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!
Joe Dallas, ex-gay author and speaker, will be presenting a conference, Speaking of Homosexuality with Compassion and Truth, at our local Southern Baptist mega-church this weekend. Some folks in our LGBTQ community are planning a silent vigil near the church during the conference as a means of local LGBTQ visibility and as an expression of opposition to the ideas and beliefs espoused by Mr. Dallas and the host church. I am conflicted as to whether I will participate in the vigil.
I am weary! I am bone tired of this “culture war” and the religious and political struggle inherent in it. I want to scream, “Stop it! Just stop it!” Regardless of which side of this issue one might come down on, just stop the divisive, demonizing, demeaning, and denouncing rhetoric. Stop the protest and confrontations. Why do we publicly battle over something as private and personal as one’s sexuality? One’s sexuality and gender expression is a matter solely between the person and his/her God. The sexuality or gender identity/expression of another person is not my business nor concern.
My concern is for one’s well being — do they have enough to eat, do they have a safe place to live, do they have a family/community that gives them a sense of belonging and love. My concern is for one’s character – do they show love, kindness, patience, joy, goodness, faithfulness, honesty, and peace.
My concern is for one’s life – are they able to live a meaningful life knowing the love and support of family, friends, and community, freely exercising their faith tradition, participating in purposeful, satisfying work, contributing to the common good, and engaging in all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities our nation offers.
Why not declare this “culture war” at a stalemate and call a truce? As long as battles to “win” the war continue, we all lose. We continue to beat up one another in a battle that will never be “won.” There will never be agreement one way or the other! Can’t we just keep our opinions and beliefs regarding sexuality issues to ourselves and live in a manner that respects the dignity and sacredness of every individual’s life, life journey, and where one might be in that journey.
I respect Mr. Dallas’s life and his life journey. Honestly, our journeys were somewhat parallel thirty years ago. I purported to be ex-gay and desired to help those struggling with same-sex attraction. However, through various God encounters, my journey has taken me in a different direction. In no uncertain terms my God assures me of the sacredness of my life, and the sacrament of my relationships. Most especially my eighteen–year covenant relationship with my wife—three of those years legally married. It appears that we don’t all have the same road map. I take issue, as I believe Mr. Dallas does, with expecting or coercing anyone to change and use another’s roadmap.
The fact that we have allowed this “culture war” to become politicized has deepened the trenches. The various court rulings, established laws, and pending legislation that target the already marginalized and vulnerable LGBTQ community have polarized our communities even more. One would think we might have learned from the prohibition era that it does not bode well when government seeks to legislate regarding what is perceived a moral issue. A particularly disturbing aspect of these legislative proposals is the discrimination/denial of services that would be allowed on the basis of “one’s sincerely held religious beliefs.” Ugh! That’s a conundrum for me! I am not a theologian, but I simply don’t recall Jesus excluding or denying his presence or service to anyone. Perhaps all of us with sincerely held religious beliefs need to ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?”
I still don’t know what to do about the conference and silent vigil! I do know that I am exhausted and weary of this “war.” Should I participate in the silent vigil in solidarity with my LGBTQ community? That’s important to me, yet I don’t want to draw added attention to the “battle lines.” Maybe I will go to the conference to listen and show respect for those attending and their beliefs — “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Matthew 7:12) Whatever I do, I desire to live in the wisdom of Romans 12:18 and “as much as it is in me to live peaceably with all men.”
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!
Again, it is 3:04 am, and I have been awake for an hour with these thoughts banging around in my head. So I might as well get up and write it down. I am not one to bandy around scripture, and in this instance I feel a bit compelled. In doing so I claim Matthew 10:27
What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roof!
Day before yesterday seemingly out of the blue a portion of scripture popped into my head, “I am going to do a brand new thing.” I immediately associated that with our current local issue regarding changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School. I let a day rock on and the scripture kept coming up so I looked it up. Literally, I googled it as I have a hard time holding on to chapter and verse. Isaiah 43:18-19
Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not
perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and
streams in the wasteland. (New International Version)
I found it interesting that when I went to my Bible(s) these verses were marked with dates and notes. Apparently, I had been here before—learning to let go of the old and letting God do a new thing.
At any rate, I see some application for the verses in our current REL issue as most of the arguments in favor of keeping the name center around our personal memories and traditions of the school. “It is our heritage!” claimed one proponent of saving the name. I agree! It is our heritage, and we will fondly remember some of our high school experiences and traditions. Also, it is time to turn from focusing on our history and heritage and begin looking forward to this “new thing.” The new school under construction “springs up” even now. It is time to turn from our heritage and focus on our future legacy. It is time to ask, “What will be our legacy, our bequest to future generations and our community?” In answering that question, let’s begin to truly “perceive” all the possibilities of this “new thing” this “brand new thing?” (The Living Bible)
We know the deeper context of Isaiah 43—man’s rebellion and God’s redemptive grace—has universal application. I find verses 5-7 somewhat, maybe particularly, relevant to our current circumstances. Apparently, the people have become divided and scattered, but God says he will bring them from the east and the west. He will command the north and the south to “Give them up! Do not hold them back.” Sons will come from afar and daughters from the ends of the earth. To me that sounds a bit like unification and reconciliation.
Have we become a divided and scattered people? Do we need unity and reconciliation? Could this turning from the old and moving forward with this “brand new thing” possibly be a step on our way through the desert, the wilderness? I don’t know! I only ask the questions. My personal answer is “Yes!” because I certainly don’t want to thwart or hinder the possibilities of this “brand new thing”—new school with a brand new name.
Perhaps, if we harden not our hearts and let the better angels of our nature be our guide we will come to experience all the possibilities of this “brand new thing.” Through and in it all let us remember Lincoln’s words, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bond of affection,”
What is happening in Charlottesville? We know what’s happening in Charlottesville! Again, factions of our society have chosen some one, some event, some thing to rally around and espouse their opinions and beliefs-prejudices and ideologies perhaps. And, again, being the diverse peoples that we are, opposing factions have rallied in protest. And again, mutual respect and rationale thinking has been replaced with anger, hate, and violence. And again, sacred lives have been injured and killed. When will we learn that we must come to respect human life, be respectful in our disagreements, and seek peaceful cooperation and co-existence with one another? Succumbing to violence harms us all, physically and/or morally, and contributes to the decay and demise of our nation.
The “thing” that has become the rallying point in Charlottesville, and other places, is a statue. In this instance the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, a prominent figure in our nations history during the Civil War. The debate over removing the statue is burning! Proponents for removal argue the statue is a symbol that honors Lee, the Confederacy, the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of African Americans, and memorializes racism. Proponents for keeping the statue argue it honors our Southern Heritage.
It is a statue-mere bronze and stone. Although Charlottesville officials report it will cost $330,000 to remove it, it has no value compared to a human life. It is a statue the primary purpose of which is to make us remember. Yes, we need to remember the Civil War-slavery, succession, reconstruction. We need to remember the misery, the suffering, the cruel, inhumane treatment of our African American brothers and sisters, the families broken and destroyed, the deaths both off and on the battlefield. We need to remember and embrace this portion of our national history as the horrific and tragic era that it truly was. We, white Americans, need to confess and repent for the sins of our fathers and perhaps in some degree our own-the sins of fostering white supremacy, either intentionally or unintentionally, and subjugating African Americans to the horrors of slavery and oppression. Out of genuine confession and repentance, can we ask for forgiveness? In no way being able to know the experience of my African American brothers and sisters, I dare not speculate on what they might need. Could we not rally, even around the statue, for these purposes? With remembrance and repentance, can we then refocus on hope and healing amidst our national values- truths that we hold to be self evident, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”?
What’s happening in Charlottesville is reported as “white nationalist” rallying around the Lee statue honoring “Southern Heritage.” Really! I don’t think so! Folks are carrying Nazi flags, chanting “blood and soil,” as well as “Jews we will replace you.” Doesn’t look or sound at all like “Southern Heritage.” One might ask, “What nation?” Maybe shades of another nation bent on white supremacy in another horrific and tragic historical era, and hopefully not our nation of America today.
And, by the way, I don’t know that the presence or absence of a statue is going to change hearts and minds one way or the other without the presence of meaningful relationships and community. We need a narrative change, a paradigm shift. We need to remember, repent, forgive, and refocus on hope and healing grounded in our national self-evident truths.
Note: Occasionally I hear or read something that just simply makes me say “Oh, Geez,” and I can’t help but respond. Well, this is one of those occasions!
The Tyler Morning Telegraph Wednesday, June 7, article, “East Texas lawmakers respond,” is evidence of a huge problem we face locally and nationally. The problem –labeling and the growing division and partisanship reflected not only in our politics but also in other vital areas of our communities. This concerns me deeply.
In the article these comments were made: Sen. Hughes – “…it’s easy for conservative bills to get lost…” Rep. Schaefer, “Gov. Abbott just scheduled a conservative home run derby.” Rep. Hefner, “…special session includes many important conservative priorities…” It is disappointing that our local legislators, elected to represent the common good for all the PEOPLE, seem more focused on labeling and promoting an ideology. We, all of us, must stop thinking and talking in terms of labels and ideologies if we hope to heal the partisan wound in our nation. If we don’t, we will surely “bleed out” and die–no longer the nation of the people and the beacon of democracy and freedom to the world.
Let’s make the effort to drop the labeling and ideologies. Maybe if we start by changing our language, our heads and hearts will follow. Let’s talk about the substance of the legislation. What will the legislation do? Is it just and helpful? Will it pass the test of equal justice under the law and non-discrimination? Let’s think and talk about the people affected by the legislation and how they will be effected-physically, emotionally, financially, socially. I hope and pray our strength and courage as a people and nation will rise to the top.