Who Lives, Who Dies

I am sort of obsessed with all things Hamilton. This refrain from the musical has been running through my head: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”

What kind of country and world do we want to create: One where Black people disproportionately die at the hands of police and from the effects of COVID-19? Where the life expectancy of Black men is consistently shorter than that of white men? 

What story will be told when we look back at this time, and by whom? The people whose stories have not been heard or respected no matter how they try to tell them… are demanding to be heard NOW.

The next American revolution, civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs writes, is about “creating a new society in the places and spaces left vacant by the disintegration of the old.” (More on building a new world in the Resource of the Day below.) We see societal disintegration unfolding in real time now, even as some of us have been pointing to it for a while.

BLM

Photo by Victoria Pickering, via Flickr Creative Commons

The young people taking to the streets to express their grief and rage? They are the revolutionaries moving this country closer to the”radically different form of living” Boggs writes about. And revolutions are messy, chaotic deals. Violent acts are going to be part of the picture. Though I myself identify with a pacifist tradition, I can’t say anything against any form of protest, especially when the simple nonviolent act of “taking a knee” was so vilified, especially when, year after year, we see little change in the ongoing twin outrages of police brutality and escaping accountability.

When 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones talks about Black Americans being the ones perfecting America’s democracy, I get it. The people taking to the streets are working, at great personal peril, to make this country live up to its promise.

Poets, prophets and reformers are all picture-makers—and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.

—Frederick Douglass

A major contradiction lives at the heart of our national history: our American ideals of “we the people” and “freedom” began as falsehoods that continue to this day. (Thanks to Hannah-Jones for making this plain.)

I have what I have largely because of white privilege. My parents bought their first home in Indianapolis in the early 1960s, benefiting from lending practices that excluded African American homebuyers. I still benefit from that legacy and a host of other exclusionary policies that preferenced white people over Black and brown people.

And even leaving policy aside, I live in a body that is seen as relatively “standard”—white, thin, currently able-bodied, cisgender, feminine in appearance (can pass for straight). Listening to Black voices tells me that my experience of moving through the world with relative ease (even as a woman, even as a close descendant of the culturally marginalized Amish, even as a lesbian, even as a socially awkward “weird kid,” even as I age) is not one Black people share.

My professional and educational status contribute to this ease as well. I’m about as close to the power structure as you can get without being hetero and male.

And the natural world that I so love, that soothes me? Can be a dangerous place for Black people. It’s heartbreaking to listen to stories of Black nature-lovers who just want to have a little breathing room, but feel unsafe (for good reason) even gassing up a vehicle on the way to some of the places I love. Let alone exploring a nature preserve alone as I sometimes do.

My sense of entitlement has not been plain to me over the course of my life, because it is the water I swim. But it is past time for the last of the blinders to come off.

I can’t change the fact of my privilege, but I can work within it to realign things in some way. Writer Eula Biss calls it the White Debt. I feel especially indebted to the protesters who are trying to turn the tide in this country, and that is why I support reparations, assist the Indy Bail Project, call the mayor, write my city council, contribute to Black-led changemaking orgs, etc. It isn’t enough. And it also isn’t about me. I know I have so much to learn.

But I do believe this quote attributed to a Queensland Aboriginal activists group applies to me:

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

Gratitude: This is an incredible time to be alive. Every day brings new learning, new chances to contribute.

Tip of the Day: Moment-to-moment choices define a life, and as Grace Lee Boggs says, “You don’t choose the times you live in, but you do choose who you want to be, and you do choose how you want to think.” Choose with heartfelt mindfulness, as you can.

Resource of the Day: Join civil rights attorney/Revolutionary Love founder Valarie Kaur and progressive activist Van Jones for a Dream Corps session on Reimagining and Remaking America Thursday, June 18 (or catch the replay). I have been a fan of Mr. Jones for quite some time and was blown away by Valarie Kaur’s TED talk. 

Virus

You’re scared, because you don’t feel safe. Maybe if you do all the right things, you’ll avoid it. Maybe there’s a way to keep your children safe, your elders protected, your mentally challenged family member from putting himself at risk. Maybe extreme vigilance will keep everyone you love from harm.

You’re angry, because you have to alter plans, take extra precautions, work around rules that you had no part in setting. And still you may not escape it.

You’re exhausted, because the threat seems unending. Maybe you’re not even safe at home.

You’re grieving, because every day more and more people–folks who look like you–suffer and die needlessly.

Coronavirus? No, I’m talking about another public health crisis–a pattern of police using deadly force against Black people.

After George Floyd suffocated to death under a white cop’s knee on his neck, how can we white people continue to look away from the insidious virus that has infected this country from its inception–that of white supremacy? 

The loss of humanity that would enable someone to kneel on another human being’s neck while he gasps for air? I can’t fathom it. It’s sickening. But that doesn’t mean I should look away.

Notice: The people gasping for air because of COVID-19 are disproportionately people of color. They must daily deal with the stress of racism, which takes a very real physiological and psychological toll. Meanwhile access to resources is inordinately skewed in favor of people who look like me. The deck is stacked, and COVID-19 only reveals the disparities more. (Here’s data about coronavirus and the Black community in my county.)

Frans de Waal, a biologist, has said that empathy is an essential part of the survival package of any species, and that includes humans. Will we survive this time in our history? Can we expand our understanding and empathy rapidly, or will we close our personal borders, shut down all gateways to the truth of our interconnectedness?

Yes, we are all in this together, but people who have been shortchanged all along are being hit harder. May our collective experience of facing down COVID-19 unify us, enlarge our empathy for each other, and make us see more clearly how to create a future where all are valued, respected, and offered the same access to resources, healthcare, jobs, education, housing, etc. etc. etc.

Gratitude: I’m grateful for cogent voices calling for change, like How to be an Antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi, local organizer Imhotep Adisa, 1619 Project journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Me and White Supremacy author Layla Saad.

Tip of the Day: Support local Black-led changemaking groups in your community (Kheprw Institute is a standout here).

Resource of the Day: Anti-racism resources for white people.