Can We Change for the Better This Time?

Lynching and murder occurred for decades after the Emancipation Proclamation was published in 1863. As I watch how I teach my 3-year-old daughter about Black culture, I wonder whether I’m being too hopeful about the current anti-racism movement.

I’m raising a 3-year-old girl, and I’m mindful of what images I put in front of her. To adore her curly hair and skin tone, I’ve trained her from the beginning. Show her black princesses and stories with celebrated, brilliant, and caring characters. She must be aware that one’s worth is not something one acquires but rather something one is born with. 

As a person aware of differences, I want her to know that everyone deserves to be treated with respect. Period. People have the right to be themselves, and we should respect that. But I’m afraid of how racism will affect her when she meets it for the first time. So many reasons why I’m so heartbroken at the loss of my friend and mentor, George Floyd. 

This senseless act of violence has caused the nation to vomit up the weird fruit it has fed us. As heinous as his death is, it appears that it will not go unnoticed for long. While some governors and mayors condemn the injustice and call for reform in law enforcement, I witness cops breaking the blue wall of silence as they back protestors. My mood is upbeat and thankful because so many individuals are taking action.

Then again, I’m not sure. Didn’t my forefathers and foremothers have a sense of relief and optimism upon hearing the news of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863? Even after the 13th amendment was approved, there were decades of lynchings, mass murder, and countless more racist atrocities. 

The battle would go on for another two years. With every step made as a “free man,” generations of potential are squandered, and fear and trepidation prevail. There was no integrated bread-breaking, schooling, hospitalization, or transportation for nearly a century.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. organized marches, some government leaders supported us, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, the civil rights movement began. The air was thick with hope. Despite this, Dr. King was slain in 1968, ushering in a new era of injustice, bigotry, white flight, and hatred.

My first experience of being referred to as the “N-word” came twenty years later. I was just 13 years old at the time. Our prospective Long Island neighbors were adamantly opposed to my family’s plans to buy a property there.

 Someone yelled the “N-word” as chainsaws and motorcycle motors were revving. They had a visceral loathing for each other that was shocking, disturbing, perplexing, and unpleasant. I felt deceived as I sat in my car on the way home. Haters like them reminded me of the Headbangers Ball cast members I saw on MTV almost every day. Despite my admiration for them, they found me repulsive.

After this encounter, memories of being eight years old and wondering why the personnel at the neighborhood pizza restaurant were so nasty to me and my family flooded back into my consciousness. Or why, when entering the deli across the street, the commotion subsided.

After a while, the veil between me and the rest of the world came tumbling down. I’d had enough of people making disparaging remarks about my skin tone; I’d given up listening to them. The media was full of idealized depictions of beauty, but no one looked anything like me. It took me decades and a slew of therapy sessions to remove these feelings, exacerbated by additional melancholy episodes in my life.

By the 1990s, the world around me had undergone a significant transformation. However, hundreds of examples of injustice and inequity continued to occur worldwide, in addition to Rodney KingAmadou Diallo, and the Central Park Five. I’ve never worked for a Black CEO, supervisor, or manager in my career, but the security and mailrooms have always been dark and numerous.

Arbery’s murder brought up memories of my 22-year-old nephew in Pennsylvania, who enjoys running through his neighborhood. Do people who are racist look for photos of him hanging out with buddies on Instagram and assume he is a criminal because of it? His bravery in overcoming juvenile arthritis would be known to them. Upon leaving my house, you know the one who wept bitterly because he’d miss us so much? Indeed, he has matured into the well-rounded young man he is today? In front of his pals, who is that tender momma’s boy that still hugs and kisses her?

It’s possible that Arbery and the other dead guys had lives that we didn’t know about. When they were born, their moms proclaimed their joy, celebrated their first steps, and smothered their wounds with boo-boo kisses. After the bike ride without training wheels, there were birthday festivities with their favorite flavor of ice cream. Some worked hard to earn degrees, planned for the future or were swayed by circumstance. 

Everybody experienced those moments of self-reflection, where they tried to be the best they could or succumbed to temptation. There were no doubt hopes of starting a family, and some of those dreams were realized. They may have contemplated the joys of retirement or becoming a grandfather. Probably. 

Their lives were snatched away because they “looked suspicious,” were selling smokes on the corner to feed their children, or walked into an unfinished façade and were labeled a threat because of a mistaken perception. After these murders, a series of ridiculous explanations and character assassinations followed. The white militia in Michigan with assault rifles makes it unchanged to the governor’s office while Dylann Roof is apprehended.

At Simpson’s acquittal, the white community was stunned and continued to be enraged. My O.J.’s to raise are Alton Sterling, Antwon Rose, Philando Castile, Sean Bell, and Tamir Rice. Straight-As-Can-Be. Without thinking, I listed the names of the players I defeated in this game, which I didn’t want to participate in. Because smartphones weren’t invented at that time, we’ll never know how many more there are.

Thoughts about the futures of my nephew and daughter haunt me during these days, and my pain is tangible. A white parent in my network asks me for advice on how to raise her son in a way that improves and changes the world around him. A white coworker and friend apologizes and takes responsibility for the current status of the world. As a result of an email I put out asking for help, my phone is continuously buzzing with pleas for justice and “thank yous.”

There is a steady flow of requests from white executives who want my assistance in helping them transition to a more equitable workplace. I’ve been swamped with smart and insightful white folks who have inquired about how they can help throughout the week. In one city, my white brothers and sisters created a human chain in front of us. Their hands were locked behind their backs as they sat on the ground in another position. Except for individuals flinging trash at police or searching for an opportunity to steal a flat-screen television, the support seemed sincere and unwavering. To be clear, I do not support acts of violence against law enforcement agents.

This doesn’t feel like a false alarm for the first time in my life. The message has reached its intended audience. We are important. Our message is simple: We matter. I am overcome with emotion by the magnitude of the transformation I sense in the globe. 

The ills that don’t serve us are washed away by a collective consciousness. What is the instructor trying to teach us through the virus, the hatred, and the killings that have swept the country this year? To me, it’s important to see the value in everyone and help, support, and love one another. We rely on each other.

Distancing ourselves from others is as much for our fellow members of the human race as for ourselves. Putting in the effort to correct racism is just as important for white people as for those directly impacted by it. There’s a reason why this is occurring for all of us. The message is clear. If it gets any louder than this, none of us will be able to stand it.

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