Heartbreak

1379273594000-AP-Charlotte-Police-Shooting-DeathI wept on BART this morning.  Reading the news on my phone as most people do, I read the story of Jon Ferrell, the former football player who was shot in North Carolina over the weekend.  I am numb to these stories.  Not to say they don’t register in me as deeply troubling examples of a twisted culture, but I have lived most of my life with news of black men being killed for one reason or another.

At that same moment, a black man came on to BART with his little boy.  The man was dressed in a fashion that (per my previous post) would probably have women clutching their purses, had he not been accompanied by a 6 year old; he wore a football jersey, sagging jeans, baseball cap, many tattoos, etc.  The man and his son sat down and the boy immediately began to read from Dr. Seuss to his dad. The man encouraged him to read it aloud to understand each word and if he had trouble, he didn’t just give the answer but gave him ways to figure it out.  And when they finished that book, the man pulled a ‘grown up’ book out of his bag, opened it to a page and asked the boy to do the same thing.  The boy struggled with the bigger words, but again, the man encouraged him.  The entire time this went on, the man had his arm around his son.

I remembered a similar scene some 43 years ago, with my own dad on the New York City subway, reading Dr. Seuss and being encouraged to figure out the words and when I had questions being asked to think about the answers instead of just expecting to be given the answers.  We were not rich and lived in the pre-fashionable Upper West Side.  My dad, in those days attired himself in what would have been considered the 1970 equivalent of hoodlum gear: large afro, African chain, daishiki print shirt, black ankle boots, etc.

And then I thought back to Jon Ferrell, and Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till and I realized that this beautiful scene of a father lovingly nurturing his son in the art of thought and engaging his world could end with that same father standing by a grave wondering why someone would have assumed that this beautiful and gentle creature who he had so carefully filled with curiosity and knowledge…why someone would assume that because he was wrapped in brown packaging that he was less worthy of living.

Every morning I walk through the armies of broken and searching black men in downtown Oakland.  They have narrowly escaped being targets of fatal gun violence, but they have not escaped being the target of our country’s institutionalized fear.  They live on the periphery, bonding and surviving any way they can.  Some are on drugs.  Some are looking for the next person to take from what they don’t have the opportunity to earn.  Some are genuinely angry.  Some are just heartbroken.  They didn’t start this way.  I wonder how many of them sat with a parent embracing them as they learned to read, never knowing that they would end up reading about their brothers being gunned down just because someone was afraid of the color of their skin.

Happy Birthday

Today is the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  It was a pivotal day in the history of the Civil Rights movement in America.  Although it had been conceived before (reference is made in the film Brother Outsider to a plan in the 1940’s for a march of this nature) it was the first time any demonstration of this magnitude had ever come together in this country.  A mixing of races and religions and economic backgrounds came together and stood united in demonstration of the need for change for one specific demographic sector…black people.

These kinds of demonstrations aren’t so simple now.  As we progressed from the era of fighting for the rights of one marginalized population, other groups began to find their voices in the song of freedom.  Women, Gays and Lesbians, Latinos, Asian Americans, people with disabilities, Jews, Muslims, Atheists.  But eventually people started to realize as well that they weren’t just part of one group.  We used to joke (before political correctness) that if you were a black Jewish lesbian in a wheelchair, you had the ultimate minority status.  But we don’t make those jokes anymore; in fact, we are starting to see the value of recognizing what a black, Jewish, disabled lesbian would represent in the mix.  She would represent the degree to which we all sit at intersections of cultures, demographics and social standings.  Each of us has privilege; each of us has disadvantage.  The Civil Rights Movement ushered in an age of self identity that has now culminated in all of us finding multiple self identities.

As we look back on the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, the brilliance of Bayard Rustin’s organizing and the willingness of the people to buy into the effort and gather en-masse during a weekday, it does seem clear that somethings have definitely changed.  But it is also clear that some things have not really changed at all.  People have died for a cause who’s banners would be just as relevant today.  A white man can kill a black man and walk free.  We talk about how demographics are shifting to make people of color the majority in this country by 2050; but that kind of binary based demographic still leaves white people as the “norm” or the barometer against which everyone else is measured.   Change…but the same.

Progress…real progress, will mean a time when we are able to look at the world through something other than the binary lens: black/white; gay/straight; male/female; rich/poor; able/disabled.  We will look at each other as hearts and minds and we will look at life and maybe even God as a continuum…a spectrum of experience.  We will have no need for demographics because we will no longer be judging each other.  We will fully embrace our selves as black lesbian disabled Jews and our society will actually not raise an eyebrow when it is asked to embrace us back.

But over all, my point is, this day, in 1963 is when it began.  Certainly others fought hard before and after this date, but it is the one date we can point to when we know that at least 250,000 other people were thinking pretty much the same thing: “we need to do something about this mess.”

Today is also my friend Stacey’s birthday…in fact at the exact moment when those 250,000 people were gathered on the National Mall, when Martin Luther King, Jr. declared “I Have a Dream”, while Mahaila Jackson sang “How I Got Over,” Stacey sent her first cry to the heavens.  And although both Mahalia and Dr. King are gone, Stacey is still here and still crying to the heavens, singing jazz.  In 50 years, she has changed of course…as we all have, yet she is the same; just like this country, just like our dreams for justice and equality for all.

So, today, rather than lamenting how much things are the same after 50 years, let’s celebrate what is good about those things that haven’t changed…our basic desire for honesty, humanity and humility; our basic desire for good.  Our need to see the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice.  Our God given talents and gifts that lift one another up and unite us as one people to declare that we ALL have a dream; and of course the fact that we are still singing jazz.  For without dreams, whether they be great or small, what else do we have to live for?

Happy Birthday Stacey!