My continued journey into “harvesting” of experiences took an unexpected turn given the events of the past several weeks. I have spent a lot of time trying to gather my thoughts, feelings, and words in relation to all the unrest, protests, and riots over the death of George Floyd. This post is my attempt at putting words to my thoughts and feelings.
The events of the last few weeks have me “harvesting” my experiences as 12-year old in 1963 – specifically about the Civil Rights movement. Given my age there was so much I didn’t understand until later in the decade. There was also so much I couldn’t understand because I am not Black. During this time, however, I became more acutely aware of the injustices suffered by African Americans, even though the Civil War officially ended slavery 100 years previously.
In reflecting about that time in our history, I recall my embarrassment that African Americans had to ‘fight’ for very basic rights, and their treatment remained that of second-class citizens. I had a lot of “why” questions for my parents. When I connected my experience in the 60’s with those of today (police brutality) it was a stunning recognition that for all the progress we have made, there is so much ground still to cover.
In recent days and weeks I have found myself listening more to the experiences (stories) of African Americans. Their stories drew me in to their anguish. One particular moment that stood out is when NBC TODAY show host, Craig Melvin, talking about his son’s experience, said that he knew that one day his son would have to come face to face with his ‘blackness.’ I experienced a renewed sadness that this was the case, and an understanding that I, as a white person, did not have to deal with this issue simply based on the color of my skin.
The next ‘harvest’ came in understanding that this was not just a ‘race’ issue, but a larger humanity issue. The issue of discrimination is something that exists everywhere. We discriminate based on our core values, deep tacit assumptions, and core guiding life principles. It is important to understand that we have these different levels of importance to what guides/determines how we make our choices. For our purposes I will use the term, “biases”.
From these biases, we assume we are right. We act out of that ‘rightness’. What I have learned is that we can make some terrible choices acting out of that ‘rightness’. White supremacy is one of those for me. We are not superior. We are simply different. Some of that ‘difference’ has allowed us privilege of opportunity not afforded to everyone (education, access to jobs, social status, favor). Somehow, we think that equates to being better.
One of my biases is the notion that the diversity we experience as a result of cultural differences, ethnic differences, racial differences, religious beliefs, physical differences, etc. are all to be celebrated as adding richness to our lives and to our experience. I have not always believed this, but have come to this belief through my ‘evolution/growth’ as a person.
Three years ago, my wife and I visited Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia. I learned first-hand the warmth, intelligence, and the unique beauty of where these people live, how they live, and who they were. It demonstrated to me that while there are many things that are very good in and about America, we do not have a corner on the absolute ‘best’ ways for doing and living. I was able to understand that the arrogance of America was a bias that didn’t serve us well.
Another bias is contained in the first part of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is what we ‘espouse.’ Unfortunately, it is often not what we ‘live’. We have enough history that tells us that we do not treat everyone as an equal.
To add additional context to my experiences, I revisited some of the history that serves as backdrop for our experience today. One piece of reading that I would encourage is “The Civil Rights Movement: 1919 – 1960’s” produced by the National Humanities Council (link is at the end of my post). It is a well written glimpse of the environment the African American community has dealt with for a very long time.
I also decided to revisit Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech that he delivered as part of the March on Washington in the summer of 1963. I excerpted below one section of the speech that was poignant for me in today’s context.
“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?”
We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
The journey was a very long one when Dr. King came along; it is even longer still. I appreciated then and now, his approach to the journey, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”
One of the things that make me more hopeful about progress and change is the number of people representing different areas of our society who are seizing the conversation (arts, humanities, athletics, some politicians) of change; who are seizing the opportunity to change the dialogue. I believe there is true positive momentum coming from an incredibly sad set of circumstances.
That which has me less enthusiastic – our deep-seated biases. Our country is very polarized. The far right and far left believe they are ‘right’ and with that belief we are not listening to understand, nor listening to find solutions. Many of us seem to be more interested in wanting to be right and wanting to be angry and critical of others who don’t think like we do. Does this aggression, discrimination and violence come from fear? Is the fear because we don’t understand, or is it a fear that we might lose something if others that don’t look like us had more power than we do? I don’t know.
Where we are is not about race. It is not about ideology. It is about our humanity. What or who do we want to be – as individuals, as communities, as a nation, and as a world? What do our actions suggest? The loudest voice and the biggest bully wins?
When I look at some of the actions in my neighborhood and beyond during this pandemic, I am more hopeful that what more of us share is a desire to ‘demilitarize’ our actions and work toward common ground and workable solutions. What is happening and has happened to the African American community is not okay. Whether we survive as a nation may be inextricably linked to our ability to look deep into ourselves, understand how we contribute and have contributed to discrimination of others and say, “I want to make a change. I want to listen more. I want to understand. I want to promote better relationships with my neighbors, and those that are not my neighbors.”
I have experienced a lot of history. We have within us the capability to make change. It might require some discomfort as we step into the leadership void that exists and have our voices heard. What would your life have if there was less anger in it; more willingness to listen; to compromise; to leave your children and grandchildren a life with more love?
I plan to continue to write about ‘harvesting’ but hope that this post provided value for you and augmented your own thinking and feelings about the past several weeks. It is one of the ways I am choosing to continue the dialog toward a more loving community and nation.
To a better you…