I was finishing Richard Wright’s 1945 groundbreaking memoir, Black Boy, when the news broke of George Floyd’s death. I was horrified, incredulous even as I watched the appalling video. How could and why would anyone keep an unarmed, handcuffed (behind his back) man pinned to the ground with a knee on his throat even as he pleaded that he could not breathe and was in pain? I don’t know that there is any acceptable answer. The events of the day and Richard Wright’s story of growing up black in the Jim Crow South set me to wondering Have we made any meaningful progress in the past 100 years?
In Wright’s story he states that “. . .a sense of the two races had been born in me with a sharp concreteness that would never die until I died.” As post World War I racial conflict flared in the South, he recognizes that “A dread of white people now came to live permanently in my feelings and imagination.” As a ten-year old Wright listened to stories of violence against blacks and reports “Nothing challenged the totality of my personality so much as this pressure of hate and threat that stemmed from the invisible whites.” Wright’s story offers some sense of what it was, perhaps still is, like growing up a “black boy” in America. Admittedly as a white woman, I could never fully understand or appreciate his feelings or life experiences.
On the surface we have made some positive strides toward racial equality and equity. We no longer see the signs at water fountains, restrooms, or business establishments designating which is accessible for “White” or “Colored.” Our schools are integrated and open to all races, if not in reality at least in theory and public policy. Yet there remains an undercurrent of racial segregation and inequality in the most vital of our societal structures – such as our neighborhoods, our places of worship, our educational and job opportunities. We see disproportionate amounts of poverty and violence among African Americans. Many hearts and minds have been opened and awakened to the racial disparities in our society and are compelled to speak out and work for change in these vital areas that impact the future and well-being of all our people, our society, and our nation.
Even so racial prejudice, both explicit and implicit, and violence targeting African Americans has always and tragically continues to be alive and well in our society. From the “terror lynchings” of the Civil War, post-Civil War, and Jim Crow eras to the murders of Emmett Till, James Byrd, and most recently Aubrey Ahmad private citizens have committed acts of violence against African Americans for no apparent reason other than racial hatred. Most recently, we have seen seemingly senseless deaths of African American men at the hands of our police – those who have pledged to “never betray my badge, my integrity, my character, or the public trust.” We all remember Michael Brown and Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, Freddie Gray of Baltimore, and now George Floyd in Minneapolis.
It would seem that regardless of our positive strivings, racism – racial strife, hatred, and violence – continues among us. I am reminded of Wright’s words:
“… both of us, the white boys and the black boys, began to play our traditional racial roles as though we had been born to them, as though it was in our blood, as though we were being guided by instinct. All the frightful descriptions we had heard about each other, all the violent expressions of hate and hostility that had seeped into us from our surroundings, came now to the surface to guide our actions.”
Let’s listen more and better. Let’s hear the words of Richard Wright and our African American neighbors. Let’s strive to understand, appreciate, and affirm one another. Let’s take action and make more meaningful progress in breaking the bonds of our “traditional racial roles” and crumble the “sharp concrete” between races.
Perhaps this can best be done by expanding on and living out a couple of Wright’s insights. In spite of the “place” the white South had assigned him, he states emphatically that “It had never occurred to me that I was in any way an inferior being,” and that no word he had ever heard “made me really doubt the worth of my own humanity.” God help us to claim and boldly live out our belief that all men are created equal and by the mere fact of their humanity all men are worthy.
And, let’s follow Wright’s lead and keep hope alive in us “by imagining a place where everything was(is) possible.”
In these uncertain, sometimes surreal, times as we continue to navigate this uncharted coronavirus, so much in our lives is different. I strive to maintain some constancy and familiarity with my daily walks. Walking is one thing I can continue to do without violating any stay-at-home orders or wearing a face mask (I can’t seem to keep my glasses from fogging up!) all while accommodating the social distancing rule. So, I walk, and I walk some more!
I tune into Pandora on my phone and take off. Occasionally I dial in my Disco Station particularly if I feel the need for a brisker, aka workout, walk. Most of the time I opt for the quieter, soothing sounds of Relaxation Radio or Enya. Of late, my walking is more about seeing, reflecting, pondering, processing, and meditating. The exercise, albeit a good thing, is not the primary focus.
As I walk, I look up, around, and down practicing wakefulness in the moment, resting in the rhythms of connection to myself and my surroundings. I see the squirrel perched precariously at the tip-end of a tiny limb. How does it not break! I see and hear the dogs barking and jumping at the fence as I pass. I don’t think, I hope, they can’t jump over it! I see the steadfast sky, serene and majestic in its brilliant blue or ominous and quarrelsome dripping gray. The stalwart lilies and irises turn their vivid, multicolored faces to the sun. I see the sap rising in the trees oozing out in variegated green leaves of all shapes and sizes – a gorgeous contract against the blue sky. I feel the warm, spring sun tempered by a slight, cool breeze. I delight in seeing the youngsters on their bicycles and scooters.
I reflect. It is all so good, so joyous! I ponder the contrast between the vibrance and beauty around me and the devasting reality currently engulfing our world – sickness, death, hunger, uncertainty. Added to this is the personal grief and loss with the recent death of my twelve-year old great-niece. The angst is palpable! I walk. I process. I embrace the both/and of my realities. I walk meditating. Borrowing from our Buddist friends, I lean into the sharp point, feeling the pain and losses for myself, my family, and the world. Yes, at times the tears do come. I breathe exhaling the pain. I breathe in the serenity, comfort, and peace that surrounds me. I keep walking.
This morning as I walked, I thought about Jesus and how much he and his disciples walked. I imagined their sandeled feet steadily walking the dusty roads, cobbled streets, and lush gardens. I wonder what their walks were like. I kept walking!
I am a grandmother, and despite our Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s claims, I am NOT willing to sacrifice my life for the economy so that my grandchildren, whom I love dearly, can keep “the America that all America loves.” My unwillingness is not due to a fear of death; however, as my longtime friend, Father Tom Jackson, says, “I am not afraid to die; it’s the dying that scares the hell out of me!” If the situation were a matter of true life or death, of course I would stand in for my grandchildren. But for the economy – no way! Patrick’s comments are abhorrent from the mere perspective of placing greater priority and value on the economy over the value of life and family. I get what the coronavirus is doing to our economy. The impact on the marketplace, our means of livelihood, and our workers is and will continue to be calamitous creating hardships for millions of folks, in some cases dire hardships.
We, as a people and a nation, have endured periods of difficulty and hardship throughout our history and have come out on the other side stronger, i.e. the Great Depression, 1918 flu pandemic, two world wars, 9/11. There is no reason to think differently in this instance, unless years of relative ease have weakened our resolve and warped our individual and national character. Moreover, were us grannies willing to be sacrificed to save the economy, “the America that all America loves,” what would our grandchildren miss out on. For some reason Mark 8:36 comes to mind: What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?
Now I don’t know that our grandchildren would lose their souls, but I do believe they would stand to lose a lot. One loss, definitely the presence of loving grandparents. Granny and Pawpaw (or whatever you call them) offer wisdom, stability, safety, and fun. Some research indicates that children who have an emotional closeness to grandparents are happier and less prone to depression as adults. There is a reason that humans are the only species (a few whales excepted) that have grandparents.
What else might our grandchildren lose if they were to live undaunted in the economy, consumerism, and comfort of “the America that all America loves.” Opportunity, perhaps? Opportunity that often comes in the disguise of adversity. Though hardship is difficult, I hope with the encouragement, guidance, and love of parents, grandparents, and a supportive community that my grandchildren would be able to endure the hardship and rise above it through perseverance, sacrifice, and a strong work ethic. I like what Washington Irving has said:
“There is in every true woman’s (man’s) heart, a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.”
My hopes and prayers are that our grandchildren’s hearts would “beam and blaze” courage, tenacity, ingenuity, compassion, honesty, and integrity in the midst of any future adversity. Billy Graham reminds us that “Comfort and prosperity have never enriched the world as much as adversity has.” To shield our grandchildren from hardships robs them of opportunities – for loving, for learning, for character growth – opportunities to enrich their lives and the world. I don’t want my grandchildren to miss any opportunities!
Lt. Governor Dan Patrick may be “All in.” with risking Granny and Pawpaw’s lives to keep the economy from falling, but this granny is most definitely NOT — especially for the sake of the grandkids.
I recently started participating in a book study. It is a diverse group of good folks –christian, atheist, agnostic, whatever — each on a journey of personal spiritual growth. Like me, they seem to be pilgrims, seekers, and heretics – awash in questions and doubts, deconstructing former concepts and beliefs, constructing personal truths and unique spiritual paths, — staying the course with authenticity and integrity in our often chaotic intersections with the world we live in, the life inhabiting that world, and the Spirit/God embodied in both the world and its inhabitants.
We are studying Rob Bell’s What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Much of our first discussion centered around Jane Fonda’s remarks made during a 2007 interview with Rolling Stonemagazine, “I could feel reverence humming in me.” Do you have a sense of “reverence humming” and “What is it?” My response to that question was to share a bit of my winter hike expereince. Hiking along an ice and snow laden trail I was bent, literally and figuratively, on keeping my eyes on the trail, following exactly in my hiking buddy’s footprints, and cautiously testing every step for firmness. I finally had to stop and straighten my aching, bent back.
As I looked up, my breath caught. The towering, red-rock canyon walls glistened in the bright, cold afternoon sun. They jutted straight up into a flawless, cobalt blue sky. “Wow, look at that!” was all I could utter. As I stood there taking it all in, I was overwhelmed with feelings of wonder, awe, gratitude, humility, and reverence. My heart was full and overflowed as tears filled my eyes. That, for me, was “reverence humming in me.” It was an experience I will never forget, and one which I frequently recall on hiking trails and elsewhere as I remind myself to “look up.”
Since that experience 28 years ago, I have (I think, I hope, but maybe not?) become more open, receptive, and settled to and into the various sounds, rhythms and vibrations of “the hum.” Never used the word “humming” to describe it, but I like Ms. Fonda’s analogy. “Hum” seems to give some substance to an otherwise intangible, indescribable feeling.
Where does the “humming” come from? For me, at this point in my journey, it comes from a sense of awareness, connection, and gratitude. A keen awareness of the mystery, the miracle, the love, the grace, the wisdom and truth of the of Spirit of God present in our world. A profound sense that I am connected to it all — a part of it, a product of it, a participant in it. And grateful for it all!
Here’s and idea! Let’s all “hum” in concert!!
I sat in the Tyler ISD School Board meeting last night anticipating a vote and a decision that I would support–whatever the outcome–out of respect for the leadership and authority of the school board. I came away incredulous! The motion to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School and begin the new name selection process was followed by stony silence. The board president reminded the members that seconding a motion did not infer or require an affirmative vote. More silence from the dais and the crowd of approximately 100 citizens. The motion was allowed to die for lack of a second. What was going on? In the July board meeting, just two weeks previous, board members had expressed frustration with continued focus on the name change issue and rejected the ideas of more community input meetings or a subcommittee for further study. Instead, they urged an up or down vote on whether to change the name as a means to bring closure one way or another to the entire issue. I was not the only one bewildered after the board’s refusal to allow a vote in this special meeting called for that purpose. Though not the movie setting, “dazed and confused” would be an apt descriptor for many faces in the crowd.
Approximately a year ago after the incident surrounding the controversy of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, a grassroots effort focused on changing the name of the south Tyler Robert E. Lee High School sprouted and grew. Equally as quickly a counter group took root, and Tyler, once again was a divided community. More accurately the racial tensions that have long remained lumps under Tyler’s beautiful public carpet of roses and azaleas were exposed. The carpet was ripped up and the dust flew!
In September 2017 board members initially signaled support for a name change with one member asking, “Is it fair to make African-American students attend a school named for the leading figure of the Confederacy?” Another stated in reference to the name change, “This is not changing history, this is making a positive impact today,” and urged the board to “do the right thing. . . It’s time for a change.” So what happened? What changed in eleven months?
Unfortunately as the year progressed, the public and, I can only assume, the private discourse was not always civil and respectful. Dueling Facebook groups logged on and petitions swirled. Honestly, when I saw some of the posts, my heart broke and I thought, Oh, no, no! Let’s not go there! Attendance at school board meetings skyrocketed. Items regarding the name change issue were on the official board agenda four times during the past year. Approximately 150 to 200 citizens made public comments at these and other board meetings with the numbers for and against the change fairly equal. Needless to say, it was at times ugly.
Yes, the nature and tenor of the discourse changed. It became louder, more fractured, less civil, and at times plummeted to accusation and name-calling. Regrettably, some folks on both sides allowed their emotions and passions to cloud and disrupt their reason and respect. Interestingly, as the board members spoke moments prior to the “vote, but no vote,” their primary focus, with a couple of exceptions, was on the community. They expressed, sometimes loudly, their disapproval and disappointment in the process and chastised folks for the divisiveness, the disrespect, the lack of courtesy and civility. They argued that the name change issue was a political and social issue and not germane to the function of the board—to focus on successful student outcomes. They took offense to this issue “being forced upon the board” and “the predicament that we have been placed in.” They argued that a name change would be a betrayal of the taxpayers who approved a bond to construct and renovate John Tyler High School and Robert E. Lee High School and changing the name was equated to a “bait and switch” scheme. (Note: The actual proposition on the May 6, 2017 Official Ballot-Bond Election did not include the names of the two high schools.)
What I found even more interesting and unsettling was that again, with only a few exceptions, the board members did not talk about what they believed would be the impact of a name change or no name change on current or future students. Although they espoused their focus as a board was to work toward positive, successful student outcomes, I did not hear, “I believe changing the name would have a negative/positive impact on student achievement because. . .” I also did not hear, “I believe changing the name would have a positive/negative impact on our community because. . .” Logically, every issue before the board should be viewed through the lens of how will this impact student outcomes/achievement. How will it impact our community as a whole and thus our community of students? With few exceptions specific answers to these vital questions were not a large part of the board members’ discussion at this or any previous meeting to my knowledge.
Maybe, to the detriment of all, some in the community allowed their emotions to guide their discourse, and in the end, perhaps the majority of the board members did as well. As school board members and leaders of the community, they failed to lead. They failed to remain objectively focused on the issue—a school name change—and how that change would or would not impact student outcomes, now and in the future. Granted, it is a difficult, highly charged, emotional issue with prospects for a general consensus being very bleak even in the process of extended civil discourse. Surely, the board members knew this. Also, I would hope they knew when they ran for office that there would be times of difficult decisions, contentious personalities, unhappy people, and they could possibly, most probably, at some point be the target of someone’s ill-temper.
The community expected a vote. The board members had lead folks to believe that they wanted a vote, a decision. Why didn’t it happen? Why did our leaders fail to lead? I have my ideas, which are purely speculative and probably, for now, are best kept to myself. As I left the board meeting amidst the dazed and confused, I heard various descriptors–cowards, shameful, no moral courage, gutless. Well, I don’t know about all that. I do believe, in this instance they failed to rise above the fray, maintain their focus on the best possible student outcomes, measure the issue through that lens, and vote on a difficult issue. On this occasion, they failed to lead. One board member stated prior to the “vote, no vote” that no matter what the board had done up until this point this is how they’re going to be remembered. Unfortunately, I believe he is correct!