Sunday, May 31, 2020

Breaking the Silence

Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Laquan McDonald. Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd.

Do you recognize these names? These are the names of our fellow American citizens murdered by the police we pay to protect American citizens. The worst consequence for the murderers is getting fired from their jobs or given a hand slap. Not one has been tried or convicted for knowingly and willfully killing another human being. 

There is another long, long list of those fellow human beings murdered the same way whose names didn’t make it to the news because our culture refused to recognize that black lives mattered (more than 100 unarmed black people were killed by police in 2015 alone!). Then another long list of those murdered by people acquitted by their good ole boy juries (Emmett Till one of thousands, perhaps millions counting the slave trade), those who were lynched, those shot down trying to escape to freedom.  And then another list of millions paid nothing to do the work that made America rich and powerful, sold and owned like property, fed and treated like animals (not the pampered Park Avenue types). Does this make you proud to be an American? Is this what you’re nostalgic about when you say “make America great again?”

Then there’s another long, long list of extraordinary human beings who accomplished things in the fields of the arts, social justice, sports, science and beyond that brought practical benefits, inspiration, entertainment, comfort and beauty to folks not only in America, but around the world, the kind of people that certainly make me proud to be an American. Black American citizens who uplifted and defined so much of American culture. But like Miles Davis getting beat up and arrested by a policeman outside the jazz club because he refused to “move on” (he was on a break between sets and was just having a smoke before going back in to play), these extraordinary Americans and their families and friends and neighbors lived (and still do) in a reign of terror where they not only have to fear for violence from hate-infested fellow citizens, but from the very police whose job it is to protect them. 

My silence around these matters in these blogs is not consent. I simply don’t have any new light to shed on these matters except to join the millions of fellow decent Americans who say, “Stop. Black lives matter, not a single white person would accept this treatment of fellow white citizens and we are hundreds of years overdue to stop the chain of politically and culturally sanctioned racism. Just stop.”

And so now the people are speaking out in the language most Americans understand—the destruction of property.This whole thing began with the treatment of fellow humans as property, so the “conversation” has moved to this level. Of course, I don’t philosophically agree with this method of discourse, but the consent of so many years of silence, the frustration that these police murders keep happening again and again and again and again with nothing changing certainly makes it understandable. But naturally, for those who think it’s in their interest, either economically or psychologically ( I have  to feel superior to someone without effort), this will just add fuel to the division and change nothing. My tiny micro-drop of contribution is to speak out from my micro-field of music education to tell people about the Nicholas Brothers and Big Mama Thornton and Art Tatum, the thousands of stories not told to our children, to enlarge their understanding of how racism works and hurts us all. And at the same time, uplift them with the inspiring stories of these fellow Americans.

It’s not nearly enough, but what if every single concerned and awake citizen vowed to do the same in whatever field they’re in? Starting with the children. Whatever subject you’re teaching, you could tell the story of Jesse Owens, Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Johnson (one of the four mathematicians in Hidden Figures), Dr. Charles Drew, Hazel Scott, Pearl Primus, Medgar Evans, etc. etc. and yet again, etc. Not only the inspirational stories of their triumphs, but an analysis of the social forces that perpetuated the attempt to shut them down and condoned the possibility of police or others murdering them. 

I can testify that it works. My 8thgraders were so clear that they get it and equally clear that none of it is okay with them. We both have drawn the line and said, “This is where ignorance is no longer an excuse. This is where the purposefully-fostered hatred and division stops.” Multiply that times every teacher in every school, add in the capacity to grieve for what we’ve done, add the understanding that we have the courage and capacity to be agents of change and that’s where things might start to move far beyond burning a building. But let me be clear—I’m not wholly condemning the building-burners, I’m condemning those who refused the call to draw the needed lines. 

Okay, my fellow Americans, shall we get to work? And while we’re it, let’s throw in the shutting down the power of the NRA and increasing the power of the ERA and stop cheering for the black players  of the NBA unless we’re willing to speak out for an inclusive humanity and against injustice. On behalf of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and the hundreds and thousands of others, let’s get to work. 

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