Out of sight, out of mind

When a problem isn’t constantly before you, directly impacting you, concern often ebbs. Sadly, it seems to happen regardless of the seriousness of the issue or your degree of previous commitment to address it. This is especially true when you don’t understand how you are impacted by the problem, a problem that, on the surface, seems to be someone else’s problem. That’s the situation as I see it with racial justice. Top of mind – always — for Black people. Out of sight, out of mind – often? typically? — for white people.

It looks like this is the year racial justice has again fallen off the social justice map. The May 2020 televised murder of George Floyd galvanized the country. Finally, many white Americans understood why the slogan, Black Lives Matter, had emerged as a rallying cry and they joined in the push for racial justice. For a minute, it seemed that Black lives did matter. It seemed that white people were understanding how racist narratives had shaped, or misshaped, their perception of the truth of America. They were digging deeply into a topic that many had only scratched the surface of before. Now, interest in learning about race and racism seems to have waned, as have many of the public efforts to fight for racial justice. Not only are states banning the accurate teaching of our country’s history, but books on our racial history and our current reality that once dominated the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list are no longer there. Training of staffs on racial equity has slowed as businesses, governments, and nonprofits seem to feel like either they’ve done it – checked that box — or other social justice concerns have popcorned to the top. Is it my imagination? Has the multi-racial moment/the movement ignited by the murder of George Floyd come to an end without fanfare and without much notice?

Black people live with the trauma and reality of racial inequity and injustice every day, never needing any reminders beyond day-to-day life. Many white people seem to need “punched in the gut,” horrific, visual moments for them to be jolted into racial awareness. Moments like Mamie Till Mobley’s raw despair as she grieved over her son, Emmett’s battered body; the national coverage of water hoses and snarling dogs attacking peaceful civil rights protestors in Alabama, or the plethora of cellphone videos of racially-charged incidents in a hotel lobby, a college dorm, a park, or just about anywhere. These incidents sparked momentary outrage and commitments to racial redress. The images, in 1955, 1963, the 2010s or 2020, got many off their sofas and into the streets to protest or into the voting booths to elect individuals committed to change. But the commitment, the passion, in white communities seems to be rarely sustained. I want to know how to change that.

Understanding and addressing racial injustice is not a one and done situation, not reading one book, or participating in one racial equity training, or voting one time for the “right” candidate. There must be lifelong learning and unlearning of years of messages, and then working, in many ways, big and small, for racial justice. I thought the heinousness of George Floyd’s murder, coupled with so many high visibility, recorded racial incidents, might be enough, but it doesn’t seem to be. While race and racial justice remain top of mind for Black people all the time; for white advocates, other issues seem to have pushed race and racial equity to the back of the proverbial bus.

Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility

Racial injustice cannot be recognized and understood only by Black people. White people must see this too if we are to have a racially just America. White people must believe that justice for Black people will enable justice for them as well.  White people hold the reins of power in America.  Just as women wouldn’t have gotten the vote without the commitment of men, Black people alone cannot overhaul all the policies, procedures, and practices that undergird racial inequity in America. Black people can identify issues/inequities. Black people can march, protest, and vote. Black people can define and humanize the impact, but Black people do not sit sufficiently in those positions that wield the power necessary to transform racist systems and institutions. White people, you must engage on this topic, not just in the moment of a hate crime like the recent ones in California and in Buffalo, but on an ongoing basis. Black people must not die to prove that America continues to be racially unjust. Black people must not die to prompt white people to act.  How do we sustain the commitment of the white community to work for racial justice? I really want to know. I need to know.

20/20

It’s over. My 2020 calendar is literally and figuratively in the trash. Whew.

I was just about to do a happy dance and celebrate the new year when I recalled my mother’s voice: “Look for the good in anything bad that happens.” So, I stopped and reflected on a year that seemed to brim with ‘bad.’ And I’m glad I did. Without that, I might not have realized all the good that has come from the past year’s tragedies.

If it hadn’t been for the COVID-19 quarantine and the quiet of self-isolation, would the world have watched, been absorbed by, and responded to the horror of the murder of George Floyd? And if not for George Floyd’s murder (and far too many others), would racial reckonings have emerged across the country?

Would Black Lives Matter Plaza have been born in Washington DC, offering a visual counterpoint to remarks and policies coming from the White House right across the street?

Would monuments that devalue human life have come down, not just in the United States, but around the world?

Would the symbol of the Confederacy on the Mississippi state flag have finally been replaced?

Would racist team names have been removed from the pro sports teams of Cleveland, Ohio, and Washington, DC?

Would recognizing the need to repurpose police funds, moving from militarization to mental health support, have gained the traction it has?

Would books on invisible racism and the need for racial equity have topped reader’s lists as more and more Americans, particularly White Americans, seek to understand—and address—the truth of America?

Would we have understood the fragility of our country’s democracy and the massive efforts to suppress voters? And without that, would we have voted in record numbers moving away from the toxicity of fascism toward a healthier democratic America?

I grieve the tragedies of 2020, but just as my mother wisely told me, from the bad has come good. The foundation laid last year is what we will build a more positive future upon.

Happy New Year.

Maybe the Robert E. Lee statue should remain … Just a thought

I live in Washington, DC, but Richmond is my home. I don’t get there often, but I was there a week or so ago and drove down Monument Avenue for the first time since the removal of the statues of Confederate icons and soldiers. It was a sultry Sunday afternoon in July. Summertime in Richmond. Few cars. Few people.

IJefferson Davis. pedestal stopped at the pedestal that once held the statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. It surprised me. I felt nothing. When a Richmond friend texted me early in July that the Stonewall Jackson statue was coming down—now, right then—I immediately started surfing the channels. For hours, I streamed reports from a Richmond TV station, watching transfixed as something I couldn’t imagine ever happening, happened. So, when I stopped at that pedestal, I expected to feel some emotion—joy, relief, happiness — something. But I stood in front of it and felt nothing.

I drove on to the statue of Robert E. Lee. It was always the centerpiece that loomed over Monument Avenue. And there it was. Still standing, but oh so different. Instead of the cold solemnity and haughty arrogance I remembered, there was a vibrancy, an energy I could feel even before I got out of my car. There were a few vendors at a respectful distance, and some people walked around the monument, with reverence, for what had become a memorial for lives lost to police brutality. I felt the power of the entire tableau.

The Robert E. Lee statue was still there, but no longer proud and majestic. The dignity of that plaza now rested solely in the messages written vibrantly and boldly across the pedestal—a rainbow of reds, blues, yellows, greens. Before my eyes could read any words, my spirit took in the colors, so alive, blending from one into another. Then, as I focused, the first word that registered was “TAMIR” in huge block letters, honoring 12-Robert E lee statue. TAMIRyear-old Tamir Rice. Slowly, I circled the statue. Some messages were profane—F_ _ _ the police—but most were profound, with BLM or Black Lives Matter appearing multiple times as I rounded the pedestal.

History is written upon that statue now—a far more complete history than it ever offered before. Huey Newton’s name is there. Marcus David Peters is memorialized there along with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Philando Castille, and so many more. The words “2nd place” appear several times, possibly noting that this general was not the winner of that war. There’s also: “No justice, no peace.” When I look back on pictures of this statue from just a few weeks ago, I see the messages have multiplied. The anger—bottled up for decades, centuries—has spilled out in many of the words and phrases and organic thoughts reflecting what the community feels must be said: “Black Transwomen,” and “Whose schools?” and “Whose streets?” Statements, more than questions.

Yes, Robert E. Lee is still there, but what made his society then and what makes ours today is now clear. Written in the bursts of words and names and painted with the stark explosion of colors.

Lee doesn’t only represent the Confederacy. He represents white supremacy, not just a hundred and fifty years ago but in the predominance of white leaders in statehouses, in media, in businesses today. He represents a narrative that was seeded, nurtured, and has blossomed in America for 400 years. And this is not just about individuals who shout hateful words and wave the flag of those defeated in a long-ago war. It is about a culture and a way of life that has only recently started to become acknowledged: a way of life that advantages white people and disadvantages Black people and other people of color.

I am glad that the effigies to the Confederacy on Monument Avenue are being removed. Maybe that is why I was surprised by the unexpected profundity of seeing Lee at Marcus David Peters/BLM plaza. Raw and confrontational. Keeping the statue there—with its modern-day messages—provokes different thinking. It juxtaposes a white historical marker against today’s racial reality. Maybe we learn more by seeing what’s been changed but is still there—that collocation of past and present—than simply the vacancy of something that had been.

Context is important. Just a thought.

 

 

 

I am my brother’s keeper. Part 3. Black and Native.

In all my Daughters of the Dream posts, I comment through my African American lens. That is who I am. That is how I identify. In truth, however, my maternal side of the family is primarily Native; members of the Chickahominy Tribe of Virginia. I have known this all my life, but it mostly went unacknowledged. The federal government did not recognize the tribe until 2018. But more importantly, in many ways, it was also unrecognized by my family.

Big Mama and Papa Joe. separate pics side by side
The author’s maternal grandparents, Dora Adkins Charity and Joseph P. Charity.

Using Ancestry.com, I watched the evolution of the racial identity of my maternal grandparents. On early census documents, my grandmother was noted as Indian, full-blooded as the saying goes. My maternal grandfather was noted as Mulatto, which he was by the definition of that term, mixed Indian and white. Then they both become Mulatto, along with their children, of course. Subsequent census documents list them as colored, then Negro, then black.

My mother and her siblings were raised as African American. Perhaps my grandparents had internalized the negativity the white, dominant population associated with being Native. The only time I can remember my mother celebrating her Native heritage was when she casually commented one Thanksgiving that there was no need to observe this holiday (even though she did). “It was just the beginning of white people taking Indians’ land,” she said.

Now, I have started the journey of celebrating all of me.

Chief Stephen Adkins
The author with Stephen Adkins, Chief of the Chickahominy Tribe of Virginia

Just as I would not overlook a racist image of an African American or a racist comment about one, I am becoming more attuned to my Native roots and culture.  For years, I have recognized the racism in the names of some sports teams. But when conversations turned to looting following the murder of George Floyd, how many of us thought about the original looters — those who took the land of the Native peoples in this country?

Native and black, they are both a part of who I am.

But what about those identities that are not a part of you or me? Just because it is not our identity, racism cannot be ignored. Racism hurts all of us. As Martin Luther King said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” The racial mosaic of those who continue to march and speak out against police brutality and racism, six weeks after the murder of George Floyd, gives me hope. An increasing number of Americans seem to believe — truly believe — we are our brother’s keeper.