Cries of Five Hundred Years

crying

There is a certain type of conversation that is incredibly difficult to endure. We almost all encounter them in our lifetimes. Mine came from my mother, my husband, my children, my bosses, my students. They were presented in moments of frustration, but always with the idea of helping me to understand something about which I was seemingly oblivious. They required a willingness on my part to suspend preconceived notions and judgements and simply listen with an intent to learn. Since they sometimes involved a critique of my actions or beliefs they were humbling and often tempted me to defend myself. All of them ultimately improved my relationship with the person who was in a way giving me the magnificent gift of honesty and an opportunity to change.

My mother often engaged in such soul searching with me. She was never afraid to provide me with a truthful assessment of my behavior. Even though I often was initially  angry with her, upon some sincere meditation I almost always realized that she had helped me to become a better person with her appraisals. Indeed, I might have been a mediocre teacher and wife and mother without her unfiltered sagacity at important junctures in my life.

I have always considered myself to be a peacemaker. I despise conflict of any kind. My life has had enough uproar without my purposely seeking to shake things up. Still, there have been moments when I realized that my silence would fly in the face of the ethics by which I measure the morality of my life. I know that I cannot look away from hurt or pain simply because I want to keep a measure of calm in my world.

I am reminded of two incidents that had a profound effect on who I try to be. The first occurred when I was eight years old shortly after my father had died. My family had moved to a new home and we were just getting to know all of the neighbors. One evening we were alerted that the man two doors down had shot and killed his wife. The police were on their way as we all stood on the sidewalk waiting to see what would happen next. We could hear the children in that home crying in terror but nobody moved to help them. From out of nowhere came Kathleen Bush, a tiny woman with nerves of steel. She marched straight to the house, banged on the door, and ordered the killer to release the children. She threatened to break down the door if necessary. Within minutes the little ones came outside one by one. Without saying anything to the rest of us Kathleen took the babies to the safety of her home.

Years later a man was beating his wife in an apartment in the same courtyard as mine. She was screaming for help and her children were standing in the window crying. Once again someone had called the police and the rest of us stood around nervously hearing and watching what was happening. A woman left the gaggle of onlookers, bounded up the stairs and banged on the front door demanding that the children be allowed to leave. She was unafraid even as the man began to threaten her. She kicked the door and made threats of her own until the children were safely in her arms.

Those two women taught me the importance and power of someone who is unwilling to just be a bystander when a wrong is being done. They never even thought of their own safety and risked being hurt to save those children. I have the highest respect for them to this very day.

I have almost always taught minority children. In my last school I encountered a group of Black students who schooled me on the difficulties facing them on a daily basis. I had rather naively believed that with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the election of Barack Obama that the problems of the past had mostly evaporated. After all, I have Black neighbors and I worked on equal footing with Black educators. I wondered how things could possible be so bad.

It was then they my students opened up with great honesty. They expressed feelings and ideas that made me feel uncomfortable but I decided to listen without prejudice. I did not attempt to change their opinions or explain mine. I just heard what they were saying, knowing that they were not trying to hurt me, but rather to help me understand. It was one of those very difficult conversations that felt quite uncomfortable. In the end I began to realize that in spite of my efforts to be a good and loving person I had missed the extent to which Black in America are still being abused by much of society. The students gave me a great gift. They showed me a truth of which I had been ignorant. Suddenly I saw the realities of what they had told me with eyes no longer blinded by my own experiences. 

The best explanation of the Black Lives Matter movement that I have heard relates it to disease. Right now we are engaged in a battle with the Covid 19 virus. Our emphasis on it does not mean that we do not care about cancer or heart disease or any other illness. It just means that right now it is the source of our biggest health concern. So too, saying that Black lives matter does not mean that Black people are somehow more important than all people but that our Black citizens daily grabble with fears most of us never experience. Even when they are innocently running for exercise they may be in grave danger of being suspected of having criminal intent and lose their lives. It is a concern that few of us have and in our complacency we have too long stood waiting for someone else to come to their  rescue

That is why I am so adamant in my support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The protests and marches may not be perfect because they have at times been infiltrated with bad actors who have changed our focus with their destruction. That is not what should be most important to us. The emphasis should be on the reason for why Black Lives must matter to us all. Literally millions of Black people from around the world are crying out for all of us to understand their plight. They are screaming to be saved. Through a long line of history they have cried out with in pain for more than five hundred years. Why are so many of us still refusing to listen?