My son is 19 years-old, and he is a protester. He left the rural comfort of our quiet home and drove to the capital city and walked the streets with others. He raised his voice, shouting through the protective layers of cotton, and cried out for justice.
And I am so proud.
And I am so terrified.
His father and I pleaded with him. To wait. To let the violent unrest to die back and go during the day when protests were peaceful. Our son obeyed, sat on the couch in our living room while episodes of the The Office or Parks and Rec were ignored on the television screen. He scrolled through texts and posts on his phone, his eyes tearing up when he reported to me that his friends had been hit with tear gas. He felt so trapped, so entangled within dueling pleas.
Stay home. Stay safe.
Go out. Demand the safety of all.
“You need to educate yourself, Mom,” is what he said to me one day.
Me? I will admit, I wasn’t ready for his upper-cut to my ego’s chin.
I used to teach at Strayer and would listen to the stories of my adult students, Black women who remembered the requirement that they sat in the back of the bus. They were proud of how they demanded their grandchildren never to sit anywhere but the front.
I heard stories from a Black woman at church when she attended the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
I interviewed a Black Korean War veteran who told me about driving across the country to his new base, how he, in uniform, would go to restaurants, and be told to go to the kitchen were he might (and did from the cooks) receive food. He had served our country. He was in uniform. He was denied service.
For the last eighteen months, I have been interviewing students and a former colleague about what it means to be a minority in North America. I am working on a collection of short stories that analyzes the mythology of modern-day Feminism (this is a long rabbit hole that I don’t want to go down right now). The protagonist of a story I’m about to write is a Black woman navigating a world which refuses to see her or treat her with the dignity that she deserves because, in the end, she is a human being.
Problem. I have a teeny-tiny level of experience from living in Germany (more rabbit hole stories). But NOTHING like what it means to a person of color in America.
I read books. I read magazine articles and blogs and stories. I listen to my students when they think they are talking among themselves because I know that, due to my skin color and introverted nature, I am inherently naive. I know facts and figures and (possibly skewed) statistics. But I don’t know what it means to walk into a store and be followed to make sure I don’t shoplift…because of the color of my skin.
Or have people afraid of me because how my DNA has designed me(please. I’m five foot four and chubby and have a tendency to curl into myself to take up less space and seem un-intimidating).
Just before the murder of George Floyd, I had almost finished a series of interviews that were getting me into the head of my Black character. I have been afraid of writing this story and will confess to still having that fear. But I also know that the direction I need to take this is about education.
My children and I watched the documentary The 13th. By the end, I wept. I wept at the Black man, lying prone in the passenger seat of his car, the blood seeping through his white t-shirt. I wept at the dual images of Emmett Till. I wept at the cruelty that is manifested through hatred and fear and ignorance.
I have started watching Dear White People.
I am almost done reading The Nickel Boys and just purchased The New Jim Crow.
Because education never ceases. I know stories and facts and figures. But I didn’t grasp the inner conflicts, the sense of displacement that I thought had ended but still prevails. I started learning that when Freddie Gray died and a student in my English 12 Honors told me about life for her and her brother. How he is afraid to leave their home because of how he will be treated. How she hates going shopping because of the employee trailing her and trodding on the shards of her broken dignity. And now, a former student is teaching me about the indignity of scrutiny over simple things like…her hair.
Welcome Juneteenth. Welcome change. I stand with you, with my son, with my friends and my students and with the citizenry of this world. I stand with those who demand that they will be treated with the same respect and compassion as any one person must have. I stand with those who demand that the whitewashed coffers of our history be opened and scrutinized. And I demand that history must stay in the past so that we may learn. So that we may move forward.
Two years ago, my daughter and I went to Germany to visit my parents. While there, with my parents, we travelled to Rome and my mother was our unofficial tour guide. She had a tendency to stop in the middle of bustling sidewalks to consult her map, forcing streams of people to blister and then flow around us. Exasperated by this, I finally started repeating to Mom, “Forward is always the right direction.”
And so I pledge to educate myself. Because forward is always the right direction.