I had an interesting interaction the other day with someone in the movement who was expressing some thoughts about how the movement was being perceived by others. The conversation evaluated the intersection of race and class, race and gender politics, race and respectability politics, race and religion, and race and everything else. We examined our place in the movement as well as perceptions we had of ourselves and others who stopped everything for 176 days to elevate voice to a real-time issue.
Over the course of several weeks, something struck me. We are uncomfortable.
Many people are included in that “we” because discussing the system of American education, housing, employment, health care, and policing all coalesce around topics that are not easy to talk about. It made me think about those small talk classes in grad school where we were admonished to talk about the weather or sports – safe topics, never to talk about race, religion, income, or gender politics. In thinking about it, I thought about my late father who made it his life’s work to make it better for others. Would he want me to be quiet?
There were many years of my life where I was just that – silent. I was on the receiving end of microaggressions at work from when I decided to wear my hair natural in 1988 to why I wouldn’t go out for drinks with my counterparts in 2001. It is something that many others have faced in their quest to fulfill their life mission, to excel in their workplace or educational venue, and frankly, just to live. We, I have experienced it when I am out-to-lunch or simply driving through another state and being pulled over just because. We swallow it or as the late poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar said, we wear the mask.
It is when we pull the mask off, to find our voice, or our pen, and start speaking truth to power that we are faced with oppositions that we never expected to encounter. More people are fine with the status quo and for things to just go back to “normal.” These same good hearted people often fail to realize that there can be no normal again when an unarmed eighteen year old’s body is left to bake in the hot August St. Louis sun. The conversation shifted in a big way.
Since 2008, a lot of my focus has been on social justice, race, education, and gender equality. These are not comfortable topics when one starts to examine them, read and share articles, engage in dialogue, and try to find a space around the horrible things that happen to so many people just because they are not the dominant culture, they are not the dominant gender, or they are not the dominant class.
There was a time when I just ignored the world. Raising children, going to graduate school, moving, marrying again, life often interjected itself in a way that made my concern for others almost mute. Well, partially mute. I was sipping my latte this morning wondering exactly when the rose faded from my glasses and when I started paying attention.
I think it was just after 911 and the hyper-patriotism gripped our country. Then it was the almost strip-searching I and my young daughter endured so to fly across the country. Then it was the national lie that sent us to war. Then it was watching black and brown bodies drown from government neglect. Then it was a mass shooting, and another, and another. Then it was the election. Then it seemed as if I wondered about my place as a work-at-home mom with a keen sense of history, sociology, and culture. I became involved.
Involvement fueled a dormant passion, my eyes were open. I could no longer just focus on me and mine will do just fine.
There is a price to pay when one decided to think about others. When one decided to work in non-profit, to give of time and not be compensated, to sit in late meetings, to mentor kids from a different background, to care, frankly, there is a price to pay. In my Biblical upbringing, there was the thing about counting up the cost and deciding if we can pay it before we undertake something.
The costs have been great. To so many, many have lost lives and income in the quest for social justice for all. Justice must come before peace, too often, the reconciliation flag was waved without addressing the social construct that caused the ills in the first place. Sometimes the costs have include being ostracized from family and friends who are not on the same page, loss of income, loss of everything.
Why do it? Why are there so many activists in St.Louis, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, Philadelphia, Palestine, the world, all awake now? Why are they all elevating voice, pulling back the covers, opening eyes, and having real conversations about what has lulled everyone to sleep since 1980. Why now? Why care?
Should we go back to sleep and hope that justice will come if we just say the right thing? Wear the right brand of clothes? Live in the right neighborhood? Eat the right foods? Go to the right high school?
Is the price too much to pay? Is it worth it? Does caring cost too much?