i Can’t Breathe
Posted on December 4, 2014
I never imagined what it must have been like for my ancestors to walk past bodies hanging from trees; bodies that looked much like their own: Black skin, kinky hair, full lips. Worse, I never considered the depths of stanching fear that ripped through African American communities in the deep south because I believed we–a supposedly progressive generation–were divorced from Jim Crow. When racist micro-aggression greeted me in the form of blissful ignorance, like the time in my honors government class a White kid kept kicking my chair the moment I raised my hand to speak, or my roommate at Hofstra who assumed my audition for the dance troupe involved a hip hop routine (it was ballet to Mozart’s Canon in D), I brushed them off, wishfully hoping they didn’t know any better. Maybe they did.
Racism was the dirty word I wanted no parts of, though I was well aware of its historical context and looming implications on the modern Black community. I wanted to believe, like we all want to believe, our society has come further than judging someone by the color of their skin. This is a post-racial America, we cried. And it felt that way for a time if you were willing to overlook somethings. But then Amadou Diallo died. Killed at the hands of NYPD who shot a total of 41 bullets. There was outcry. There was a trial; the officers were later acquitted. We all went back to life as usual. A few years later Sean Bell died. Shot by NYPD on the morning of his wedding. Oscar Grant. Mike Brown. Tamir Price. Eric Garner.* Their hands up, their cries echoing, and their blackness an apparent threat. Suddenly it’s hard to ignore what Black people have known since being brought from Africa on slave ships: our very existence warrants hatred.
The blatant attack on African American men and women at the hands of law enforcement is nothing more than modern-day lynching. Strange fruit hung from trees are now being left lifeless on the street. The salt on an open wound is the mockery we call a judicial system telling Black men, women, and children when we are killed by those who are trusted with protecting and serving we don’t deserve justice. It turns out America isn’t as post-racial as we hoped. For this we are collectively dis-empowered, Black and White people alike. When a judicial system elects not to protect one of its citizens it, in turn, possess a threat to all of its citizens regardless of race. This should be concerning to each of us. Now, we are forced to face painful realities at almost paralyzing rates. My White friends don’t know how to approach the subject. They are confused, wanting desperately to offer empathy. My Black counterparts are growing numb. And everyone wants to know the answer.
The answer is the Gospel. It has always been; yet, not a Gospel used as soothing balm to temper angered souls in light of injustice. Spiritual platitudes won’t work here. The righteous Truth must sweep every corner of our society including the hallways of our court system. Then let the light of Truth beam on the darkness of prejudice, intolerance, and subjugation. No person or groups of people deserve to die without their killer being brought to trial. The answer is also prayer; not mild prayers calling on God to do the work we’ve been empowered to do. Each of us were created as the answer to someone else’s prayer. These must be bold prayers that move our hearts into holy action. They must be petitions of courage to fight against despondency.
Our prayers should follow the example of King David who asked God to search his heart and find any sin in him. Not addressing our individual demons leaves us vulnerable to becoming the very evil we despise. The answer is compassion. I don’t know what it is to have “White people problems” and you, presuming you are not African American, won’t know what it is to have “Black people problems.” This doesn’t mean we absolve ourselves of opening the door to one another. Compassion overlooks circumstances and reaches across the aisles of race, gender, socio-economic status. Compassion leans in, forming a bond of empathy. When we are compassionate and empathetic we bear each others’ burdens. At the center of compassion we begin to understand when any part of the human race is hurting we are all hurting. Love is the answer. Holy, righteous, and pure love annihilates hatred. It becomes as simple as that. The more we see love in our homes and communities, the less tolerable we become of partiality.
We can no longer afford to be apathetic. We can no longer afford to claim progress while conveniently turning a blind eye when people are being killed without just cause. We need to move together, lock-in-step, as One fighting to uphold fairness and justice. If we don’t–if we choose to continue to be divisive and pretend these problems don’t exist, then we can’t breathe in a land of oppression disguising itself as free.
*The names listed do not account for the vast number of black men and women who have been not only been killed, but also brutalized by the police each year. May the work we choose to do, moving forward, honor them as they rest in power.