“Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.“ ~ Amos 5:24 and Martin Luther King Jr., (Letter from the Birmingham Jail).
Growing up and attending a school in Jamaica (as in any country associated with the British Colonial past) included studies in ‘Bible Knowledge’ (BK, or some variation on that name). Many public schools were founded by one church or another, and in most (or possibly all) the day began with devotions. There was no concept of making exceptions for students of any religion other than Christianity, and there was no space for students who were either agnostic or atheist. Prayer and a hymn preceded learning each day.
My father was chaplain at my school, he was minister at three local Congregational churches, (which later joined with the Presbyterians to become the United Church in Jamaica and Grand Cayman). But more importantly he was my BK teacher. When it came to fourth form (eighth grade in the US system), students selected roughly eight subjects to focus on. Some general subjects were required, others were optional but your ability to choose depended on the availability of teachers and time slots. When faced with the choice between BK and (if I remember correctly) English Literature, I naturally chose my father’s subject. I could not imagine explaining any other option to him. I had a natural inclination toward the sciences, so I also missed out on history, preferring to choose geography, and Spanish over who knows what.
Thankfully my education, both formal and informal, has continued throughout my life, and I have been exposed to much of the literature and history that I missed out on earlier. Not only did I read a lot, thanks to my choice of husband I read many of the leading black historians, social activists, Pan-Africanists, and most of all, anti-colonial authors. I also read a little Marx and Engels for good measure. Living with a man who was so clearly ‘woke’ every day of his life (he took no time off for family gatherings or holidays) meant I was exquisitely aware of the daily injustice imposed on people of color in the US and around the world. It was uncomfortable and embarrassing at times to live with a man who turned every conversation (no such thing as small talk) to an expose, a TED talk if you will, on the history, the socio-economics, the oppression and exploitation of people of African descent all around the world. He and his fellow-revolutionaries refused to use any other term than African-American when referring to them, and would mostly greet each other as ‘African!’. An amusing side note – they started the trend of, instead of saying ‘Bless you’ when anyone sneezed, they would say: ‘Africa must be free, unified and socialist’ (sometimes abbreviated to ‘Africa!’)
It was impossible not to stay ‘woke’ in that environment. If you have time, research the originator (or author of the first published reference) of the term ‘woke’ – William Melvin Kelley. It is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “Alert to injustice in society, especially racism.” Unfortunately, just like being sleep deprived, staying ‘woke’ is exhausting in American nowadays. And it complicated everyday life for a mother of four young African American children, everyday situations always were viewed through the ‘woke’ lens. And sometimes, a school activity is just a school activity.
I try to shy away from conspiracy theories whether from the right or the left. Some are too far-fetched to be believed. Others seem so close to possibly true that your heart refuses to believe it could be so. But then there is the data. A wise friend of mine will often rebuke colleagues who present an emotional argument by saying “But the data don’t support that.” This morning I heard a reporter saying, the data is (actually are is grammatically correct) noisy at the moment. One of the frustrations of learning statistics is not only all the terms and symbols and numbers, but the facts that proving causality is the most difficult challenge. You can find ‘strong correlations’ between one thing and another, but how confident are you that something else (unmeasured) could actually be the cause?
It was a British politician who coined the phrase ‘there are lies, damn lies, and statistics’, and the cynical among us know that statistics can be manipulated to support many different arguments. Recently those who watch the news have seen graphs and charts and statistics every day, and then we learn that even science can be misrepresented to support a political argument. In Georgia they randomly rearranged the dates on the x-axis to arrive at a more pleasing down-ward sloping curve. In Florida we are not sure how many deaths caused by Covid-19 have been logged in a ‘pneumonia’ or ‘flu’ column. But facts are stubborn things.
There comes a numbness over time, a ‘not again’ reaction to the news of an African American man’s life being taken in broad daylight by a police officer. Is it not enough that black (and brown and red and yellow and every color except white) are being lost in disproportionate numbers due to the pandemic? Is it not enough that health markers (hypertension, obesity, coronary artery disease, diabetes, prostate cancer and more) and to be found disproportionately among people of color than white people? Is it not enough that systemic racism ensures that it will always be harder for people of color to break the cycle of poverty and all that ensues as a result of it, but do we have to continue to watch the systematic murder of black men? The question is not why do people resort to violence to protest injustice, it is how come it doesn’t happen every day? How long can you keep turning up the fire and not expect the pot to boil over? Why should a people who experience violence and distrust and suspicion visited upon them every day, who struggle to feed, clothe and educate their kids every day, respond with control, and peaceful, respectful protests?
Those powerful leaders of the non-violent movements advise us through their words which live on through the ages. Gandhi (not without his own deep flaws) warned that an eye for an eye renders the whole world blind. MLK Jr exhorted us that only love can conquer hate. But he also reminded us that evil prevails when good men stand by and do nothing. Nothing will change unless we demand it. I cannot condone violence, but righteous anger is a powerful force.
This Friday morning, I am grieving with the human race, for what affects one affects all. I am begging people of conscience (of every color) to recognize that until the American dream is a reality for any American, it is a nightmare. Let us hope that we all find the current state of affairs to be unacceptable, and commit to use all available resources (and the ballot box is a good place to start) to demand that our leaders actively work to create a playing field which is no longer tilted in favor of those who pull the strings.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family. Stay woke!