How My Mind Was Changed
When I first heard the sentence, “Black Lives Matter,” my reflex response was, “Well, of course. All lives matter.” Human life matters. Your life matters, as does mine. Yellow and brown lives matter too. And white lives. All the wonderful colors of humanity matter because they clothe a human being, fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, endowed with the priestly dignity of Adam. We are kings, priests, and lords over the earth, image-bearers of our Creator. Biologically speaking, we are all the same species. There is no scientific or theological basis for what we call “race” based on the color of a person’s skin.
Over the past tumultuous weeks, I’ve begun to see and hear things from perspectives other than my own. It’s how I was raised and educated. If someone says something matters, it would be good to understand why it matters to them. I began to rethink the present and remember my own past. To say that race is merely a “social construct” not based in reality, as I myself have often said, is to speak only half a truth. The oft-unspoken tension between white and black people in America is a reality, and within that reality the color of one’s skin matters. Deeply.
Here then are some of the thoughts that changed my thinking about why black lives matter.
Black lives matter because we think George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Bothan Jean, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner (to name just a few), are isolated instances of injustice, unfortunate mistakes, or the actions of a handful of bad people. If only it were that simple.
Black lives matter because we are heirs of a deeply imbedded notion that the white European was superior and therefore entitled to colonize lands and enslave other peoples. It runs in the background of our national pride, our civil religion, our histories and mythologies. We don’t think about it because, like white noise in the cultural background, we’re accustomed to it. We don’t hear it but others do.
Black lives matter because slavery matters. The enslavement of black people by white slave owners lies at the heart of understanding black/white relations in our society. Slavery is a persistent fact of American history, too often glossed over, a fact that goes beyond the individual to the collective whole. I’ve never owned slaves, and my Ukrainian, Polish, and German ancestors did not own slaves, but I stand on a societal foundation that was built on the backs of black slaves. There is no escaping this black and white history. I can no more say to a black person “slavery ended 160 years ago, so get over it,” than a German can say to a Jewish person, “Auschwitz happened 80 years ago; it’s time to move on,” or a Japanese can say to a Korean, “let’s just forget about the past and let bygones be bygones.” History is memory. Black slavery is our history, a history that is lensed through a white or a black experience in America.
Back in the 1990s while we lived in St. Louis, my wife and I did a bicycle tour through Kentucky, stringing together a series of bed and breakfast inns. One inn was a classic southern plantation mansion with 12-foot doorways, 14-foot ceilings and walls that were nearly two feet thick to keep out the Kentucky heat. We slept in the immense library. The inn advertised all the charm and romance of the “antebellum south.” “This house was built by slaves,” the innkeeper informed us matter of factly during the tour. Being from the north, I’d never heard the phrase “built by slaves” in a house tour and didn’t know what to make of it. Here we were dining sumptuously and sleeping comfortably in a house built by enslaved black people. It diminished the “charm and romance” considerably.
When our nation’s constitution was framed on the lofty principles of liberty, justice, and equality, black lives mattered less than national unity, fair representation, and taxation. A slave was counted at 60% for the purpose of representation to ensure that the southern states weren’t overrepresented or overtaxed. To quote Alexander Hamilton, himself an opponent of slavery:
Much has been said of the impropriety of representing men who have no will of their own…. They are men, though degraded to the condition of slavery. They are persons known to the municipal laws of the states which they inhabit, as well as to the laws of nature. But representation and taxation go together…. Would it be just to impose a singular burden, without conferring some adequate advantage?JONATHAN ELLIOT, ED. (1866). THE DEBATES IN THE SEVERAL STATE CONVENTIONS ON THE ADOPTION OF THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTION, AS RECOMMENDED BY THE GENERAL CONVENTION AT PHILADELPHIA, IN 1787. J.B. LIPPINCOTT & CO. WASHINGTON: TAYLOR & MAURY. P. 237.
Black lives didn’t matter quite as much as representation, taxation, and national unity.
Black lives matter because their contributions to American history, culture, cuisine, art, science, and literature have been largely white-washed from the American curriculum. We learned about the Boston Tea Party and the Battle for Ft. Sumter, but no one told us about Jim Crowe laws or the Greenwood Massacre. Everyone loves barbecue, but do we know of its origins in the slaves of the Caribbean and west Africa? We know who John Glenn was but unless you saw the movie Hidden Figures (2016) you probably never heard of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan who were instrumental in putting Glenn into orbit. I didn’t.
Do the names W.E.B du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Benjamin O. Davis, Otis Boykin sound familiar? Not on my reading list. Jackie Robinson broke the “color barrier” in major league baseball in 1947. (Think about it. There was a “color barrier” in 1947, ten years before I was born!) He was hardly the first black man to play baseball and may not have even been the best, but we’ve forgotten all the names of those who played the game before him. They didn’t matter.
Black lives matter because being black mattered to those who segregated schools, neighborhoods, restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains. It mattered to the southern Democrats who fought hard to maintain segregation as the status quo even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It mattered to my childhood neighborhood that took measures to ensure no blacks would live in our white corner of the city. It mattered to those who shouted “N-lover” at my little sister for going to school while the neighbors kept their kids at home to protest desegregation. It mattered whether you were welcome in our churches, in local restaurants and bars, in nightclubs, movie theaters, and shopping malls.
Black lives matter because we were taught to be careful when going to the “colored neighborhoods,” so that our learned reflex would be one of distrust, fear, and defensiveness whenever we saw a black person. We were raised to see the world in black and white terms. We discriminated on the one hand, and we patronized on the other. We were content with the status quo so long as we could reap the advantages while handing out token favors to the disadvantaged. We institutionalized poverty and created a system of dependency that used black lives as a political bargaining chip. “Vote for me, and I will take care of you.”
Black lives matter because in so many ways, from so many perspectives, whether liberal, moderate, or conservative, whether urban, suburban, or rural, whether wealthy or poor, religious or irreligious, we have been saying in thought, word, deed, and silence that black lives matter only when they are useful to us. We say it when we discriminate and segregate. We say it when we patronize and paternalize. We say it when we say we don’t see it. And we say it with our words and with our silence.
Jesus was not a white man. He was a semitic Jew with the ethnic heritage of His mother, a Galiean from Nazareth. He did not have long flowing brown hair, fair skin, and azure blue eyes, as in all the pictures of Jesus from my Sunday School lessons. He grew up a Nazarene, despised and dismissed by His own people and oppressed by the occupation Roman government. His life didn’t matter to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who was trying to quell a riot nor did it matter to the religious authorities and the protestors who swapped His life for that of a known insurrectionist.
His life matters to all of us because we mattered to Him. He laid down His life in sacrifice for our lives – every least, lost, and last one of us. In Him is the ultimate end of racism, sexism, nationalism, ethnicism, and all the other ways we divide to assert our superiority over the rest of humanity. In Him, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male, female, black, white, brown, yellow. This is not to say that we will be sexless and colorless in the new creation, for then we would not be human. We come in a wonderful array of colors. But these will no longer divide nor will they again be the platform for power of one over another.
We walk by faith and not by sight. Faith does not live in denial of what we see with our eyes; faith sees beyond to what already is in Christ and what will be in His coming. The reality before our eyes is that we have been blind to what is happening, how we got here, and how each of us in our own way has added to a collective narrative that some lives matter less than others.
Black lives matter, because up until now they haven’t mattered nearly enough.
This article was revised slightly on June 14 to correct a factual error on segregation and an editorial ambiguity spotted by alert readers. – wmc
©2020 William M. Cwirla