“I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply. … but I have come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house. I’m afraid that America has lost the moral vision she may have had, and I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. … I fear I am integrating my people into a burning house.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
— For S.R.–
I was asked to share some of my experiences with the issue of race in America earlier today. As I’ve watched what is happening in America, I’ve clenched my pen and waited for the words to flow. I’ve waited for the right words and experiences to bubble up from inside my soul. I’ve waited for the pangs of ideas to be born and find their way onto the paper. But they have not yet come. The words have not come because over the course of my 45 years of life, I’ve become numb to that which the world is just opening their eyes to. This numbness is akin to a persistent pain that one never fully gets comfortable with, but begins to grapple with as part of the reality of now. All I can muster is a few experiences that paint a picture of what it feels like to be under the billowing smoke of racism in America.
So the world is finally starting to awaken to the smell of smoke in our inner cities in 2020. African-American men’s eyes have been burning from the smoke for years. Music groups like Lady Antebellum and Dixie Chicks are changing their names. Was there ever a thought about the feelings behind those names before now? Companies are redesigning products to remove stereotypical images. Corporations are manufacturing bandaids of different shades. But the bandaids only cover the wounds. The smoke is still present and the house is still burning. These surface level adjustments don’t change the heart of American society. We have to have an honest discussion about how African-Americans are treated in this country and I’m tired talking about it. It’s everyone else’s turn now.
A Leisurely Drive
My father shared a story with me of being asked to travel to a conference with a White colleague in the early 80’s in South Georgia. They were both instructors at the local technical college and typically instructors would carpool when heading to the same event. He decided to drive his own vehicle instead. When she inquired why he didn’t ride with her to the conference to save expenses, he explained that they would be driving through small Southern towns and if he needed to stop to rest or use the restroom, he didn’t want to have any problems. He’d grown up hearing stories of men turning up missing from driving through the wrong town or being on the wrong side of their own town. He explained that he was less interested in saving money, and more interested in saving his life. There is a level of awareness that he developed growing up in the segregated South that is indelibly engrained in our DNA now. It’s a 6th sense that may or may not save us from impending danger. She laughed it off and told him that things had changed. I wish she wasn’t wrong.
A Barbershop Experience
Around this same time, I was just at the age when children begin to attempt to make sense of what’s fair and unfair. We naturally associate good people with good deeds. We attended a local Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I always wondered why there were no Black faces in the literature that depicted Biblical times. A White member of our congregation had a barbershop that we’d pass each day on our way from town. My mom asked him if he could cut our hair. He told her that we couldn’t come to the shop because he would lose customers. I didn’t understand it at the time. I saw him worship with us several times during the week and couldn’t understand why he would not welcome us into his barbershop. Looking back, I see that there was a social order that he was not prepared to disrupt for fear of losing profits. Our presence and the presence of our black hair on his clippers would force people to go elsewhere.
The White Knights
Last week my daughter shared with me that at her tennis camp all the groups had to select names for their team activities. One group of White teenagers selected the name “The White Knights”. There were only 2 or 3 African-Americans in the camp. Thankfully, the camp counselors made them change the name. On the way home, I spent time explaining to my daughter who the “White Knights” were. I explained that the White Knights is a name associated with the KKK’s practice of terrorizing African-Americans throughout America’s history. Deep inside I want to believe it was just a harmless coincidence, but the timing of it burns. To have to have these conversations with an 11 year old at a tennis camp burns. The awareness that I want her to possess is the same awareness that all children should have so they understand how terms and history cast a shadow on the present.
Man’s Best Friend
While working as a teacher in Augusta, I crossed paths with Mr. Errin. He was a fellow teacher who shared memories of growing up in South Carolina in the 40’s and 50’s. He talked about the experience of going to a white family’s home to do some yard work. When it was time for dinner, they asked him if he wanted any. He said yes. They brought his dinner out on the porch, but allowed the family dog to come in the house and sit with the family as they had dinner. He shared how hurt he felt that he couldn’t eat inside with them. I couldn’t get the image out of my head of him sitting on that porch eating, and looking into the living room and seeing that dog inside the house. Their kindness was tempered with the sting of social order, racism, and White supremacy.
I think about how it felt to be a graduate student in the Augusta University library at 10pm frantically trying to complete a paper before the deadline and being approached by campus security and told that if I could not produce an ID I would have to leave. Common sense policing and mutual respect is all we ask. Why not ask me to produce some other form of proof that I’m a student such as a registration email, class schedule, etc? It’s in those moments that we feel as if we are in the burning house, and no one else notices. These unnecessary moments also fuel the ongoing resentment that exists between law enforcement and the African-American community.
Are You The Janitor?
During my second year as a principal I was at the building on a Saturday afternoon. My car was the only one in the parking lot. As I walked up the empty hallway I saw the Orkin exterminator turn the corner and head in my direction. He was a middle aged Asian man. We greeted one another and the first question he asked me was “Are you the janitor?”. In a school with over 80 staff members, why would his first assumption be that I was the janitor? Couldn’t I have been one of the teachers or maybe the principal or assistant principal? It’s in moments like this that we experience the micro-agressions that remind us that we are in a burning house in American society.
The Right Conversation
In discussing this issue with a close friend who is also a school principal, she shared how she tells her son that he needs to “work harder than everyone else” as an African-American boy. I understand her intent, but the reality is that Ahmaud Arbery wasn’t murdered for not working hard. George Floyd wasn’t murdered for lack of effort. Sandra Bland wasn’t killed for failing to put her best foot forward. I don’t want our youth to be disillusioned into thinking that education and a strong work ethic will provide immunity from the smoke that is engulfing African-Americans in this country. Yes, we should instill a solid work ethic in our kids, but that is an entirely separate conversation from the one of having access to basic human rights and dignity in the workplace and society. Our kids need survival skills. They need to understand their rights, and the history of struggle that does not appear in our history texts. We must demand that the conversation about cultural responsiveness drill down to what resources are purchased and what events are included in the standards placed before our children.
Nearly every African-American man you know can share his own list of moments when he was reminded that the house is still burning. Just ask him. My point is that this is not a recent set of events, this has been our collective lived experience. There’s smoke. Thick smoke. Others see it now. I’m tired of trying to convince them that the house has been burning for years. Toxic smoke. I’m tired of talking and pointing towards the flames. My focus now is on working with a team of educators willing to do the heavy lifting of preparing a generation of youth to reconstruct our society. It’s your turn to talk. I can’t breathe.
Soundtrack: History by Black Star