“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and the needy.”Provbers 31:8-9NIV
“This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.”Jeremiah 22:3 NIV
“Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”Romans 13:10 NIV
I remember exactly where I was the day my parents told me we were going to a place I’d only seen on TV and in my dreams, Disney World. It was in the same room, about a year later, where they would tell me they were getting divorced. For me, these are both deeply personal, once-in-a-lifetime events. Similarly, I remember where I was when the Harry Potter series ended.
Many of us have moments like this. A few of you remember where you were during Woodstock or when President Kennedy and later Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated. You might remember or know someone who remembers when an American first walked on the moon or when Facebook launched for the first time.
Maybe you recall where you were when the Columbine shootings occurred or Sandy Hook. I recall with absolute clarity walking by the teacher’s lounge in 5th grade on September 11, 2001 and overhearing talk of a ‘bomb’ or some kind of ‘explosion.’ I peeked through the open door to watch smoke rising from a building on TV that I’d never seen before, but would absolutely never forget. These events felt singular – too astounding or horrific – to be repeatable. Unfortunately, some of these events were repeatable, but they have never felt natural or commonplace.
However, I can’t recall exactly where I was when I found out about the live broadcast death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minnesota. I don’t remember what I was doing before I watched the video of Amy Cooper weaponizing the police against an unarmed bird watcher in New York. Nor do I immediately know where I was when I learned Ahmaud Arbery had been shot and killed by a former officer in the streets of my home state of Georgia while jogging, on video, or that Breonna Taylor had been gunned down in her home by police in Kentucky. At the time of drafting this essay, I have also learned that the killing of a black protester named Rayshard Brooks by white officers in Atlanta after falling asleep in his car in a Wendy’s drive-thru was ruled a homicide. I was born in Atlanta.
The incidents stick out in my mind, but not what I was doing when I watched the videos, heard the news, or scrolled past the stories on social media. Because, for me and millions of other people of color raised in the United States, this feels commonplace. These incidents of police brutality, racially-charged violence, and systemic inequalities, as well as the countless occurrences that go undocumented, unfilmed, and unresolved every day in our country are part of the framework of ‘our America.’ This is the America I have always known. To be honest, it’s the America that has always existed.
There are many being educated for the first time, due to these recent events, about the deeply entrenched history of state-sanctioned, or ignored, violence against black and brown bodies in our country. From colonialism and slavery to public lynchings to Jim Crow to over-policing, history melds into current events seamlessly without any period of reprieve. If it can take an individual anywhere from weeks to years to break a bad habit, how long will it take over 300 million people to break a bad 400-years-old system?
The question can be answered when we know how motivated we are. How motivated are we, as a people, to learn from the past and struggle through the work that needs to be done to create a better future? How motivated are we to listen with open hearts and empathy to those who see, and have experienced, this society differently? How motivated are we to see the America we always believed in realized for every American?
I’m sorry that for many of you, this was your awakening into someone else’s normal. I’m learning to be empathetic to the idea that this is not the country you knew or have ever encountered. You were not matter-of-factly raised with the awareness that, while you are important and have value, a time could come when being human would not be enough. You were not told that, through no fault of my own, for something as nonsensical as melanin production levels in your skin cells, someone can not only choose to hate you, but also want to take your opportunities, your freedom, or your life, and that there is an underlying system in place to protect their ability to do so.
Despite having been nationally recognized in school for my academic talents, receiving numerous service awards throughout my life, owning my own business, becoming a teacher and mentor, and being a published poet and author, I have always been prepared for America to ignore my humanity. I have always been prepared for my life not to matter. And I’m tired. I’m tired that seeing faces that look like mine, my father’s, my mother’s, and my husband’s flash across screens with hashtags and on R.I.P. T-shirts is so normal.
Therefore, I no longer want or need the America I have known. I want the America that I was promised as a citizen. I want the lie of the dream to be made realized for ALL Americans, not just some. I want the right to raise my future children and grandchildren without caveats. I don’t want to still have to teach them that they can do all the right things, respect others with their whole hearts, and still be killed extrajudicially in the streets by POLICE (those entrusted to protect them)…with impunity…and it is normal. I don’t want to have to warn them that despite all my love and care, they have a greater chance in their country of being shown that their lives don’t matter.