I Was Just Kidding…

Sen. David Purdue (R-Ga.)…another one

When I first encountered blatant racism as a child in elementary school, my first reaction was to cry.  This didn’t win me any friends or empathy.  In fact, it simply garnered more teasing and bullying.  I was already a bookish kid who dressed funny and wasn’t afraid to use his adult vocabulary.  I was also the only black child in my grade at the time.  When I was physically threatened and called “fag”, I learned that I could literally outrun everyone in the school.  This was my golden ticket out from under the thumb of the school bullies for that transgression.  Still, I couldn’t outrun the racism.

There was a turning point for me in those early years.  I recognized that being unhappy wasn’t working for me so rather than get sad, I tried on anger.  I learned that if I couldn’t outrun the racism, I could shout it down.  At the very least, I could make it public.  I remember distinctly calling it out once and bringing it to the teacher’s attention.  But when we were brought before the teacher, the other child said four words that were like a magic code:

“I was just kidding”

This satisfied the teacher that this was just schoolyard taunting and she sent us away.

I will never forget how that white teacher’s ignorance enabled my harm and left me totally vulnerable and unresolved.  The teacher’s solution to the problem in the moment was simple: boys will be boys…harmless schoolyard play.  But it was not that simple. 

It is still not that simple.  This behavior is on full display between adults in our government.  This week, Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) didn’t just mispronounce Sen. Kamala Harris’ (D-Ca.) name, he was publicly mocking her for it.  It was childish, pathetic, racist and a deliberate tool of otherization.  And it was casual…like something he would do or say anywhere. When his campaign defended him by saying “Senator Perdue simply mispronounced Senator Harris’ name, and he didn’t mean anything by it. He was making an argument against the radical socialist agenda…[1]” they all but said, “he was just kidding.”  And of course, he was not (Watch video clip)

This is the oldest trick of the bigot, act like your bigotry isn’t really a thing.  I suppose that this is easy to do if you don’t think that your racism is really a thing.  If, as I suppose is the case with Sen. Perdue, you’ve never thought about yourself in the context of racism or interrogated your behaviors or beliefs to understand where you might actually be wrong or backward or racist.

But then, he’s enabled by the greatest bigot kidder of them all…the President of the United States.  The president was just kidding when he disparaged women and joked about molesting them; he was just kidding when he encouraged Russia; he was just kidding when he mocked a disabled journalist; he was just kidding about the kids in cages, the white supremacists, the pre-existing conditions, liberating Michigan and Virginia…

Basically, he’s just been kidding for four years.

But this kind of kidding does real and lasting harm and lands in the ears and hearts of people who aren’t kidding who are armed and dangerous; consider the threats to both Michigan and Virginia’s governors.  Making a joke of someone’s name paints them as a perpetual outsider, a non-belonger…a foreigner.  Sen. Perdue’s message is loud and clear: Sen. Harris is just another n**ger like Obama who doesn’t belong.  According to him, she is going to continue to destroy our (read white people’s) country and you should all be afraid of her.

Just kidding? Like hell.

Sen. Perdue and every politician who publicly mocks another based on their heritage, ability, gender, sexual orientation or racial identity should have their pay suspended indefinitely until they can be voted out of office.  After all we (including every Kamala and Keisha and LaTonya) are paying their salaries and none of us want to pay for stupid bigots.

I am not kidding.


[1]John Burke on Twitter.

A Prayer for John Lewis

Black Lives Matter.

I know there are people who will not read on after seeing these words.  Black Lives Matter is a statement that has become political and polarizing even though it is not intended to be either.  As far as I can tell, it is only political if you’ve never had to phrase these words as a question while looking in a mirror and is only polarizing if the concept of black life mattering is foreign to you. Black Lives Matter is a challenging concept if in fact black life has not mattered in your own life regardless of the color of your skin.

As more and more white people take up the mantle of Black Lives Matter, I will caution that these are words that must not fall into slogan.  It cannot become “Black Lives Matter ™ Brand” justice.  Over the last few years and recently again, I have seen groups of well meaning white folks with signs on street corners emblazoned with these words “Black Lives Matter”…and people as they pass by in their cars, honking their horns in affirmation.  That’s nice.  I guess it makes them feel good.  But this feels a little bit too much like advertising for a political candidate or worse a local car wash.

Black Lives Matter is not a slogan or a catch phrase or a candidate or a church fundraiser.  It is a statement of fact that has been historically and legally denied.  It is a declaration of defiance against a system that legislates inequity.  Most importantly, Black Lives Matter is a non-sectarian prayer for full humanity and it deserves reverence and a proper place in our consciousness.

Representative John Lewis understood this.  His last public act was meeting Mayor Muriel Bowser at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C.  There, he was pictured by D.C. photographer and creative director Gary Williams, Jr. in a space of deep contemplation, a lone figure, one of the last survivors of the last great era of racial reckoning.  The iconic pictures of that moment capture him ready to pass the flame, something we couldn’t have known yet, though likely, he did.  He is reverent because he knows that the words at his feet contain the promise, the desire and the expectation for racial equality in the United States…something he lived his whole life working for.

And, most personally for him, those words carry blood.  They carry his blood shed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and other places.  They carry the blood of generations of children born of enslaved rape and the mothers who survived that nightmare.  They carry the blood of men who went to war in segregated armies to defend a nation that would never defend their humanity.  They carry the blood of the future activists, politicians, teachers and health workers that will live a promise and a dream that none of us can imagine today.

We must not ever forget that the story of blackness in the United States is one of embodiment.  It is the black body that is incarcerated, sexualized, mis-gendered, beaten, starved, excluded from medical care, impeded, uneducated and unemployed.  But it is a towering figure like John Lewis who taught us about the power, resilience and magic of our black bodies with his own black body and proved that the black body no matter how badly beaten, was born to survive.  Blackness is black bodied-ness.  And so, no matter how political or polarizing one wants to paint the words “Black Lives Matter” they will always come back to the basic fact that they are words which are inherently connected to flesh, tears, breath and blood.

Black Lives Matter is a living prayer for black bodies.

I know that as he stood there on that plaza seeing those bright yellow words, John Lewis held them in his heart and prayed. He prayed for peace.  He prayed for justice.  He prayed for the safety of those to whom he would hand the torch.  And I know he prayed for all of the black bodies before and after him that are born into those words.





From Gary Williams’ Twitter feed: