Last Thursday, I was fortunate to attend the John Hazen White Lecture at Brown University given by The New York Times journalist, and author, Charles Blow.
Mr. Blow, 45, who began at the Times in 1994 as a graphics editor, later went on to gain experience there as a journalist covering stories on the war in Iraq, as well as on 9/11. As a current Op-Ed writer for the Times, Blow focuses on politics and social justice, and is the author of the 2014 memoir, Fire Shut Up In My Bones.
Tricia Rose, Professor of Africana Studies at Brown, and an author as well, introduced Mr. Blow. As I settled in my cushioned aisle seat and listened to Professor Rose under the glow of the soft auditorium lighting, I couldn’t help but feel special–special to be sitting inside the walls of this historic university, in the company of great, contemporary minds, listening to a discussion on a subject I’m passionate about; race in America.
Mr. Blow opened with an unflinching, graphic account of Emmett Till’s savage murder, as he called it, saying that Till’s death sixty years ago was the Big Bang, the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. Blow informed the crowd of students, professors, and community members present that early Civil Rights Movement activist, Rosa Parks, was heard to say that she didn’t give up her bus seat because she was physically tired, but because she was “tired of giving in.”
Now, Mr. Blow noted, there is a repeat of that same fatigue. We see young people becoming activists who are tired of the bias, the deaths, the criminal justice system, the excessive force used on young, black bodies, and the interaction between communities of people of color and the police. Referring to today’s movement while linking it to the initial movement in this country decades earlier. Mr. Blow said, “Emmett Till was the first Black Lives Matter case.”
It was sad to then hear Mr. Blow immediately get into how the Black Lives Matter movement is now being devalued and feared. No stranger to this news myself, Mr. Blow recounted how the movement was recently labelled a hate group, and told of the deflections white people use to devalue the meaning and mission of the movement, and the very individuals working to make positive change in this country. I’ve been involved in countless talks and ranting threads on social media that prove this devaluation that Mr. Blow spoke of. There’s the repetitive call to focus on “black on black violence,” and the announcing that racism is over, and that we all have the same opportunities delusional statements. Mr. Blow called these thoughts ridiculous. and said it’s like telling the AIDS activist “you should be focusing on heart disease and obesity–those are the real problems in this country.” He added, “This is not a contest. The movement is addressing a real problem, and its efforts are noble and worthy. It prioritizes blackness in a country that marginalizes people of color, and was built on inequities. It confronts our laws instead of whisking them away.”
While noting that veterans of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement bequeath wisdom and lessons of their struggle on younger activists, this New Civil Rights Movement in this time and place requires different tactics. Many of the young people, Blow included, were either not alive, or old enough to remember or experience the early Civil Rights era. To those people, it is more academic, than experiential. Mr. Blow noted his own awakening came in 1991, with the Rodney King beating and police officers’ subsequent acquittal, and the 1997 vicious race-based murder of James Byrd. These incidents shattered Mr. Blow’s dreamy vision of perpetual progress made by people of color in this country. And, with the past several years of countless deaths of innocent black people at the hands of primarily, police officers, “Now is their experiential moment,” stated Blow.
Blow spoke of how black Millennials shun and have a mistrust for institutions, government, and corporations in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, of their communities sucked dry of their fathers, brothers, and sons with mass incarceration, of parents telling their children how to behave in the presence of police officers, or just living their lives in general, their psyche’s internalizing the lesson that the black body is to be feared. They’re tired of the war on drugs, the war on crime, of bias. Of how nothing can guarantee survival, let alone success, of the lack of empathy for black people. Though they may organize and produce calls-to-action differently than their predecessors, Blow says, today’s activists are like Rosa Parks, tired of giving in.
Mr. Blow next described in detail the last moments of Tamir Rice’s life. In his telling of Emmett Till’s death, and Tamir’s, I am thankful that Mr. Blow spares no details, and asks me, all of us, to search our own humanity, to be present and accountable, to witness, and if for even a moment, to be the feared, young, twelve-year old black boy on the playground taking his last breaths, without his sister being allowed to hold him, as Mr. Blow recounted, instead she’s violently tackled and pushed into a police car, helplessly having to watch, while the police officers stand by, offering no treatment or aid, letting Tamir, a twelve-year old boy, die. I don’t know how any of us cannot feel a deep, heavy, aching sadness, a rage against the inhumanity of this moment, and the countless other moments of inhumanity that this country has experienced in just these past few years, with the witnessing now more accessible via the use of cell phone recording, and the spreading of news instantly on all forms of social media.
In comparing and contrasting the New Civil Rights Movement to the earlier movement, Mr. Blow remembered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for love, while today’s activists often call for rage. While King’s idea of non-violence had to rely on faith, today’s activists call for a revolt, which Blow noted was how this country was founded. Yet, it is not a call to violence by these new activists. Though the media still seems to want to focus on the small handful of people, not even associated with the Black Lives Movement or other activists, who have resorted to rioting during the excessive and restrictive show of force by the police during the Ferguson and Baltimore protests, I remember how Dr. King said, that “rioting is the voice of the unheard.” I understand, just as DeRay McKesson, one of the leaders of the New Civil Rights Movement said, “I don’t have to condone it, to understand it.”
Still, Mr. Blow, like many other black people in this country, can’t help but be fatigued by the questioning of white America when they ask, “where did this anger come from?” as if the three to four hundred years of slavery, and inequities for black people in America never happened. Blow asked the question, “How can we heal, when America likes to hide it’s sins?”
In closing, Mr. Blow remembered a quote from Dr. King that says no one of sound consciousness wants violence, followed by this quote from Nora Zeale Hurston: “If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
I unfortunately had to leave right before the Q & A, but my friend, Ilira who sat beside me said that the session was just as compelling as the lecture. Her take-away: “Get educated and know the history, and affect change in your own spheres of influence.”
To that, I will echo the great Ms. Hurston and say that I cannot be silent about not only my pain, but right now more importantly, about others’ pain, and I continue to believe it is my duty to, as Ilira says, to affect change in the ways I am able to.
Photo credit: Brown & Providence