Truth Is Beautiful

green tree photo
Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com

 

I want to be left alone. I want to fix things that are broken. I want to just be happy. I want to express my anger about the state of the world. I want to turn away from conflict. I want to have the courage to stand firmly with my principles. I want to get along with everyone. I want to speak out when I see injustice. I am caught in a conundrum, a moment in time when I might cling to wishful thinking or face the realities that I witness happening around me. It would be so much easier to turn off the news, ignore my Facebook and Twitter accounts and just live peacefully in my home blissfully unaware of any difficulties stalking humanity. Unfortunately my curiosity would no doubt get the best of me if I were to make such a choice and ultimately I would be compelled to seek information and truth. My delightful ignorance would be interrupted and once again I would begin thinking about the actual complexities of life.

I’ve been watching the bots and the trolls at work on social media and on YouTube and Internet sites that purport to speak the unvarnished truth. They rile us up with doctored images and false stories. I often wonder from what hole in the ground they operate. They take many forms and present themselves with many names and faces and then spread their poisonous ideas like a virus. I wonder if they are laughing at us as we accept their premises. Do they take delight in watching us turn on one another as we share and discuss their often outrageous posts?

Much of our thinking these days is being directed by anonymous souls who live in faraway places. They purposely want to pull us apart and sadly they are quite good at what they do. It does not help at all that even some of our leaders are as addicted to their devious propaganda as we are. Instead of seeking accurate sources of information we too often find it easier to just cling to a single phrase to sum up the knotty realities that daunt us. We prefer quick fixes and quick answers and then divide ourselves into warring camps when there is a strong probability that there is a much better middle ground. We do not have to settle for “either/or” anymore than I must choose to be either uninformed and content or knowledgable and dissatisfied with the status quo.

We rarely have honest discussions anymore. Each side is busily planning a response to conflicting points of view rather than carefully listening to the other side. It is as though we are engaged in a national debate competition designed to find winners and losers rather than to determine ways to find answers. We see ourselves as opponents rather than understanding that we are all engaged in an attempt to make the world a better place. One side is demanding change and the other is worried that change will cause loss of some kind. One side is revealing uncomfortable truths about history and the other is concerned that talking about such things is hateful.

By now my readers know that my mother suffered from mental illness as did her mother. It was a carefully guarded secret in the family with much denial defining the reaction to what had taken place. Since I was the person first charged with getting help for my mom I had to face truths that were painful. For more than a decade I hid my mother’s situation from the outside, pretending that all was well. Whenever my mother needed care I called in sick to my jobs and told my bosses that I had a very bad bug. Nobody beyond my closest family members and confidants had any idea of my mother’s chronic cycle of bipolar disorder. We tiptoed around the truth of the situation.

It was not until I finally hit a concrete wall that I blurted out my story to a random coworker and finally received the understanding that I needed. I no longer had to hide my secret in the shadows and with my openness came valuable information and comfort. While some people looked askance at my new found honesty most began recounting their own experiences with mental illness. I soon learned that I was not alone and I began to develop a network of individuals who supported me in the care of my mother. I doubt that I would have been capable of dealing with her sometimes frightening behavior for decades had I kept the situation under wraps. My openness and the willingness of others to hear me even when it felt uncomfortable gave me the strength to care for my mother for over forty years.

Sadly there were still those who squirmed when hearing about my mother’s situation. They chose to ignore her symptoms and to engage in a game of pretense. They even believed that I was in some ways dishonest and hateful for talking of my mom’s illness. They could not understand what they saw as my betrayal. They preferred to act as though the great big elephant in the room was only my imagination.

In many ways this is what I see happening today. There are many who are unwilling to discuss and tackle harsh realities and others who would rather cling to a rosy picture even if that image is not true. They worry incessantly about changes that will require sacrifices and do not want to hear of skeletons in the closet of history. They simply want to be left alone, be happy, turn away from conflict, just get along in a superficial manner.

Sadly we would all love a utopian way of existence but since Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden we humans have had to endure more difficulties and unhappiness. Nonetheless whenever we pause long enough to actually work together everyone improves just a bit more. Even baby steps can make a difference. Perhaps the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement are the concrete walls that have hit us all in the collective face. They are urging us to begin the process of hearing what we need to hear and not just what we want to hear. Even seemingly ugly truths can become beautiful when we use them to make the changes we have needed all along. Truth is beautiful.

Good Trouble

good trouble

I have not said much about the death of John Lewis even though I have wanted to do so. I’ve been a bit too weepy thinking about his life story to be able to put my thoughts on paper in a coherent manner. Losing one of the last of the big Civil Rights leaders has brought back so many memories of a lifetime ago. I had thought or perhaps wanted to believe that the racial animus of my childhood was long gone. I actually believed at times that Congressman Lewis may have been exaggerating the extent of modern day problems  with race. All of that changed in the last few years as I observed an underbelly of our nation that seemed to be festering and growing like a toxic virus. I have been stunned by racism that I have seen and heard that should have died long ago. I knew that we have yet to complete the journey to justice and equality for all that he fought for so courageously for all of his life.

John Lewis was a young man when he decided to join in the struggle for freedom alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jim Lawson, and others. He was so passionate about the cause that not even multiple arrests and life threatening injuries were able to dampen his spirit. He marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday only to be viciously attacked. His skull was crushed but not his fervor. He often admonished all of us to engage in such “good trouble.”

When John Lewis was asked to speak at the famous march on Washington D.C. he prepared a speech that was so incendiary that his elders asked him to tone it down. He learned from them and always lived their creed of nonviolence and persuasion. He became known as a genuinely kind person. People described him as compassionate and sweet but he remained a fighter for the good of all people for the totality of his life.

I once visited Selma with a group of minority students. We stood in front of the church where John Lewis and others had gathered for their ill fated march to Montgomery, Alabama which was short circuited as they went over the rise of the Edmund Pettus bridge. They were greeted by law officers and snarling dogs who set on them with clubs, beating them to the ground. It was one of the ugliest moments in the history of our country and it changed the hearts and minds of people around the world.

As I walked across the bridge with my students so many years later I felt the spirit of those people who fought so valiantly for their right to vote. We were a motley group with our crew of black and brown students being led by mostly white teachers. We attracted a bit of attention and eventually we were even followed by a clearly marked sheriff’s car. When we got to the crest of the bridge I became breathless as I stared down its length and imagined how those brave souls, including John Lewis, must have felt on that fateful day.

Eventually our journey took us to Montgomery, Alabama where we once again reenacted history by walking toward the State Capitol building. I literally felt the living presence of the souls who had endured such “good trouble” to make the rest of us aware of the problems that they faced. I felt honored and humbled to walk in their shadows.

Now one of the greats among us is gone but I believe we can learn from him. I would tell the Black Lives Matter movement that their message is important but they need to be more tactical in the things they do and say. The protests of the era when John Lewis was young always had a specific message and purpose. They were respectful and nonviolent. They were not damaging to communities. They won the respect of the world with their passive resistance.

Today’s protests too often lose their focus. Looting never helps the cause no matter how many attempts there are to rationalize it. Destroying property only plays into the hands of the very people who have racist views. Being distracted by monuments and statues draws attention away from the real issues and results in only cosmetic changes. John Lewis understood all of these things and if the new era of protestors have any thought of honoring him they will study and follow his way of doing things. They will focus on voting rights and other systemic changes, not trivial symbolism.

It’s easy for a city to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee but if they do not also discuss changes that provide justice for Black Americans little will actually change. The Black Lives Matter movement is gaining support all over the world but it must be careful not to overdo. People become easily bored with a continual cadence that is not backed up with a seeable, doable plan. Now is an opportunity to honor a great man, John Lewis, by asking what he would do and then agreeing to make some “good trouble” with a clear goal that everyone can understand.

    

The Adult in the Room

Meme

Watching John Lewis’ casket being taken across the William Pettus bridge brought back so many difficult memories from my youth. The struggle for unfettered voting rights for Black Americans was a hard fought cause and John Lewis was in the middle of it. When he crossed that same bridge as a young man he almost died from a crushed skull, the result of being beaten by law officers. He survived to become a conscience for the nation and an unswerving warrior for civil rights. Somehow he always managed to deliver his points without violence and often with a forgiving heart. When a man who had brutally beaten him asked for forgiveness John Lewis humbly and graciously accepted. Congressman Lewis was always willing to make good trouble but he did so with love and a clear purpose.

I have been struggling with the scenes in Portland and other parts of the country and I find myself remembering another time from my early twenties. I became involved in a seemingly unending struggle with someone who was quite dear to me. We were both had good intentions but our ways of doing things were at odds. As we quibbled back and forth bad feelings arose and seemed to escalate each time we communicated. I truly cared about this person and I was gravely saddened by the realization that we were headed for a break up simply because we disagreed on how to resolve a particular situation. I finally consulted a priest for advice and he told me that in such cases someone has to agree to be the adult in the room. Sometimes that means just stepping aside so that the other person has time to cool down. He suggested that I needed to decide if the relationship was important enough that I would be willing to be the one who backed down.

I stewed over the priest’s idea for days but I still was not certain that I felt comfortable with an idea that felt like giving up, losing my principles. I consulted my mother who was the ultimate diplomat and lover of all people. Like John Lewis she was an incredibly forgiving person so it did not really surprise me when she counseled me to follow the wisdom of the priest. Happily I did exactly as suggested and things became calm once again. My friend and I continued to love and care for one another for decades.

I believe that there would be no better way to make an astounding point and also honor the great life of John Lewis than for every single protester to just go home and not return to the streets. They have made their message clear and now it is time to work within the system of laws to bring about change. Think of how stunning it would be if those embattled streets became quiet once again. It would be a more powerful message than partaking in a daily back and forth that will ultimately only be resolved in violence, destruction and maybe even death.

John Lewis and my priest understood the value of being strategic. Sometimes we get more things done by knowing when it is time to just let things simmer down. If the two sides of a disagreement stay at it for too long we end up with a Kent State or a Waco or a bombing in Oklahoma. It’s time for the protestors to be the adults in the room. It’s time for them to get back to the heart of their message which has been lost in the chaos. When there is too much noise or too many words people get confused and lose interest.

As a teacher I knew that I would never get the attention of my students by being brutal or unfair to them. They might toe the line for me but inside they would be seething and my words to them would be little more than babble. I had to first win their hearts before I was able to influence their minds. It took time and patience to get where we all needed to be.

I am greatly troubled because I know that the current state of the protests will ultimately end badly for everyone. I see no desire from our president to take the time to win hearts and minds. He is a believer in a stern approach rather than one that would involve making an attempt to hear and learn. I also think that the ranks of the peaceful protesters are being invaded by both forces intent on destroying their efforts and forces intent on anarchy. In other words it no longer appears to be about Black lives.

When the garbage strike was roiling in Memphis Dr. Martin Luther King went to support the workers. They planned a peaceful march through downtown. At some point their protest was overtaken by people intent on causing mischief. As violence broke out Dr. King insisted that the peaceful marchers disperse because he did not want the cause to be associated with brutality. I believe that his insistence on maintaining peace more loudly proclaimed the injustice than fighting back would have done.

My advice to anyone in any city who supports justice and equity for Black Americans is to go home. Undercut the racists who are using the unrest as a reason to defile the cause. The message has been heard but it will be defiled and forgotten if the unrest continues for too long. Be the adults in the room.

Reach For the Moon With a Plan

reach for the and blue moon neon signages
Photo by Designecologist on Pexels.com

I no doubt have too much time on my hands to really think about the state of the  world, particularly the state of my nation. We are quite troubled these days, not just with Covid-19 but with the issues that have surfaced and bubbled over after the horrific death of George Floyd. In the annals of history this will no doubt be a defining moment along with Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Perhaps because of, rather than in spite of the pandemic a cry of historic pain has risen from our Black Americans from sea to shining sea. Like Rosa Parks they are too tired to simply move to the back of the bus one more time, but unlike with Rosa Parks there does not appear to be a carefully crafted plan associated with the protests. As a result the reactions and the demands are fueled by pure emotion that is so all over the place that I fear that the things that need to be done will be pushed aside by minuscule victories like making Juneteenth a national holiday or rebranding Aunt Jemima products.

I am not Black and cannot even pretend to fathom the racism and associated injustices that they continue to endure. I can only empathize with my Black friends and neighbors and former students and interpret what they are telling us needs to happen. In my thinking the biggest issues should be restructuring and perhaps redefining the criminal justice system, strengthening the educational system for minorities, ensuring that quality healthcare is available to all, and making the effort to really hear and understand the voices and the needs of our Black citizens.

Sadly I sense that because there is little coherent national leadership in the Black Lives Matter movement the organic movement is all over the map concerning with regard to what is most important to accomplish. The deeds of those who loot and destroy do little for the cause as well. While I understand the depth of frustration and anger that leads to such behavior, the actions tend to divert attention from the true needs and place the entire movement in a negative light with those who are looking for a rationale for ignoring them or even shutting them down. There was a reason that Dr. King and the leaders of the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties insisted on nonviolent, passive resistance. They knew that they needed to win the hearts and minds of enough of a majority to bring about concrete and meaningful change. Those who lead this most important movement must do their best to disassociate themselves from theft and vandalism because even though such happenings are not representative they are being used to justify ignoring the real issues. 

What began as a move to rid our country of Confederate flags and monuments to leaders of the Confederacy has unraveled as well. Now almost any American historical figure is fair game. When things go too far, as they are doing in some cases, people lose patience with the cause. Burning the flag and spitting on soldiers returning from Vietnam did little to help the anti-war movement of the 1960s. It only gave ammunition to those who were already unwilling to consider the earnest perspectives of young people who wanted the unpopular war to stop. So too it is with BLM. Someone in charge needs to put out the word that it is best to keep the focus on the systemic changes rather than to get carried away with taking down inanimate objects. Already President Trump is giddily using such things to turn a segment of the American population against the BLM movement and to shore up his own chances for reelection. A wise group would not provide him with the ammunition to do so. Ignoring him quietly and totally would be a far more powerful tactic. The focus has to return to the kinds of changes that are most important and only strategic planning and leadership will accomplish what must be done. There is the very real threat that the president will rally enough support to dash the hopes of the entire Black Lives Matter movement just at the moment when their is worldwide support for the cause.

At the beginning of all of this one of my Black former students messaged me and said that he needed some of my understanding and gift for calming him because he was so very angry. I do indeed believe that our Black citizens have many reasons for being extremely mad. It is so apparent that their cause is being distorted by those who would rather not have to think about  the issues that have risen once again. It is truly tough to be honest enough to see that many of our nation’s ideals are tarnished by the history of slavery and racism. Too often we have tamped down the injustice toward Black in America with minimal stop gap changes and then hoped that the unrest would vanish. In many ways this time feels quite different and I believe that it can be if there is a real plan for making the much needed changes without upending even those aspects of our history that are in fact good. It is important for all Americans to think of how it feels to be viewed through a narrow lens. If nothing else we need to remember what it felt like to be punished by a teacher too lazy to differentiate between recalcitrant students and those who were attempting to do the right thing.

I sincerely suggest that the Black Lives Matter movement enlist the help of leaders, lawmakers, educators, doctors, ministers, students and ordinary citizens to become the voices of the change they wish to see in our country. They need to develop a plan and seek support from everyone in maintaining focus on what is most important. I fear that without such guidelines the forces against them will run as rampant as Covid-19 and they will lose the momentum that has garnered so many new insights in people who heretofore did not understand. Our Black citizens all too often must endure treatment that none of the rest of us would find acceptable only because of the color of their skin. I pray that this is indeed the moment when meaningful and long overdue change will occur but I also fear that without coherence and leadership it will only end in the reelection of a man who has no compassion for the cause and a citizenry that forces us to just go back to what they see as normal. Our Black citizens should reach for the moon this time, but remember that they must first begin with a plan.

Dear Sir

purple mountian

President Donald J. Trump                                                                                                            White House                                                                                                                      Washington D.C.                                                                                                                          United States of America

Dear Sir,

I am an American who loves this country with every fiber of my being even as I realize that it has problems which must be addressed. I am only a few years younger than you are. When we were  children the world was recovering from a terrible world war. Our elders had been heroes fighting in Europe and the Pacific for the very existence of democracy and justice. We grew up hearing of the horrors of autocratic leaders that lead to the murder of millions of innocent souls. What we heard less about was the unfair treatment of citizens in our own country whose ancestors had once been slaves. We were young and lived in a white bubble with our privilege of freedom to go wherever we wanted whenever we wanted. Only now and again did we witness hints of the inequities in our society and so in our minds the America of our youth was a beautiful thing, a safe and lovely world. We did not yet know of the injustices that some of our fellow citizens with darker skin were enduring even as we reveled in our own safety.

I was born and raised in Houston, Texas. My father was a college educated man who provided our family with luxuries that I took for granted until he died suddenly when I was only eight years old. I quickly learned what it was like to worry that my family’s most basic needs would be difficult to meet, but even in our greatly reduced economic situation I knew that we were better off than many Americans and so I began to better understand the plight of the poor and suffering.

I was mostly sheltered from the racism that existed nearby me. It was only when we would ride a bus downtown to enjoy a Saturday of shopping for sales in the basement of Foley’s department store that I saw the water fountains and restrooms marked with signs for “whites” and “coloreds.” I found myself wondering why the black people on the bus had to sit away from the rest of us. I knew them only from such brief encounters because they lived in neighborhoods segregated from mine. I only saw them when they came to clean the houses or work in the yards of white friends. Even as a child I felt an element of mystery and injustice in their situation but nobody really spoke of such things with little ones. They must have believed that we were too ignorant to see the evidence of prejudice that was so clear to me.

The first I heard of the civil rights movement was just before my father died. We had gone to visit my grandparents in Arkansas and there was talk of integrating the schools. My father and grandfather would sit on the front porch of the house discussing the pros and cons of the situation while I was shuttled away into the kitchen with my grandmother. I suppose they thought I was too young to hear about such things but I got enough information to begin to question so much about what we were doing to an entire group of people who had long suffered from abuse.

By the time I was in high school the civil rights marches, demonstrations and sit-ins were in full force. I watched the progress with great joy and anticipation even as I heard whispers from adults who were worried that the world as they had known it was about to change for the worst. There were great divisions in our country even as a sense of hopefulness began to spread from sea to shining sea.

In college my friend Claudia and I were active in the continuing civil rights movement. We marched and campaigned and lived in the hope that the stains of slavery and segregation would be eradicated forever. We listen to Mohammed Ali speak on our campus. He was still Cassius Clay back then and he would soon be expressing his right to freedom by refusing to submit to the military draft. It was his way of bringing attention to the inequities that were still holding our nation back from the greatness that had been the set forth in the ideals in our Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation. We were still struggling to achieve a goal that should have been insisted upon as far back as 1776 but was compromised to satisfy those who used slaves for their economic betterment.

I entered the adult world thinking that we had resolved the problems of our Black citizens. I went about living my life and created my own little bubble of satisfaction. The world seemed to be a very happy place for everyone. I welcomed Black children to my neighborhood and I taught them in the schools where I worked. I shared stories with my Black colleagues and entertained them in my home. It was not until a group of my Black students and I prepared for a school sponsored civil rights tour of the south that I began to hear of the inequities and fears that continued to stalk even the most highly educated and economically secure Black people that I know. In transparent conference after conference they related their experiences and I knew then that we had left so much work undone.

So here we are now in a state of unrest in the midst of a pandemic as people not just in the United States but across the globe insist that somehow we must begin the dialogue and the processes of eliminating racism that is still inherent within our systems. We know that we cannot dislodge discrimination in all individual hearts, but we can and should attempt to eradicate it from our public institutions. The Black Lives Matter movement is not about the exclusion of all other lives but an insistence that we once and for all must admit that too often Black lives do not matter as much as ours. When athletes take a knee during the National Anthem they are not attempting to dishonor veterans but rather to bring attention to the reality that we are often prone to look away when Black lives are undervalued. We do not see such incidents as our problem because after all we are good people who love everyone. Sadly by ignoring the situation we contribute to the abuse. Just as we would report adults who mistreat children, so too must we take action against people and systems that are cavalier with the lives of our Black citizens. 

Mr. President, the throngs of people in the street are generally peaceful and their cause is a beautiful thing. They are protesting for the very soul of this country and in many ways they are more intent on making America great that your supporters. They are not thugs or destroyers or looters. The millions of earnest souls across the country are risking their own safety in an attempt to rebuild and redefine the systems that continue to ignore the facts surrounding the history of slavery and segregation. They are drawing attention to the racism that continues in far too many corners of the country.

If you truly want to make America great then I implore you to set your divisive rhetoric aside and serve as a model of compassion and understanding. We are all hurting and we desperately need a leader who is willing to bring us together, not taunt us to fight one another. This is a powerful moment in our nation’s history when we might once and for all admit to the egregious mistakes of the past and move forward by repairing the institutions that continue to ignore the discrimination that breeds in their midst. Truly loving this country means that we will not enable its flaws to fester and grow. Loving the United States of America means coming together to repair the damage of four hundred years of looking the other way. What a glorious thing it would be for all of us to march into the Promised Land together at last. Seize the opportunity to listen and to hear the cries for what they truly are. 

Your sincerely,                                                                                                                                         A proud citizen of the United States of America

 

(Please Note: For those who may think that my naiveté knows no bounds, I do understand that this letter is a dream but it outlines realities and hopes that I do not think any of us can afford to ignore. We must move beyond sound bites and self interests and insist on doing the right thing. This must also include those in the halls of power. Let freedom ring.)