My first thought upon seeing the actual buildings of our new high school while still under construction in the spring of 2019 was, Oh, no! This was not the emphatic Oh, no! in anticipation of stopping an action. This was the mystified Oh, no! accompanied by incredulity and a sense of sorrow and grief. I had seen aerial architectural renditions of the building months ago during the community debate over changing the name of the school and thought only, Wow! What an impressive building! Admittedly, I was disappointed on August 16, 2018, when the local school board failed to act on the name change proposal. Why was I not impressed with the actual structure now?
What I saw now was an impressive building, but one somehow tainted. The architectural focal points of the structure are reminiscent of antebellum plantation homes constructed in the American South prior to the Civil War. The neoclassical, antebellum “look” is clearly apparent in the grand pillared front entrance as well as the columned porticos adorning the four wings of the main building. Why was my Oh, no! accompanied by such a wave of incredulity and sorrow? This grand, new building conjuring up images of southern plantation life will continue to carry the name Robert E. Lee High School. The Robert E. Lee name is questionable enough in our current times. The name coupled with the architectural style of the building simply compounds the question. Have the taxpayers of Tyler ISD spent $94,584,548, yes, approximately $95 million dollars, on what could arguably be a memorial to the antebellum South and General Robert E. Lee?
The greatest sorrow is not that our new Robert E. Lee High School invokes the most tragic portions of our national history – institutional slavery of African Americans and its many abuses. Not that we should forget that time in our history, indeed we need to remember, repent – “turn from (our racist) ways” – and seek reconciliation. The greatest sorrow regards our students. The current student demographic for Robert E. Lee High School is approximately 28% African American, 27% Hispanic, and 38% White. These students will be expected to attend, learn, and thrive as they walk through the doors and roam the corridors of an institution that seemingly memorializes the horrors, hostility, and hate of their ancestral histories.
Tyler, even as a small city in conservative East Texas, does not exist in isolation, and the national upheaval over systemic racism predicated by George Floyd’s senseless murder is felt here as well. With this has come revitalized calls to change the name of our Robert E. Lee High School, the largest high school in the nation to still carry that name. At this time in our nation’s history there is so much racial hurt and strife, so much need to listen, to support, and seek to understand (as much as possible for us white folks) our African American friends, neighbors, and family members, so much need for racial reconciliation.
Tyler is known for its “quiet racism.” However, Robert E. Lee High School has been the flash point of some not so quiet and contentious community and legal racial wrangling from its opening in 1958 as an all-white school, to its court ordered integration in 1970, to the fallout surrounding its “Rebel” mascot and Confederate symbols that was finally mitigated through court and Texas Education Agency intervention in 1972. The mascot and symbols were changed; however, in opposition to urgings from black parents and students the local board refused to change the name just as they did recently in 2018.
And, here we are again! I can think of no better action to exemplify our desire for racial reconciliation than to remove the Robert E. Lee name from our school. Hopefully, this time our community with open minds, eyes, ears, and hearts will be able to move forward along “the arc of the moral universe (as) it bends toward justice” and human compassion.
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 found myself feeling a bit out-of-sorts, disgruntled, unsettled this morning. Maybe it’s cabin fever after eleven days at home trying to do my part to “flatten the curve” on this COVID-19. Perhaps it’s the general uncertainty and angst surrounding this public health crisis, or it could be my incredulity regarding the remarks made yesterday by one of our state leaders. My plans were to clean out the pantry closet. Nah! It’s a pretty day outside, so I opted for yard work. Nope! The wind is blowing the pollen around like crazy – an allergy/sinus event just waiting to happen – and the ground is very wet. I wanted to work in the yard not play in the mud and get sick. So back inside. Maybe I just need to be still and quiet!
I did just that, closed my door and settled into my comfy reading chair. After some quite, focused breathing, and meditation I picked up A Year with Thomas Merton. Turning to my marked spot, I read:
“Silence, then, is the adoration of His truth, Work is the expression of our humility, and suffering is born of the love that seeks one thing alone: that God’s will be done.”
This was in the chapter entitled “Truth is Formed in Silence, Work, and Suffering” written in Merton’s journal on November 12, 1952. I suppose I needed that reminder in these uncertain times. Now on to my humble work. The sun has come out so perhaps the ground is dryer and more amenable to the spade.
I tugged several of my old college literature anthologies from the bottom bookshelf yesterday. No, not to do any serious study, but to use as weight for a gluing project! A paper filled with my handwriting fell from one of the books. The writing was in verse form, so I thought perhaps an old poem I had written and tucked away. I have a tendency to do that – start a writing project and put it away not to be found until years later, if at all. But this was not my “writing.” It was the lyrics to an old Amy Grant song, “Turn This World Around.” Apparently the song had some special meaning for me in 1997 since I had taken the time and effort to record the lyrics. The song was included in her Behind The Eyes album released in September 1997 and written by Amy Grant, Beverly Darnall, and Keith Thomas.
Reflecting back on my 1997, in and of itself, it was not a good year, and September was particularly difficult. It was a year of losses and reversals in every area of life – professional, relationship, financial, and health. I could certainly relate to the melancholic melody and many passages in the lyrics of “Turn This World Around.” I was living in the midst of “broken promises and dreams” even as I struggled to carry on “in good disguise.” I needed “somewhere safe and warm” and was thankful for the shelter of friends during this stormy time in my life. I had to “turn and face (my) fears”– the fear of more losses and rejection from family, friends, and the church as I began to acknowledge my same-sex orientation after decades of living in hiding and pretense. I learned to “reach out through (my) tears” and discovered “it’s really not that far to where Hope can be found.”
After finding the paper I dug through my old CD’s. I found it! I had bought it which was something I rarely did. As I listened I recalled the solace and encouragement I had found in other songs in the album such as “I Will Be Your Friend,” “It Takes a Little Time,” “Missing You,” and “Somewhere Down the Road.” Today I look at this decades old piece of paper, read these words, and am thankful for how my world was turned around in 1997, albeit after it was turned upside down. Today I hear a more universal and much needed message for our world. The message that behind our eyes “we are all the same it seems.” We all want to be safe and warm and find shelter with others through the storms of our lives. We all need to face our fears and reach out to the other in the midst of suffering—ours and theirs. It is the reaching out and acknowledging the “hunger and longing” that we all know inside that “could be the bridge between us if we tried.”
We all know our world needs to turn around. We are headed in the wrong direction. Look no further than the death and destruction resulting from the numerous and lengthy armed conflicts throughout the world. Grasp the magnitude of gun violence, the global refugee crisis, increased human trafficking, and world hunger levels rising. We are the world! Only we, working individually and corporately with one another throughout our communities, cities, states, provinces, districts and countries, can turn this world around. Maybe one day we will turn and see behind the eyes of all our brothers and sisters regardless of race, religion, culture, nationality, sexual orientation or gender identity and see our sameness, reach out to one another, and experience the will and kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” Yes, maybe one day – maybe in this New Year!