Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Forgiveness and Ferguson: Seven Ways to Move Forward

"Forgiveness doesn't absolve anyone of blame. It doesn't clear their record with God. It just clears you of having to worry about how to punish them. When you forgive another person, you're not turning them loose. You're just turning them over to God, who can be counted on to deal with them His way. You're saving yourself the trouble of scripting any more arguments or trying to prevail in this situation. It's not about winning and losing anymore. It's about freedom. It's about letting go." - Love Dare Reminders App

His hands were not up. 

Hours of testimony to a grand jury, with several Black eyewitnesses, revealed that Michael Brown wasn't surrendering, but advancing. Whether you believe it or not, that's what we have on official record in court. There are, of course, alternate versions of the account that could be the truth as well.

But that's not the point. 

If we focus just on his hands, or his situation, we miss a huge learning moment. A young, unarmed, Black male teenager lost his life. He lost it at the hands of a police officer who, according to hours of testimony, acted instinctively in a life or death situation. Focusing on that moment of confrontation misses the idea that the chance for this to end peaceably was lost at the beginning.

When Office Darren Wilson first approached Michael Brown and asked him and his friend to move to the sidewalk. Keep this picture in your mind - Officer Wilson first sees Michael Brown and his friend walking in the middle of the street. 

We will come back here a little later.
When I was a classroom teacher, I quickly learned the leveraging power of respect when engaging with young adults (males in particular). My years as a high school English teacher and basketball coach taught me that there are certain ways you approach young men if you want them to do something. Your tone and language can either defuse or elevate a situation. There are many times that I've chosen the wrong tone or spoken without empathy. The results were always bad. I think that's at least where we can start the learning for race relations - at the empathy level. So, here are seven starting points that could either help prevent another Ferguson situation or create conditions for better race relations overall:

1. Different races, mingling in intimate spaces. Different races rarely mingle together in spaces intimate enough for us to truly understand each other. White people have to be courageous enough to want to find out what it means to be Black in America. Black people have to be fearless enough to share our truth in a way that doesn't indict White Americans who may have no idea of the system in place. I've heard it said that racism rarely, if ever, survives experience. Maybe a start is for churches to start worshiping together at least once a month - the majority Black Baptist church mingling with the White Methodist church every First Sunday. This wouldn't solve everything, but could at least open us up to truly seeing each other in some of the most personal experiences we could have.

2. Healing from within. As Black people, we have to deal with our self-esteem. Decade after decade after decade, we live out centuries-old oppression in our daily lives without really addressing the historic scars that are still bleeding inside of us.

We still think about slavery. We still think about the idea that people who only differ from us in skin color can see us as property, inferior and a threat at the same time. We still have a desire to look pleasing and be acceptable to them. We still have to deal with a Euro-centric idea of beauty, professionalism and public behavior. It is not lost on us that most movie stars, magazine covers, Barbies, stocking colors and band-aids are all in the same hue.

We have to acknowledge the hurt we may feel and arm ourselves with the protection of poems like this one from Langston Hughes, or songs like this one from Donny Hathaway (originally Nina Simone). We need to make new songs, poems and movies that portray Blackness as it is - beautiful, undaunted, irrepressible, resilient, sexy, handsome and unstoppable. We don't need 'Black-ish', we need Black-ness!

This healing from within doesn't just stop with self-affirming literature, but it should travel between and among us in every sphere - when we encounter each other in the professional atmosphere, we should be the loudest ones praising each other. When we see each other doing well personally, we should be the first ones to support each other. When we see each other suffering, we should all band together to encourage and lift up. This way of behavior comes after we have reacquainted ourselves with our legendary history. This collective self-esteem is the power we need to continue pressing on, as Alice Walker put it, 'broad, ever moving and holy, as the sea.'

3. A true 'liberal' education. Don't get stuck at the word 'liberal,' as I am in no way suggesting a politically liberal perspective on education, but liberal in the sense that many perspectives and experiences are welcomed into education at all levels. From pre-kindergarten through a terminal degree, there should be perspectives from both the Conservative and Liberal perspectives. It should be known that our particular brand of slavery was peculiarly American. It should be known that reparations have been given to minorities in America already. Bill Clinton shouldn't be lionized anymore than Ronald Reagan should be demonized. In addition to multiple politically tinged perspectives, there should be room for multiple cultural perspectives. If you're a kindergarten student in Kansas, a book with a Black or Brown face should be commonplace. If you're a third-grader in Baltimore, Shakespeare and Claude McKay should be taught together. Because the canon of literature has been historically White and European, overt measures must be taken to put at the center of instruction books that highlight different cultures. When you constrict the point of view to one political side of the spectrum (depending on your state) or to one cultural perspective, you could get children sitting in their sects in the cafeteria who end up growing up and still sitting in their groups in the House and Senate. Grid-lock is a function of myopia, productive conflict is a result of multiple perspectives.

4. Black communities self-advocating. Although these steps aren't meant to be sequential, I think self-advocacy within the Black community happens logically after some healing and self-esteem has been built up within our community. After that, we learn to consistently, legally and effectively advocate for our agenda and our significance in every institution that traditionally under-serves us.

In practice, it looks like groups of Black parents collaborating on ways to bring concerns to the school if their Black males (or females) aren't achieving at high levels. Day, after day, after day, after day; until change happens. It's Black people voicing their displeasure at anyone in power if our needs aren't being addressed or helped politically, no matter who the party in power is. It looks like Black professionals advocating for the inclusion of other qualified Black professionals in positions where diversity can make a significant impact. It's about Black people being unafraid to levy their complaints and courageous enough to hold institutions financially or legally accountable if they do not serve our interests. We can't be afraid to advocate for ourselves.

Whether it be asking aloud the question of why there hasn't ever been a Black Bachelor(ette) on ABC, or wondering aloud why most of the magazines and greeting cards in a grocery store (or book store) don't show Black and Brown faces. We need to advocate for our place in a society that we helped build and have given a myriad of significant contributions to.

I do want to add that this is where the White community can band together with the Black community in yet another personal space and advocate with us for better education, better media images, better employment advancement, better living conditions and better economic outcomes.

5. Critically consuming media. In the absence of having real-life experience between different races, I think popular media's images and messages of Blacks has filled in the gaps. That's not a good thing. Blacks, and males in particular, are routinely shown to be hyper-aggressive, hyper-sexual and just plain hyper. For our country to move forward, we have to start calling out these one-sided, flat character portrayals of us. We are more than our worst characteristics and we are not monolithic as a culture. In fact, we aren't black-ish, so much as we are blackbrownwhitelatino-ish or blackconservativeliberal-ish or even blackchristianmiddlelowerclass-ish.  We are a beautiful combination of the best and worst parts of humanity - just like any other race. That's what we need to push for in social media, popular media and word of mouth.

We must also create our own rich images and messages and then vigorously support those images instead of the negative ones that are trotted out for us to consume in the feeding trough of popular media. This sentiment goes for the music industry as well. If we keep supporting violent messages about ourselves, how can we ever develop the self-esteem necessary to make better messages?

6. Returning our roots. This lengthy blog has basically said there are negative habits that we need to stop and positive ones we need to start. In order to determine positive from negative, there needs to be a common understanding of right and wrong. That understanding for many Blacks (and Whites) used to be the bible. Our roots when it comes to the Civil Rights movement or even before were firmly entrenched in the Christian faith. In the advent of the prosperity gospel and other wrong-headed moves of the church, Blacks have lost faith in that institution. That's not a good thing.

The morals and values communicated through active involvement in the church was the fabric that tied common decency together in our community. It was, and still is, the only place where Blacks were in intimate spaces, interacting mostly as equals despite socioeconomic status. In fact, socioeconomic status seems to be the dividing line within our community. We need to get back into the church. We need to reconnect with the spiritual foundation of our upward progress. Church can be a place of healing, of repair, of connection, of protection and of collaboration that we just don't have enough of in these times. To those who have walked away from church because of untrustworthy preachers or people - it's time to come back. It is time to forgive. We need you.

7. Forgiveness. During my first three years as a classroom teacher, I had pencils thrown in my direction, students rudely laugh directly in my face and two tires slashed, among other things. The first feeling that came to me after anger (and incredulity) left me, was a profound need to forgive. I needed to forgive the students regardless of their intent, because I myself have been forgiven for the many terrible things I have down in my life to other people either intentionally or unintentionally.

Forgiveness is the hardest thing to do when you have been hurt, but it's the most freeing thing to do. Just like the quote says at the beginning of this blog, it releases you from the responsibility of judgment and it frees you to be the better part of who you are. People who thrive off of hurt tend to never escape it. Forgiveness is also the one word missing from this discussion. I forgive Officer Darren Wilson. I don't know whether he intended to kill Michael Brown or not. I don't know for sure what happened in the situation. I do know that he killed a teenager and any decent human being never intends for that to be the result. I forgive him and we need to forgive him as a community. We also need to ask for forgiveness from the store-owners for the stores we looted and destroyed and any of the chaos we wrought upon innocent bystanders. We should be allowed to grieve openly, but not destructively.

Finally, we need to ask for forgiveness for years of underperforming, underachieving and not believing in our own ability to be the best we can be. We owe it to each other to be better in every part of our lives. We haven't been. There are legitimate barriers to our success, but the most significant one lies between our two ears. But it's okay to admit it and forgive ourselves. We can do better and we will. For this incident to have any lasting impact on our society - forgiveness needs to return to the scene and be prominently featured and lavishly given.

So, let's return to our earlier scene where Office Darren Wilson first sees Michael Brown and his friend. Only this time, let's imagine he went to a church that fellowshipped with a majority Black church. Maybe Michael Brown was a member of that church, or someone like him. Let's imagine that he's had intimate conversations with African-American teenagers, both male and female. Conversely, let's imagine that Michael Brown was self-assured enough to not view police officers or complying with authorities as a threat. Maybe he's had personal conversations with police officers of different races. I think the exchange may have been different.

In some form or another, racism may always exist in a country that began with it. But I am still confident enough to hope and believe that significant strides can still be made. Hope by itself is not a plan for action, but it certainly can be a strategy for protection and for motivation to improve our world. 

-Josh Parker
Black Male, and2012 Maryland Teacher of the Year

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