Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, Dr. MLK Jr says. A similar truth, I say, is that justice anywhere is a threat to injustice everywhere.
With the recent surge in attention towards violence perpetrated against Black citizens of the United States (arguably, the largest Civil Rights movement of history), I return to studying Black liberation literature, a study I regret ever neglecting (how many people died while I didn’t trouble myself to undo my White Supremacist education). I read bell hooks, Patrisse Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandela, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Austin Channing Brown, and Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy waits on my shelf, as well as more bell hooks. I remember, as I read, how life-changing Malcolm X, Cornel West, W.E.B. Dubois were for me the first time I woke up from The Dream. The Dream is how Ta-Nehesi Coates labels the American empire, the racist mirage, the white-washed delusion that American citizens live in (Between the World and Me).
This conversation isn’t about me, but as I read his book, I reflect on the fact that I am one of them. I am one of those deluded American citizens. In The Dream, I was born at the top of the food chain, in the Capitol rather than in the districts (thank you, Hunger Games). Coates writes at length about this racist system, his words are eloquent, and he leaves no stone unturned in regards to the racist machine of my people, my country. I don’t have words to add to his about race. Read his books, they speak for themselves. Coates, whose prose overcomes me with sadness and gratitude (for the revelation of Truth) all at a time, speaks for my heart, even as he speaks from his own perspective (very different than mine), to his son.
I do, however, have reflections about my own experiences of classism and racism, that I share as a practice of introspection, stirred up in me by the works of literature in my hands.
As I grow up, there are “bad” parts of Little Rock. There are places where–spoken or unspoken–my people agree not to visit. There are places my people agree not to shop. There are communities my socialization intentionally blinds me to. During that time of my life, the adults imply that people there are not fully people. A man sleeping by a garbage can is invisible, and thus, less-than-human. People who drive cars that break down on the interstate (more broadly, people who ever need help) are unorganized, use their money frivolously, they’re the problem, they don’t work hard enough. They’re not human. They should have behaved differently to avoid those situations like we (humans) did.
As a child, I assume that in those grocery stores, people yammer like Ewoks, or they sneeze without covering their noses, or do some other heinous thing that makes them less human, less like me. My childish mind struggles to make sense of what I am taught, because my heart balks against the fault of logic in this curriculum of hierarchy. I need to witness them being less human than me in order to believe that they are. To me, it looks like a man with dark skin getting off his motorcycle at the gas station. Why, then, does my father lock the car doors when he sees him?
In college, separate from my family,financial circumstances force me to pursue housing in the “bad” areas of town. By this time I’ve had friends who call those areas home. I’ve driven through them, and I’ve noticed the differences, but I don’t see anything less human about an overturned garbage can, dented mail box, liquor store down the street, or broken-in windows. Looks to me like the people who live there are busy. Looks like they’re doing the best that they can.
I visit the grocery stores in the parts of town that I was socialized to ignore, to consider a blight on our city. I find people working hard. I find extremely helpful Sonic employees. I find adults working twice as hard as I’ve ever worked for half the pay check. There are friendly Kroger greeters, there are busy business owners, there are strung out homeless folks camping by dumpsters. There are people. Flesh and blood, fully human people.
I see it. It doesn’t match up. Then I read Ta-Nehesi Coates’ book; I read his vivid and thorough explanation of The Dream, I imagine him reading the words out loud to me, about me: “I saw mastery communicated to theirs [White children of White parents]”. I was socialized to be a master, but mastery never made any damn sense. The lie of superiority is handed to me, upon my arrival, along with the case for Black dehumanization. I am expected not to question it, to blindly accept belief in my superiority as a part of my White identity.
I am not made for it, though. God made me, and God made all humans. And humans are equally human. No one was made less than. Children are born knowing this, but the history hidden in our cells denies it. White mastery over Black bodies is woven into our bones, it is the foundation of the empire that my people built for themselves. And it is laced with our own destruction. The illusion of mastery destroys us, because it denies the humanity of others, which is connected to our own. Destroying Black bodies is destroying the sacred, communal vessel that humans–regardless of what they look like– share as spiritual beings.
I realize all of this because I am reading literature by Black Abolitionists. Their words of Truth and justice in my mind naturally destroy The Dream within me. They save me. Their voices give me the chance to undo the mirage of mastery that stole me away from Truth, that occupied my mind with lies at such a young age. The injustice in my mind doesn’t stand a chance before the justice of their words (gracious bearers of horrendous truths).
The ones from whom my people took everything pave the way for my full humanity.
Thank you. Thank you, Abolitionists. Thank you, Black thinkers. Black mothers, fathers, grannies, children. Thank you for surviving. Thank you for overcoming. Thank you for not burning my people to the ground like we deserve. Thank you for setting me free. Thank you for living, for trying to live, and for trying to save your children, despite the oppression. You are mighty oaks, you are relentless, you will live to see a more just world. Thank you for writing. Thank you for your struggle. May you be blessed, may you be free.
Let the light in
Keep it shining
Let it break into the darkness
All the love dares us to see
We’ll all be free ~William Matthews