I missed “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” by a generation. Even so, the images of James Brown sweating out his conk on stage, a seemingly endless combustion of performance energy and dance moves, seem quite familiar due to his legendary status. Recently my uncle introduced me to that day in 1968 when that song was released, defying the inferiority myth, frustration and adversity which clouded the psyche of millions of black Americans. For the first time “I was proud to be black” my uncle reminisced. An accomplished world traveled dancer and choreographer with expertise in modern dance and ballet, he was once principal dancer for Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, performing before royalty and dignitaries, domestic and abroad. He recalled being called “beautiful” for the first time, once he left his birthplace of Norfolk, Virginia, and descended upon the melting pot that is New York City. For the first time his blackness was positive, unique, desired. His dark skin, wide nose and “nappy” black hair a treasured inheritance from a far away land instead of an undesirable curse, and mark of oppression.
Today instead of “I’m Black and I’m Proud” it is Black Lives Matter that continues to make headlines. The grass roots movement, which arose in 2012, marches on with the expressed intent of holding politicians and political parties accountable to the needs and dreams of black people. Over the last few years they have grown, demanding justice through sometimes questionable means while boldly bringing attention to the disparities between black life and white life in America. In true American fashion there has been pushback from people of all skin tones and political parties.
Some contention is with the very phrase itself. This is problematic, though, because “black lives matter” in context is clearly comparative to them not mattering. It obviously does not exist in a vacuum thus a response of “all lives matter” is disingenuous at best and outright insulting at worst. It SHOULD go without saying that “all lives matter”, including black lives, unborn lives, elderly lives, affluent and poor lives, Christian and atheist lives. But, today, in light of our present societal struggles and racial tension the question is worth addressing. As Americans, do black lives matter to us?
It’s clear looking at history from 1619, when the first Blacks sailed up the James, to 2015 when the first brown skinned man occupies the Oval Office, that their individual innate worth as human beings has grown exponentially in America’s eye. Yet in spite of all this, things still aren’t entirely OK.
The state of black lives has been the clearly identifiable scarlet thread woven through our four century long tapestry of liberty and while laws have been amended and created, what’s on the books and what’s in the hearts are at times still at odds.
Having the same legal privileges is paramount but respect for others is not dependent upon legislation, it’s directly connected to the condition of the heart. The black and white typed letter of the law can be non discriminatory while the administration of it is anything but.
In light of this movement I’ve asked myself, “Do black lives really matter to the people I work with, grocery shop with, and go to church with.” More importantly, I’ve asked myself, “do black lives matter to me?”
At times in my life I’ve felt that black lives didn’t matter to some white people….or even some black people. I’ve even believed the myth that my life somehow wasn’t as important as my white classmates, teammates and friends.
Whether we are totally naïve or if we intentionally promote such a message, by listening and watching closely we will easily see that in many ways black lives don’t matter.
Black lives don’t matter when the only time we learn about black heritage is black history month. And even then the same characters are paraded, as great and important as they are, as if they are all we have to be proud of. A people who don’t know their history, lack identity, and consequently, a positive self concept. Ancient and modern history, religious and secular, is riddled with contributions by Africans and blacks, but are many times only discovered through personal investigation outside of traditional academia.
Black lives don’t matter when the closer one’s physical features resemble Caucasians the “better” they are. The legacy of the bi-racial light skinned house slave versus the dark skinned field slave endure as an understood if not spoken hierarchy among us. Opportunities, acceptance, beauty are many times associated with whiteness.
Black lives don’t matter when neighbors, black neighbors, kill each other. It’s no surprise that people generally commit crimes against the people they live nearest to. Even so, the truth is that we treat people no better than the value we place on them and the dignity we have in ourselves.
Black lives don’t matter when some politicians enable generational dependency, stifling individual responsibility while others completely deny the importance of programs that are needed to help the marginalized. A crutch is the vital friend of the injured, it’s ultimate purpose to one day be laid aside as it’s former dependent walks on their own. If it oversteps it’s purpose the user will no longer feel the need to walk. Erroneously, they may not even think they can ever do so. Consequently, a stagnant, hopeless life seems to matter less.
Black lives don’t matter when we support and engage in the termination of our most important resource and our hope for a brighter future, our unborn children.
Black lives don’t matter when their very real and documented negative experiences with law enforcement, employment opportunities, and educational funding is belittled and dismissed. Compassion for another’s experience, even if foreign to us is paramount when encountering situations we can’t understand.
Black lives don’t matter when black offenders are generally termed thugs, the status quo, while whites are classified as mentally ill anomalies.
Black lives don’t matter when fathers selfishly abandon their children and their children’s mothers, teaching them that family is not a priority, and almost ensuring the cycle will repeat itself. A strong foundation gives children the fortitude to weather the storms they are sure to face throughout their lives.
But BLACK LIVES MATTER, when we look at our black children and imperfectly strive to show them the compassion, love, leadership, hard work and sacrifice a man should exhibit in hopes that our sons will carry the banner further and our daughters will set the bar high for their future spouses.
BLACK LIVES MATTER when we understand that the black community can not be characterized by headlines of a single story, because it is filled with multiple stories from millions of contrasting individuals.
BLACK LIVE MATTER when we look at our white children, and realize that they are internalizing and will imitate every attitude, action, comment, and expression we make when the next racially charged incident occurs or when we engage with others on a daily basis, who don’t look like us. They are future change agents as well. Some of the largest victories in through abolition and civil rights came because of the compassion and activism of our white brothers and sisters.
BLACK LIVES MATTER when we are willing to stand up to our friends and family when they make racist comments and jokes that are dead wrong. AND they matter when we refuse to flippantly use words created to demean and degrade even if we feel we have a right to.
BLACK LIVES MATTER when we are mature enough to understand that challenging the black community to improve in certain areas does not absolve the system of guilt, or deny that inequities and biases are still very much apart of our everyday lives. We must not always be so defensive that we can not see that some of the problems are our own.
BLACK LIVES MATTER when we desire the discomfort of change more than we desire to wallow in the comfort of conflict.
BLACK LIVES MATTER when all lives know their God given, intrinsic worth and realize that man foolishly looks on the outward appearance but God looks at the heart. That’s when we will no longer let these injustices define us or continue to perpetuate the attitudes, actions, and assumptions that forces us to raise our voices and scream about whose lives matter!
So historically, and in many ways presently, black lives don’t matter…. but so what. Where do we as a nation go from here? We make them matter where they don’t. We repent if we’ve been wrong or calloused. We repent if we’ve been bitter and vengeful. We become intentional in our relationships.
The burden of making black lives matter is on all of us. When it comes to race, the dining room in our homes is just as important as the court room in evoking true lasting improvement. What happens or doesn’t happen in these family times is paramount to our collective health as a society. I shall no more tell my children to succumb to their skin color and its supposed disadvantages then any parent whose offspring may be subject to any other form of adversity. I will, however, tell them that their color will not define them. I will instill in them a spiritual identity that supersedes anything this world can give. I will not ignore the importance of heritage and ethnic identity in their present success and self concept, but I will simultaneously teach them that their true identity is in Christ, and that that identity supersedes anything this world can offer.
The attitudes inherited by our different heritages can breed in us unhealthy attitudes if left unchecked, including the foolishness of supremacy and the myth of inferiority. The cross bridges the gap, the power of the blood penetrating deep into our wickedness, convicting us, forgiving us, and reconciling us to God and subsequently reconciling us to each other. Only in Christ do the temporal distinctions between us fade, as our oneness in him takes precedence over our color creed and culture and our allegiance to Him compels us to make those who matter to Him matter most to us.