Nina Simone charged artists of all kind, be they writers, musicians or dancers, to ‘reflect the times’. It sucks that the times I have to reflect are eerily similar to the ones she did. We used to read and hear about things that our civil rights forefathers endured with almost a sense of relief because we didn’t have to experience the same. It was as though in middle school, we were hearing about a time we’d grown out of, something that we were far removed from. I remember thinking as a kid, “Man, I’m glad I was born when I was instead of in slavery times.” It was as though society had come to a place where the horror stories of those earlier years were just a thing of the past. But I was a kid then.
Now, as an adult, I understand fully that those times never left. They changed faces and generations, but they never left. The systems in place aren’t as carefully spelled out as the arguable “Jim Crow laws” were but they are no less felt in the lives of people of color daily. Our men and women today aren’t hanging from trees, but they’re lying cold and bloodied in the streets. Still unarmed. And just like killing a black man or woman for no moral reason was permitted back then, we see a myriad of examples of this permission today. I began writing this post, on the evening of learning of Alton Sterling, an unarmed man murdered by an officer while being restrained by another, and before I could seal my first paragraph with a solid thought, or begin to deal with the emotion that accompanied it, I learned of another that took place the following day. And these are just the ones that were fortunate or unfortunate enough to make the news that week.
As the Black History Month lessons ensued, and we little by little learned of our heroes, the few that made it into our school books, and the others whom our awakened kin hipped us to, I’d often think to myself in that class or living room and wonder what kind of person I’d be. Would I have been a Sojourner, courageous enough to risk my life not just once for myself but countless times for others? Would I be an Angela, a leader in activism efforts, jeopardizing everything for the sake of my voice and all others that look like me? Would I be a Shirley, and push through the political mire to bring about lasting change to impact my community? Maybe I’d be an Ida, and use my love for writing to inspire social justice. Or perhaps I’d be an Assata, ready to go to war in the physical when my words aren’t getting through.
With all of these ladies, the risk taken for justice and freedom for our people was great, but so was the risk of inaction. Each woman knew that there was no room for fear, for questioning, for self-doubt, for weakness. The fact of the matter is, American society today, much like it was then, is not an environment for choice. It isn’t a matter of whether or not I’ll choose to join the fight to end racial inequality and systemic oppression; the only option is how. When. To quote Ms. Simone again,
“At this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when everyday is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved.”
These words both haunt and invigorate me. The luxury of a post-racial society that I thought I had as a child is nonexistent. I, a nonthreatening black woman (whatever that means) with letters behind my name and a sweet smile, still have to wonder why some feel the need to clutch their purses or lock their doors when I walk by. No matter how many green smoothies I make, I’m reminded everyday that I have dark skin, and America hasn’t quite grasped the notion that there is nothing wrong with it. What’s sadder is that as uncomfortable as America is for me at times, there are millions of people that look like me with fewer resources that have it much worse. Every day there are millions being punished for their poverty, (exemplified in education, in healthcare, in the judicial system, in housing, in banking etc.) and the punishers can’t seem to find any error.
As I, like many others, scramble to figure out what to do to “fix” these problems with roots centuries old, I have to fight against surrender. It sometimes feels as though this is just too big of an issue to even chip away at, let alone fix, and that no matter what I or anyone else may do, these problems will remain. But in these moments I remember Simone’s words. I remember the boldness of the women mentioned above and the trailblazing black men in civil rights history that deserve their own post. I recount the courage of the white men and women who refused to remain silent in the face of racial injustice and I am again recharged.
I have not the luxury of imagination to simply wonder which character I would’ve played. Instead I have the chilling present, and the glaring urgency of now to decide who I will allow Joya to be in this fight. Everyone’s role will not be the same. Not everyone belongs on the front lines. But everyone has a role. Maybe yours isn’t to protest. Perhaps you’re not the person to organize a movement. But if you, black white or other, care about the future of this nation and the world around it, you must take an action. For some that is simply voting, becoming more informed on what’s going on in the local, national and global community and casting votes accordingly. For some that is giving financially what you cannot give in time, supporting entities that are doing the work. (Sidenote: at the recent protest for black lives at Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, I witnessed some arrive not to protest, but to supply the protestors water. That is a role).
For some, that is being more present in the community, particularly the church. If you cannot decide where you belong in the battle of black lives, start with your church. First ask yourself if Christ, (or whomever you believe in) would think the current conditions African Americans are forced to live with every day are okay. I’d like to think, as a matter of fact, I know that Christ would be, in the flesh, and is in the spirit, an advocate for black lives, as His unmatched compassion was always for the oppressed, and for the least of these. Give more of your time, your skills there, in your church, as it once was the pillar of the civil rights movement. If your church isn’t participating in this discussion, be that voice. Ask the questions of what we can do to help our fellow brothers and sisters, even if they do not represent our congregations.
Slavery didn’t end from inaction. Segregation didn’t end from inaction. The racial disparities we are experiencing today won’t either if we do not act in some way. Pick your role and be bold in it, so that our grandchildren can appreciate history in its proper form, as an actual thing of the past.
Below are links to help you get informed and involved.