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.”
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.
Note: In light of the violent events of this past week, my thoughts have returned to the subject of violence in our society and this post that I wrote months ago but never published.
It is odd indeed that though I sit here in the peace of my private sanctuary, the quiet disturbed only by the hum of the ancient furnace and the tick of the clock, my thoughts keep going to “Violence.” Now why is that? I know, yet I have not succumbed and given “power and time” to my experience and restive thoughts on the subject. I suppose I must do that now if I am to know the peace of this place.
Several weeks ago I went to the movies. I rarely go to the movies, but I wanted to see “On the Basis of Sex,” the dramatization of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s journey into law and the beginning of her herculean efforts toward securing gender equality in our society. The movie was good; I highly recommend it. However, before I could watch the movie I was subject to a barrage of awful, loud previews full of angry, hateful, vindictive, and violent characters in multiple scenes of gun battles, fiery bomb explosions, sinister death plots, and human hurt and tragedy. “Cold Pursuit” is cold indeed, and “Serenity” is anything but serene. I was particularly aghast with the final words of the female lead in “Miss Bala.” She said as she cocked her gun, “in the end the bullet settles everything.” REALLY!!
It would appear that evil, crime, and subsequent violence are ever more the focus of our entertainment avenues regardless of modality—film, the printed word, video games. I could site a few James Patterson or David Baldacci works, but I won’t right now. I ponder the oft-posed conundrum, “Do our movies and literature (I use that term loosely and hesitantly.) reflect our society’s ways and mores, or do they influence and direct them? Yep, it’s the chicken and the egg question –which comes first?
Maybe it’s like garbage? For example: There is some garbage on the street, and we fail to pick it up and post “No Littering” signs to let everyone know that littering is not congruent with our values. Consequently, the littering continues and the garbage piles up. We become accustomed to the garbage – it’s unsightly mess, it’s putrid stench. It’s now the norm. Everyone expects it. What is there to do? Well, thankfully we saw the inherent harm in open garbage piles/pits and collectively sought to finds ways to safely dispose of it. Kinda, sorta! It is still an issue we must continue to address.
Just like our garbage, our societal violence is a moral issue complicated even more so by issues of mental health, socio-economic status, race, and stunted emotional growth and expression just to name a few. We seek to stem the tide with police action, punishment, and some limitations on guns and gun ownership, yet the incidence of violence continues to be alarming in our country. According to the Gun Violence Archives, in 2018 in the US alone there were 57,084 incidents of gun violence resulting in 14,712 deaths and 28,170 injuries. Of this total 3,501 were children and teens under 17 years old. Not included in these numbers are the 22,000 suicides by gun in 2018.
Back to the movies! I don’t think debate or a philosophical ponderance over what came first societal violence or movie violence is particularly helpful at this point. More important questions are Where do we want to go from here? and How do we get there? I think we all know what we want, at least I hope we all want it, and that is a peaceful society where differences are settled through understanding by way of conversation and compromise. Sorry, “Miss Bala.” We want words and moral action, not bullets, to have the last word. That’s the end game. Maybe a first play would be taking a moral stand against violent entertainment. Yes, violence is present in our society, but does that mean we want it reflected and glorified in our movies and literature. And what does it say about our society when we turn to violence for entertainment? With our violent “entertainment” are we flirting with the old acumen, “garbage in-garbage out,” and contributing to the perpetuation of that which we do not want?
I know our movies are not the root of our violence problems, but couldn’t we do something to start shoveling up the “garbage” and posting “No Littering” signs? Maybe some violence pruning? In gardening we know that if too much is pruned off the top of a plant, the system is disturbed and it will die if not tended to properly. Let’s prune some things — our violent entertainment — off the top. Maybe the pruning will weaken our system of societal violence while we continue working to remedy the root causes of our violence problem. Let’s use our words to speak up about and against specific media—movies, books, video games – that portray and glorify violence. Cast your protest against violence at the cash register and ticket booth. Refuse to partake of the “garbage” and encourage others not to. Let your local cinemas know of your opposition to violent movies. Use your social media – Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, etc. – to broadcast information on unacceptable violent content and urge “friends” to join you in protest. Organize a flash mob during the local screening of a violent movie. Call your governmental representatives and urge them to pass sensible gun legislation.
Above all, let’s practice non-violence in our daily walk treating everyone with dignity and respect.