Opening Our Hearts and Minds

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As a mathematics teacher I daily encountered frustrating moments when students did not understand concepts that I was attempting to present to them. It was sometimes difficult to find a way to help them grasp what I was saying. I often had to use visuals, stories, songs, sayings, anything that would make headway in conveying a formula or a process. As I became more experienced in the methodologies of teaching I realized that at any given moment my students would have different perceptions, experiences and comprehensions of whatever I was attempting to explain. I had to work hard to find the exact methods that worked for each individual which was a daunting task. It was a constant challenge to reach each student as best I could.

My mother used to tease me by insisting that I always sounded like a teacher even when I was engaging in everyday conversations. I guess the habits of a educator die hard. We are always edifying, presenting information in the hopes of opening minds and encouraging people to look at the world from many different perspectives. It becomes second nature for most teachers to see lessons to be learned wherever we go. In an attempt to practice what we preach we tend to be curious souls who are willing to forge new frontiers when it comes to ideas. So it has been for me with the Black Lives Matter movement.

I’ll be the first to admit that I did not correctly understand the concept of Black Lives Matter when that mantra first appeared. I am fairly certain that I even wrote a blog insisting that if we are totally fair humans we should emphasize that All Lives Matter. In retrospect I realize that I had an instantaneous reaction to the phrase Black Lives Matter based on a my own life without taking the time to think about what it meant to someone who is African American. In spite of being an avid student of literature and history I missed the nuance of the wording. Instead I interpreted it from a purely literal standpoint thinking that it somehow tossed aside the value of every person in favor of a single group. Since that time I believe that I have come to a far clearer understanding of the more profound meaning of what Black Lives Matter means.

The heart of the phrase Black Lives Matter is a reaction to the treatment of African Americans from their earliest history as slaves in this country. Any person or society willing to buy, sell and treat a human more like a commodity or a lesser being is very clearly indicating that the life of that Black person does not really matter. Of course you may point out that we have not had slavery for around one hundred fifty years, but I would note that during that span of time we continued to treat free Black men and women as though they did not matter. We segregated ourselves from them and forced them into areas of town that were underserved by schools, stores, and even basics like clean water. We only minimally provided them with education and opportunity. Indeed we passed laws around fifty five years ago that attempted to right those wrong but the progress has been slow. As the years went by and Black citizens did their best to become integral and important members of a free society there continued to be far too many incidents that demonstrated that they did not matter. So when someone says that Black Lives Matter, it is a way of emphasizing that we can no longer allow the African American citizens of this country or any country to be dismissed as being of little value. We do that when we ignore that fact that simply existing with black skin can be a dangerous thing. We cannot pretend that racism does not exist even if we ourselves do not have such foul inclinations. The Black Lives of our neighbors, coworkers and friends do matter and when one of them is treated with injustice we must all call out the person or organization that does so. That is what Black Lives Matter truly means, asserting that we will no longer look away when we see discrimination because we regard Black Americans as the precious brothers and sisters from God that they are. 

Saying that All Lives Matter misses the central point because it is not all of us who are enduring daily reminders that some in our midst believe that Black lives have less value than ours. Our goal should be to vigilantly work to finally achieve equality and justice for African Americans. It is not a way of lessening our own importance or that of anyone else.  We lose nothing by working for a better world for others. In fact, a young lady whom I hope will one day be my granddaughter explained Black Lives Matter as simply a way of celebrating the wonder and importance of our Black citizens with no reservations. It is telling them once and for all that we do believe that they matter very much and that we are sorry for the ways that they have been treated in the past. 

Taking the comfortable route of denying the problem simply because we don’t see it is an insult. It says to those who try to explain what they are feeling and experiencing that we don’t value their word enough to believe that their emotions are genuine. We accuse them of whining as though we have the power to read their minds, walk in their shoes. Think of how horrific it would be to know in your heart of hearts that you are being abused and then learn that most people think you are exaggerating. Would you believe that your life mattered to anyone who refused to hear and understand what you were saying?

Nobody is is asserting that only Black Lives matter. They are simply asking those of us who have grown up white to open our hearts and minds to the idea that there are still people who see skin color as the only means of determining the worth of an individual. Why do so many among us not deny that our Black citizens have to regularly endure racism when even the Black man who rose to be President of the United States feels its sting?

Over the past days hundreds of thousands of people across the world have participated in marches and protests designed to focus on the value of Black lives. Out of those many thousands there has been a very small percentage of people intent on destruction and not all of them have been Black. We have learned that nefarious groups from the far left and the far right have incited violence to purposely create chaos for their own political agendas. We must be careful not to equate an entire movement with the dirty work of the few.

You can show your support by attempting to understand the deeper historical meaning of Black Lives Matter. You can try to understand that no Black person ever took a knee during the playing of the National Anthem to insult our military. It was only to point out that we have societal problems that we have yet to address. It was a very peaceful means of drawing attention to issues. We must stop focusing on the bad acts of the few and support the glorious dreams of the majority.

Think of those times when you were a school child behaving politely in every way and a teacher punished you and everyone else because a couple of kids got out of line. Think of how angry and defeated that made you feel. Think of how unfair it was. Maybe then you will be able to understand and embrace the Black Lives Matter cause for what it is.

Finally, please do not just look away. That is what our society has been doing for too long. It may be painful to be totally honest about the realities that Black Americans face but if we are ever going to make the needed changes more of us must finally see and hear them. We have to be open to ideas that may challenge the ways we have always thought. We must let Black Americans know how much they matter by a willingness to suspend our preconceived notions.