints from our mothers’ purses than they realize. In black churches, we exhale – away from staring eyes that wonder aloud about our hair texture, cultural references, or blaccents. We are free to live and move and have our being without explaining how we exist the way we do in this world.

photo of James Weldon Johnson,
author of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,”
Courtesy: Library of Congress

And we sing.

At least once a year – in my experience – we sing the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” My church back home would switch out the congregational hymn at the beginning of each month. For every February I can remember, this anthem was that month’s congregational hymn. Today, even without a hymnal to guide me, I can sing most of the words by heart. The familiar tune carries in it a feeling of home for me, a sense of connectedness that is deeper than I have words to express.

Last week, an anonymous person who claims to be in discussion regarding racial tension in the NFL claimed that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” will be played before “The Star-Spangled Banner” for week one games in September.

This is a terrible idea for a plethora of reasons. If the NFL follows through with this supposed plan, I fear that the opening anthem sequence will lead black and white sports fans to sit, stand, kneel, seethe, and likely argue and eventually swing at each other as much as they physically can before the songs end. 

Permeating all the tension is a violent act visited upon a space black Americans hold as sacred. Out from the gloomy past of our people being forced to create their own churches, traditions, and culture, have emerged a richness we hold dear. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is not a call to conflate cross and country as we tearfully revere America’s founding fathers. Instead, the black national anthem is a holy call to remember our people’s oppression, faith, struggle, triumph, and resilience.

Simply put, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” belongs to those of us whose weary years and silent tears have been seen by God. It is a hymn of worship to God, not an anthem of allegiance to a flag.

The Star-Spangled Banner” is at best a patriotic call to take off one’s hat and fall silent while thinking of people who have died for freedoms all citizens can enjoy. At worst, Francis Scott Key’s anthem is a tone-deaf call to remember American whiteness fondly while overlooking the writer’s own view of black people as subservient, subhuman. So for the same national sports organization that blackballed Kaepernick for kneeling in memory of citizens victimized by police brutality, to now invite itself into a sacred space black Americans have made for ourselves, is at best naive and ill-fitting – and at worst, violent and blasphemous.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneels during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

This week’s suggested resources will hopefully help illuminate the meaning of the black national anthem to our community. First, I suggest a close reading of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I encourage you to read each verse and reflect on its meaning, depth, and the collective history it incorporates. Second, I suggest taking a look at Beyoncé’s “Homecoming” on Netflix. She began her show with the black national anthem, and the spectacular concert that followed carried an HBCU theme, which I think will help to further highlight the beautiful, affirming traditions and institutions black Americans have created for ourselves, after being banned from white American spaces that never intended to include us except as servants. Third, I hope you’ll take a careful look at the lyrics to all three verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The anthem, like our country, has a complex author with a complicated and at times conflicting history.

Some questions to consider as you read and watch this week:

Photo by Todd Trapani from Pexels
  • When you first heard of Colin Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem, what was your reaction? Why?
  • When and where, in your opinion, are the right time and place to protest injustice?
  • Think of your family’s favorite song, tradition, or hymn. If your family member was publicly harangued by a group that later wanted to play that hymn publicly, but still had not repaired its broken relationship with your family member, how would your family feel?

I hope you’ll sit with these texts and these questions this week. Get quiet and determine what these songs and traditions mean to you, how important they are in your life. I’ll see you here again next week so we can keep working toward peace, one piece at a time.