“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” –James Baldwin
“For these are all our children, we will all profit by or pay for what they become.” –James Baldwin
“God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but fire next time” –Negro Spiritual
Freddie Gray of Baltimore died on April 12, 2015. 154 years earlier, on that same day, there was an attack on Fort Sumter that started the Civil War. The two events, separated by over a century, share the same issue: Blacks in America. It seems we just cannot settle on what this means.
As a people, our history in the Americas has been a combination of realities. In one column you have our freedom (through the Emancipation Proclamation and subsequent Abolitionist and Civil Rights movements) and dominance (mainly through entertainment and sport). In the other, much longer and deeper category, you have subjugation (through slavery, Jim Crow and institutionalized racism), criminalization and wanton murder (public lynchings, Black on Black crime and police brutality). And if you are a young, Black adolescent male in America, you are more likely to die from homicide than any other race or ethnicity.
All of this is true and it is 2015. It seems the color line is still the problem. But what of those who stand on the opposite end of the color line?
For White Americans, there seems to be a mixture of emotions when events like Freddie Gray happen. Some are frustrated and angry; others are confused. Many want to understand, but how can they? Unless they have walked in our skin, it is nearly impossible for them to conceive of navigating a world in an almost constant state of rage, fear and anxiety. And while they may not understand, what is critical to express is that the pain reverberating throughout our history is the seed from which some of our own destructive tendencies grow. Vandalism is vandalism. Thuggery is thuggery. There is no excuse for the actions of a few in my city this evening. But pain is pain. Despair is despair. “Hope deferred, maketh the heart sick.” The words of Frederick Douglass are essential for even beginning to understand the emotional and psychological underpinnings of tonight:
“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” –Frederick Douglass
Despite the chaos that has ensued this evening, I think this moment, almost three years to the night of the killing of Trayvon Martin, is full of potential. Here, in Charm City, with the nation watching, is our time change the story.
The change starts at home, moves to the classroom and spreads through society. Like a fire.
As I write this, it is near midnight on April 27, 2015. From my window, I can see a Baltimore street barren of cars and a traffic light that seems to linger on red. In the distance, I hear police sirens and fire truck engines. In the rooms that surround my study, my wife and two children sleep peacefully. It is not lost on me that my education, upbringing, faith and hard work have allowed me to live a blessed life. This is not the case for most men who look like me. But it’s not impossible for them to have the same opportunities. For this to happen, we have to start where we live.
The first wave of change must start at home. When I speak of home, I do not just mean geographic location. I mean the combination of six spaces: our physical location/property, our mentality, our intimate relationships, our spirit, our soul and our spheres of influence. The places where most of us can be found and known. It is in this nexus where we must do our hardest work:
1. Our physical location must be kept up. We cannot expect to wear red-bottoms or Jordans while our neighborhood looks decrepit. When we value what we see every day, our own self-esteem is impacted positively.
2. We must improve our mindset by what we consistently expose it to. Show me what you watch and listen to and I will show what you think about it. (Side note – we must be more vigilant about what we allow children to watch and hear. They are not yet ready to hear some of these explicit messages in song – and maybe not ever. When they are exposed too early to these messages, their innocence is lost too soon. Lost innocence is the first step towards an adolescence of violence).
3. The relationships that are the closest to us should be places of healing and comfort, not of hurt and petty jealousies. We should always be each other’s biggest fans and be unashamed about it. When I value what you bring to the table and vice-versa, I do not have to resort to gang warfare or place you on Blacklists or in Shade rooms. I understand that your success is my success because we are in this together. We are not in competition, we are in collaboration.
4. Our Spirits must be fed the word and ways of God. I wonder if all of the rage and teen angst that was splashed across our televisions tonight was not a clear examples of lives left without the peace of God! How can any significant change happen inside of us without a greater power guiding us? That power is God and He stands ready to activate it on all who call on Him. (In fact where would we be without our clergy, who were standing on the front lines tonight ready to meet physical force with that invisible force of the spirit).
5. We need to acknowledge that the trauma of slavery, discrimination, child abuse, sexual abuse, fatherlessness and motherlessness can all be present in our souls. We need to do whatever it takes to get professional help for the healing of our souls. Lest we turn to other things to medicate our pain like constant television buffoonery, drugs, meaningless flings or worse.
6. Every Black person that comes in contact with us, must feel our love. Everywhere our influence touches must have the finger-prints of love and encouragement. You are never too busy to be interested in someone else; never too important to take to care for and give to someone who cannot do anything for you. “What you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.”
When we take care of home, we can turn our attention to the schools that educate our children. Teachers have such a critical role to play in the education of minority children, but we must have the will to make the professional sacrifice, showing teacher leadership in how we relate to, educate and ultimately change the life trajectory of every student. Especially those with black and brown faces.
It is possible for every student to learn at a high level. It is possible to develop a culture of high academic excellence in high-minority or high-poverty schools. It must first start with brutal honesty and earnest self-reflection. You have to see education, as Glenn Singleton might put it, as a daily anti-racist act in every facet. It means that the education of minorities must be couched in a counter-narrative that esteems the best in them. It starts with books with brown and black faces, but it continues with honest discussions about matters that lie at the heart and soul of students, ultimately ending in a culturally responsive environment that gives access and opportunity to rich and rewarding learning experiences. If we don’t have the tools to get there, we must take initiative as teacher leaders to make it happen. That might mean Barnes and Nobles purchases or late nights at the library. At the end of the day, if even one Black or brown child does not learn well, his life may be in jeopardy. Having that mental disposition is what allows us to really show that Black lives matter.
When our homes and schools are transformed to heal and empower, then our students enter society ready to help and not harm. They enter society with the necessary spiritual and emotional health paired with the critical mind to solve age old problems. I believe the solution to a lot of the world’s problems can be found in Black people, who after receiving a culturally affirming education and healthy home-life, can bring unique perspective to that of other people already engaged in the work. This produces amazing results. Society benefits from a well-educated and psychologically whole minority population. Society also pays when nether of those conditions is present, as is evidenced in clear HD-quality this evening.
88 years ago today, Coretta Scott King was born. 112 years ago today, W.E.B. DuBois finished “The Souls of Black Folk,” which was a book that explored the Black experience in America in profoundly deep ways. With the sacrifice of Ms. King and her husband still in our minds thanks to the movie ‘Selma,’ and the messages of DuBois’s work still resonating in the body politic, let us be the fire this time. Let us spark a revolution, not through senseless acts of random violence, but through the steady flames that produce healthy homes, responsive education and societies that flourish. It is time to change our story. Let us turn the page today.