Reasons

I lost a lot of friends recently. Who is to say if they were ever real friends. My inclination is to answer my own question with a resounding “NO”. When I lost my “friends” Mainstream Media was circulating stories of Michael Brown and the Ferguson situation after a police officer shot another unarmed black boy. The same rhetoric spilled out: “he was no angel” and all that. The rhetoric was all the usual attempts that are made to blame shift. We know. Black boys can’t be innocent.

Hide your children. Hide your wives.

I sat at my keyboard many times. I stared blankly at the screen refreshing over and over. I read as people that I just sat across at our local restaurant made comment after comment filled with undercover racism and vitriol. I read one comment too many and something inside me broke open. I posted a status update. It read:

 

“Dear White Friends,

If we were together in person would you allow someone to call me a nigger and not say anything? Would you stand by while people used terms like monkey, pimps, thugs, and coon to describe my people? If you wouldn’t stand for that in person- help me understand why you are allowing these comments on your Facebook pages? Please don’t say freedom of speech. That page belongs to you. Your lack of safeguarding it and keeping nasty comments full of racism in check is offensive and signals acceptance. I thought we were friends. It is okay to have a no tolerance policy on hate speech and take a side. People of color actually need you to take a side- ours. Because Ferguson is all of our future if we don’t start saying very loudly that we won’t stand for these kinds of lines and belief systems that permeate our culture. Sure it is only deleting a few racist comments on Facebook and letting people know you aren’t down with that shit– but maybe that is how it starts.”

I was promptly unfriended by many. Those that didn’t unfriend me challenged me publicly and privately. I got called a racist (ha!) race baiter (deep eye roll) and I was even questioned: “You aren’t even fully Black by your avatar…” Because if I wasn’t “fully Black” then obviously I didn’t belong in the conversation.

Over the proceeding weeks, I experienced a deep sense of despair. I thought through how I was supposed to engage in a community that largely didn’t seem to give a damn about the world my very black sons and daughter would have to live in. I recycle for their kids. I vote, pick up my trash in the community, and attend city government meetings too. I was and am doing my part as a neighbor in this community to insure that, not just MY kids but, THEIR kids live lives full of vibrance  (vibrance involves being able to walk down the street without being questioned because of your skin). I felt a looming sense of betrayal that so many of the people I interact with on the regular seemed complacent and unbothered. So many were very ready to point out “Black on Black violence” and dismiss the situation all together.  After a month things calmed down on the social media front and the masses focused on the next big thing- likely some celebrity and their divorce.

Meanwhile, I found it hard to hope. I am part of a community that has less than 1% people of color, and I feel that heavy burden daily. It wasn’t until an unexpected encounter at a meeting broke me open again, that I started to consider that my words were heard. Then I received another message, then another, then another, and another. The people in my community were hearing me. They were taking action. A dear friend of mine wrote me a note explaining what he did… all because of my post on Facebook. Here is what he wrote me (parts redacted to protect his professional identity)

 

Jasmine, I’ve been meaning to tell you this story for a few weeks: you inspired me to do something (it was a small something) about the underlying racism that we encounter all around us. I was going to tell you tonight, but I thought the story might sound a little self-serving in a group so I thought I’d just write you, as a way to tell you: you are making a difference. Keep it up. To preface the story, I am not, by nature, a very confrontational person. I tend to be pretty private about my views, and keep my cards close to my chest. But when everything started going down in Ferguson, I finally realized: people are getting KILLED! I can’t just sit back and say, well “to each his own.” And every time I opened facebook, you were all over the place saying (to paraphrase), “white people! Do something! Don’t just let the people around you with racist feelings go unchallenged! Stand up!” So…to get to the story: a few months ago, I got hired….and…..I wanted that to be out in the open from the beginning. No issue was really made of it and they hired me.  Every morning at 7, guys do a brief devotion before starting the work day. All the guys take turns leading. It’s mostly harmless, occasionally encouraging. But there’s one guy who always uses his turn in devotions to rant about some issue or another that the liberal media is distorting and ruining our country. I usually just roll my eyes and let it slide, like he’s the crazy uncle you just tolerate. But when he started to rant about what was happening in Ferguson, and I began to feel the underlying racism coming out, my blood started to boil and I got just plain mad…my heart was racing, I felt my ears getting hot, and all I could hear was you in the back of my mind saying, “white people! Do something! Don’t just let racism go unchallenged! Stand up!” So I did. So I stood up in the middle of 15 good old boys, and walked out of the room. That was all I could bring my non-confrontational self to do. If I was truly brave I could have stood up and said something like “this stops now!”, but I was too mad to even speak, so I just got up and left. My boss wasn’t there that day, and nobody said a word to me about it. I didn’t think much of the next day, and I went on with my life. A week later when my boss got back into town, he took me aside and said, “listen, four guys have come up to me and told me that you got mad and just plain walked out of devotions the other day. You want to tell me why you would do that?” I said, “well sir, the things that were being said in that room, I didn’t want to affirm by my silence anymore. I am not going to be a part anymore of a lot of the stuff that goes on in the name of Christianity. “ And what my boss said to me really took me by surprise. He said, “I’m proud of you. Stuff like that should never happen, and I am going to talk to that guy today, and make sure he knows that he is never EVER to use devotions to further his political agenda or run anybody down. Thanks for walking out.” And just like that, it was over. I thought nobody had noticed, or cared, but because you kept plugging away on facebook, and because you kept shouting, “white people! Do something! Don’t let racism go unchallenged! Stand up!” it gave me the good sense to do a very small something and to make a small change in one little corner of a little backward Christian universe. All that to say, thank you. Keep at it. You are being heard. You are making a difference in small and big ways.

 

These are the reasons we keep talking, even when it is hard.

I See You, Michael Brown

Michael Brown. I see you. I am holding your life in my memory. We never met, but I know you. You were my grandfather, my father, my uncle, my cousin, my brother, my son. You are the dark shadow swinging from the limb. You are the unnamed bones at the bottom of the river. You are the millions of forgotten names. Your tragedy has shaken awake my complacent spirit: the spirit that whispered “rest, someone else will fight.” I am awake. I will fight, push forward, and stand. Because you are my grandfather, my father, my uncle, my cousin, my brother, and my son. You are my responsibility and part of my story. I see you. I am awake. May you rest in peace.

Isaiah Brown

Questions to my son: What Does It Mean to Be Black?

Every year since Isaiah was old enough to understand I’ve made a routine of asking him questions that the world will try and give him answers to. I want him to think about things right now, before extreme bias or outside sources can persuade him. I want to teach him to be a critical thinker about things, that at face value, are confusing and hard.

I’ve been continually amazed how Isaiah answers my questions. I’ve asked questions like:

What if a boy wanted to marry another boy?

Hey. Do you think girls aren’t as smart as boys?

What would you tell someone who was making fun of a person who had an arm missing?

Isaiah usually answers with a sense of frustration. His expression curls up and he rolls his eyes. “Mooooooooom,” he moans, “Boys can marry boys because you just marry who you want to marry and kiss! Do they love the other boy? Because you get married because you love that person most, but only as adults because kids don’t get married!”

It is as simple as that to him. He has also answered:

“Girls can be so much smarter than boys and they are better at being friends. The girls in my class tell secrets and share things.”

“People have missing arms? Oh! That is weird. I would just help them if they only had one arm, because it would be hard to clap.” 

And so I ask hard questions about his life as a person of color. I want the echoes of his mind to have the right answers when people try to debate his value after he was shot unarmed. I want him the echoes of his mind to have the right answers when people comment that he is “so smart for a Black man” or “he doesn’t look black”. I want him to know that what it means to be Black  is about more than what his peers have been raised to believe. So I asked Isaiah:

What does it mean to be Black. This is what he still believes about his cultural and racial identity. I want him to hold on to this as long as possible, because it is a beautiful and innocent belief that the rest of the world doesn’t share about us.