While every industry is rushing to make a “solidarity” statement to acknowledge institutionalized racism, what kind of change will it take to ensure the value of Black lives forever?
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The whole world seems to be going through a consciousness shift, but a critical question remains: What took so long?
Many countries around the globe are experiencing a paradigm shift. However, especially as it relates to America, the key questions remain: What took us so long to arrive at this juncture in our racial awareness? Have we finally ruptured the dysfunctional pattern of how our country approaches progress as it relates to the Black experience in America?
In May, the American Academy of Pediatrics made a Twitter post taking a position on race while resharing their 2019 journal article on the harmful impacts of racism on child and adolescent health. Their announcement also coincided with the public statement about race in America and impacts on health made by the American Medical Association.
Across the United States and in the world, hundreds of confederate and white supremacist monuments have been removed, with dozens more pledged for removal. This number continues to change.
Mrs. Butterworth’s, Uncle Ben’s, Aunt Jemima, and the Cream of Wheat man have been recalled effective immediately while newsrooms agree that the “B” in Black should be capitalized.
For most people, the main point is registered: We must bear witness to Black lives, bodies, and lived experience. As a Black woman in America, I get to hear everyone tell me I matter in ways I have not heard during my lifetime. A longer view of history instructs me to pause and ask this question: for how long will I matter?
My other question is one that comes from confusion. Why did it take this long to realize that everything needed to shift?
Didn’t things need to shift when James Byrd Jr. was dragged and decapitated in 1998? Weren’t the murders of Sandra Bland in 2015 or Philando Castile in 2016 enough to prompt change? Perhaps Eric Garner’s last words which eerily echo George Floyd’s was not adequate to cause us to pause in our lives as a culture.
This list does not cover the too many Black lives lost to violent white supremacy.
We have a long history of conflicting messages about the ways that Black lives and lived experience is consumed, versus the ways Black Americans have remained nationless within the culture. Specifically, race in America has been a choreography that tangled the Black community’s response to tragedy, a period of progress, and a return to the same devastation that prompted a response in the first place.
This kind of relationship goes back to the infancy of our country when the British soldiers were on trial for killing Crispus Attucks in 1770. The deeper point of this history was explained by Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson during an interview, “Violence As A Form of Protest” on WBUR’s Here & Now.
Dr. Jackson, author of Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence, elaborates: “Former-President John Adams defended their actions by saying the soldiers feared for their lives because Attucks was a tall, ‘terrifying’ Black man.” She continues to draw the parallel between this language and the language we use today in relationship to police brutality.
This enduring legacy of seeing the Black body persisted through to the twentieth century, poisoning any true progress. Billie Holiday began her life being racially profiled, accused of luring the man who raped her at the age of 10. She died handcuffed to her hospital bed. In between that personal suffering, what was consumed by American culture was the immeasurable talent Holiday contributed through her music.
Billie Holiday is a part of the first age of Black lives and culture that attempted to show America that we mattered, the Harlem Renaissance, which spanned from 1918 to1937. This period included a range of African American art, music, literature, and intellectual critique.
The Harlem Renaissance introduced American culture to explorations or interest in African American life through examples such as Porgy and Bess. This moment showed us the work of anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston, the sculptures of Augusta Savage, the work of the literary editor, poet, and essayist Jessie Redmon Fauset, to name a few.
This proliferation of creating and discourse was about smashing the harmful stereotypes constructed out of the institution of slavery and white fears while reconfiguring the meaning of Blackness in America. It was a moment of Black Americans seeing themselves outside of the image created by and for the white gaze.
While the impact of the Harlem Renaissance spanned worldwide, white violence against the Black body—through racist policies, the installation of black codes created to limit African Americans, and physical violence that included the Red Summer of 1919, in which an outbreak of white violence took place in many cities across the United States—co-existed in an attempt to keep the status quo of the power structure of race.
Alongside the consumption of Black culture, the medical world used the cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks to make medical history without her or her family’s consent. In essence, the hearts and minds of white America remain unmoved by the advances of the Harlem Renaissance.
The second age of Black culture and experience, the Civil Rights Movement, spanned from the 1940s through the late 1960s. This movement was another attempt to move the dial forward by correcting policies and laws that denigrated African American life.
Racial segregation was legally ended in schools in Brown v. Board of Education; the groundbreaking work of Dr. Kenneth Clark and Dr. Mamie Clark via “the doll test” illustrated the damaging impact of racism upon the psyche of Black children and was used in the Brown case; Freedom Riders—a mix of Black and white activists—attempted to fight segregation by registering Black voters throughout the South; sit-ins were sparked by African American college students who refused to leave a lunch counter in Greensboro, NC.
The Civil Rights Act was signed into law alongside the continued violence: the execution of 14-year-old George Junius Stinney Jr.—the youngest person in the United States to have been executed—for a crime he never committed; the era also saw the murders of Emmett Till, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and others who were seeking to change the course of America.
Laws changed waking American society out of its slumber. These movements provided fertile ground for the Black Arts Movement of the 60s and 70s. We also witnessed another facet of the cultural movement, one that declared: “Black Is Beautiful.”
Despite these advances, the atmosphere of racism did not change. The forms of lynching have expanded in ways that we are still witnessing. This has been well documented in Dr. Carol Anderson’s 2017 book, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide which depicts America’s traumatic and unbroken cycle of race.
This history has set the stage for this third age of an attempt to shift our relationship to Black experience in America. How do we truly make peace with this cycle of tragedy-progress-more tragedy as it relates to Black America? In fact, can a country fluent in breaking promises—illustrated with the hundreds of violated treaties created with several Native American tribes—learn from its mistakes?
That is the bigger question.
Given this history, at this moment of celebration, many of us are appreciating this moment with trepidation. We’ve experienced something like this only to be greeted with all of the ways that nothing in fact will change.
As I experience how I matter, I walk between the sanity and insanity of being Black in America.
I walk between the words of Frederick Douglass’s July 4th speech and the fact that it is still stamped as a national holiday. With some of my heritage, I struggle with the fact that our country refuses to fully denounce Columbus Day.
How do I matter when President’s Day, created in 1885, was originally in honor of George Washington, a man whose false teeth came from the bodies of slaves? Or the fact that our system of capitalism has sickening parallels to the ways that plantation owners accounted for Black bodies on their plantations?
Other realities of our racial inequality are woven so deep that we have become accustomed to it. In 2018, James W. Loewen published Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. These are towns in which it is not safe to be Black after sundown. Loewen exposes this invisibility and discovered thousands of these towns across the country in his research.
This book gave a name to what many Black communities knew while employing Green Books to travel safely in a Jim Crow America.
Many inequities—the lackluster approach to all of Black history that is content with rehearsing the same facts framing us as victims, the loss of millions of acres of Black-owned land over the past century, the danger of death a Black mother faces in attempting to give birth to a healthy baby in the United States—coincide with recognizing that this is a different kind of moment.
We are painting the streets, raising flags, and changing street signs. As a poet and writer, my mind is dizzied from the many social media posts I see looking for BIPOC or POC writers, artists, and so on.
Amid this celebratory moment of Black experience and culture being mainstreamed, I want to know how we will address the most complicated thread of all: How do we unstitch the ways we have been trained to see each other in America?
How do we correct the first moment of seeing Blackness on the screen in the 1915 Birth of a Nation, the movie that fanned white fears?
Maybe we change how we approach the work.
This is best described by the award-winning journalist and author of The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson, in her recent appearance on Krista Tippett’s On Being, “Our country is like a really old house… old houses need a lot of work. And the work is never done. And that’s what our country is like. And you may not want to go into that basement, but if you really don’t go into that basement, it’s at your own peril. And I think that whatever you are ignoring is not going to go away.”
So, let’s go beyond the signs, extend beyond raising the flag, and the decals on our cars, and tend to this house. We must address everything from the rot in our education systems to the individuals we trust with our bodies and spirits, and all the systems in between.
We also need to check ourselves. What is on our bookshelves and our streaming lists for music, podcast, and movies? How will we continue to nurture our knowledge and appreciation of Black culture and experience, but not exploit it?
When we say we are getting involved, who are we engaging? As some among us post pictures of holding a sign to show those with black and brown skin that their lives matter, what other extra steps are being taken? Is it for the show of social media or for the real long-haul of sustainability and change?
At the moment of writing this, the real estate sector is debating the use of the term “Master bedroom.” Some have made the decision to use the term primary bedroom. While language is key, we need to go beyond swapping words. We need to go beyond Blackwashing.
In other words, why debate the use of “Master bedroom” when the housing inequality in America illustrates that a white high school dropout can access homeownership at a rate higher than Black Americans who are college-educated?
Why go out of our way to demystify the inequities within the publishing industry with a campaign such as #Publishingpaidme only to continue to carry on the same practices that leave many BIPOC voices out in the cold? How is it helpful to hire a few BIPOC writers and editors or capitalize the “B” in Black if the entire media industry continues to cater to the white gaze?
Why bother attending a march, hanging a sign, and/or posting to social media only to continue to fill board seats and employment positions with the same white bodies?
All of us have work to do. Within the political dynamics of the Black community, we need to ask ourselves how are we going to make space and ensure that all Black voices and bodies—queer, trans, cis, across all platform sizes—and not just those we want to count?
As a country, what steps will we take to address the rot in our foundation to extend beyond gesture and news cycle? How will we go beyond the removal of monuments and Blackwashing language?
The only way we are going to truly make a shift in illustrating how Black lives and bodies matter is by doing some radical things to this old house. This work will require breaking the cycle of band-aid approaches that land us in the same dynamics around race. We must divorce ourselves from any of the comfort zones that we previously knew, including the comfort zone of changing language and symbols through Blackwash. Most importantly, it requires us to have radical vision.
The radical vision, if we do it right, will inspire us to ask the same question that is presented in The Matrix. Upon waking up to reality, Neo (Keanu Reeves) asks Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), “Why do my eyes hurt?”
If we do this right, our new vision will be connected to what Morpheus explains to Neo. Our eyes will inevitably hurt because we’ve not ever used our collective abilities to envision our country in this way.
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