A few days ago I shared a story on my Facebook page. It is a story of how my cousin was pulled over for a trumped up traffic offense, in Joe Arpaio’s Arizona, and how he was hassled because the cop thought he might be an illegal immigrant, asking him to produce “papers”, papers which no American actually carries around with them.
The story brought a lot of attention. Over 100 reactions (likes, loves, wow, sad, angry) on my wall alone. Almost 60 people shared the story on their own Facebook pages. But, a couple of guys spent a couple of days telling me that my posting the story was just “whining”. They insisted that what I should do is take legal action against the Sheriff’s department. Despite being told repeatedly the story didn’t happen to me (something they could not quite seem to grasp), they kept coming back to this point; that unless legal action was taken there was no sense in discussing it at all. Any discussion was just “whining”. After a couple of days of listening to their whining about my supposed, whining, i gave up and moved on.
On Saturday, I was discussing the history of our people with my mother. She, randomly, mentioned that you can get to Senegal directly from Philadelphia now. Why she said this, both of us are at a loss to figure out because my mother has no intention or desire to ever step foot on the continent of Africa. To see the location where the slaves were put on the ships would be the last thing she would ever want to do. Her reaction to this history is so strong that she could not watch the show Roots. She has had to leave a black history museum because the feelings of anger overwhelm her so. I was explaining to her the responsibility I feel to learn this history so that I can educate others as to why our people still struggle to this day from the deep wounds inflicted, not 400 years ago, not 40 years ago, but even right up until they present day. Things just began when our forefathers were put on those ships. Maybe even worse than the anger she feels when she sees this history is the shame she feels when it’s discussed in front of white people. I cannot relate to the shame, at all. We have done nothing to be ashamed of; quite the opposite. But, then it dawned on me. My mother attended a segregated school. She graduated from Gary Negro High School (the actual name). She grew up next to white kids but when it came time to go to school, they went to the good school and she went to the run down school- separated only by the color of their skin. She was taught to be ashamed of who she was. I have not had this experience. I did attend a functionally segregated junior high. The Columbus (Ohio) Public Schools were so functionally segregated in the mid 1970s that the court ruled that they had to do something about it. The Columbus Plan was developed which said that any kid in any school in the city could transfer to another school as long as it improved the racial balance of both schools. The white schools had better teachers, better equipment, offered more sports, in fact offered more advanced classes than the black schools. My first year at Dominion Junior High, if I remember correctly, there was one black kid who actually lived in the zone for that school (and I think she was biracial) and there were three of us bussed in. It was quite an experience to say the least. Some of these kids had never talked to a black person face-to-face.
So, Saturday night, prompted by the discussions of the week, feeling racism rise to the fore of the nation’s (white) consciousness again, I decided to watch Birth of A Nation, the story of the uprising led by Nat Turner. I say that racism is rising to the fore of the nation’s (white consciousness) because, as a black person, it’s never out of our consciousness, we don’t have that luxury. We don’t have that privilege. If we forget, it can literally cost us our lives. Make the wrong move with a police officer, forgetting the color of your skin, and you can wind up dead.
I can recall a time when I wasn’t necessarily ashamed of being black, but I certainly did not understand “Black Pride”. We’re seeing white supremacists come crawling out of the woodwork now. As one of my friend commented this week, how sad when your greatest accomplishment is something you had no control over, the color of your skin. When I was in my early 20s, I remember having a conversation with my fiancé at the time almost like it was yesterday. I said to her that I was not ashamed of being black or afraid to be black, as she claimed because I “acted white” (I went to all white schools for most of my year in school). But, I said “If you were up in heaven looking down on Earth, would you choose to be black? Who in their right mind would make that choice?” You could never have convinced 24 year old Brian of anything different.
Today, at 56, I am glad I have lived long enough to have had my eyes opened. I believe I actually did make the choice to be born black and I think I know why. I’ve been an ambassador all of my life, crossing barriers, educating people, and busting up stereotypes. I’ve learned humility. I’ve learned compassion for other people who have less privilege, like women, gays, latinos, Muslims, etc. Our struggles have differences, but they are essentially the same. I was born in the generation immediately after Jim Crow. I did not feel its effects personally, but my mother and both my in laws attended segregated schools, my father was denied a job in professional accounting firms because of the color of his skin. And, I have had my share of personal experiences.
After watching Birth of A Nation and having a reminder of what we, as a people, have endured, and how far we, as a nation, have come, I started the book “The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, an aspirational book about the world that I know many of us long for. I’m sure I’ll be writing more about this book over the coming days. Today, what I want to say is that I know I’m not alone in hoping for and even believing a little in a rebirth of our nation. It’s always darkest before the dawn and no great changes ever come without pain and disruption. What we are seeing now is things being stirred up. Apathy is turning into discontent and discontent can turn into action. Those clowns on my wall who spent dozens of comments trying to shut down the conversation only kept the conversation alive. Their claim that the post was meaningless is belied by the number of people who chose to engage. Change is coming. I can feel it in the air.