A few months ago I was scared. Like most Americans, I watched a new virus terrorize Europe- and naively I thought it might not board a plane for the US, and if it did we’d most certainly be “ready”. That purposeful ignorance and blind faith in our leadership didn’t exist due to a lack of common sense, because I know what an inept piece of shit we elected president, and it didn’t exist due to a lack of WiFi. Trust me, I read the news (to a fault). I just refused to believe that we lived in a country (or World) that wouldn’t be ready for such a threat. We’re America. We carry the big stick. We leave no child behind. Or so says the history books.
So in an attempt to calm my brain, I turned here to blurt some shit out. I wrote a piece that equated my fears to my daily routine- filling the page with a banal sense of monotony, as if a routine during a pandemic was a bad thing. I wrote about my baby, who is now a year and a half old. I wrote about her and her routine because it’s what dominates our days- especially while were were self-quarantining like the rest of New York.
Then George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police Department. He was killed in broad daylight by a police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. He was taken into custody after allegedly passing a counterfeit bill at a store- and died in the street. He died while he pled for his life. He died while he called out for help. He died while onlookers held their cell cameras close enough to capture his last breath. Then I watched as the Black people and people of color in Minneapolis reacted the only way they could. Protests. Violence. Anger. It came to a head in a way that it hasn’t since Rodney King’s violent LAPD attackers were found not guilty and California burned. I watched. I listened. I read. More protests and violent clashes popped up all over the country. I donated money and made sure I bought certain products whose proceeds were being donated to bail funds and community outreach programs across American and in my own city.
But you know what I didn’t do? I didn’t write about it. I didn’t use the only vehicle I’ve got to move the needle. And that’s not to say anything I write here matters to anyone, or influences a single person. But it’s a platform. It’s my platform to share information. And I didn’t do it. My privilege wouldn’t let me. My whiteness wouldn’t allow it. It wasn’t calculated. It wasn’t premeditated. It was a subconscious non-reaction to the bigger picture. My lack of response existed because of the color of my skin. I am a white man in America- and being that, I am allowed to remain silent. I’ve been silently trained to be silent. Since birth, my life has been constructed around the silence of white freedom- the same freedoms my father and his father wholeheartedly experienced living as white men in New York State. Freedoms we willingly take for granted. And when we don’t take our whiteness for granted, we wield it for advantage- reflected in both subtle and abusive power trips.
So what does freedom mean to you? I hadn’t been writing much, and while I had some downtime last week resting by a lake in upstate NY (another painfully white admission) I picked up a pen and asked myself, what does freedom mean to you? Is it lake getaways? Is it a city without riot police presence? Is it the chase for endless wealth? Is freedom simply getting by while keeping some food in the fridge and the lights on? We live in a country that doesn’t limit the amount of money we can earn. But how much does freedom hinder a persons ability to chase that bag? And even more disparaging- what percentage of those bags (outside of pro sports and entertainment) are landing legally in the hands of Black and Brown people? Who’s to blame, and how does the system strip itself bare and redesign its operation to equally distribute wealth?
As my pen scratched across the paper, what took shape was a poem. Ironically, I stopped writing poetry a long time ago. It feels contrived and almost exclusively draws from whatever I’m reading or listening to at the moment- so the practice isn’t as fulfilling now as it was when I was a young man dealing with the pain of hangovers and heartbreak. But in this instance the words tumbled out in clusters of lines, three or four at a time- tackling freedom from different perspectives.
If you’re reading this, your assumption is that my perspective can’t be from anywhere but my white perch- high above the struggles of those who were born with skin darker than mine and faces that look more exotic than my simple features, or with names that don’t carry the Christian traditions so many of us feebly hide behind. But what you might not know is that I’ve been an educator in a predominantly Black inner city school for fifteen years. It’s the only career I’ve ever had- minus the handful of shitty part time jobs a person experiences somewhere between earning a high school degree and finally settling into the job that eventually becomes part of you. So my insight- and dare I say perspective- stretches a bit further than my white face and name suggests. But I am not a Black man.
I live in the city where I teach. I coach in the city that I teach. I run after school clubs in the city that I teach. I shop, eat, drink, and play basketball here in this city. Freedom isn’t the same for the thousands of families I’ve interacted with the past fifteen years, and their experiences are wildly different than mine at first glance. But when my students and I discuss what freedom looks like to them, they’re enthralled by my story. One of humble beginnings in a park full of trailers- where no one has any real money- simply enough to pay your electric bill, buy some groceries, and a few pieces of new clothing at the start of the school year each September. Like them, my upbringing wasn’t that of silver spoons or inherited wealth. I ate every morning and night. I had clean clothes. There were toys and cakes on birthdays and holidays. But unlike them, my path branched off when I chose for it to do so. I’ve never felt stuck. I’ve never felt like my choices weren’t my own. I’ve never felt like I was destined for violence, incarceration or death because of the color of my skin. I was not born a Black man in America.
I’ve settled into my role as an educator. I like leading young people towards some level of enlightenment. It’s impossible to explain the joy I get when I’ve provided the groundwork for a student to make concrete connections between the material in front of them and their every day existence. Its not often, but when those moments happen it’s easy to remember why I’ve been in the same position for fifteen years. And while I have settled in- as time and mastery of your job will do- the job does not define me. I am not a teacher at home. I do not study the classics by candlelight. I do not grade papers until dawn with a pencil behind my ear and a piping hot pot of coffee by my side. Kudos to you if that’s your style- and plenty of educators take pride in that being their identity- but that ain’t me. I can’t always leave my job at my job, because our neighborhood violence and gang activity sometimes leads to disruption and even death for some of my students, but I don’t go to bed with my khakis and button down on. Who I am extends way past my accomplishments and failures as a public school teacher.
When nurses battle for better wages and more protection under the law and they decide to organize and move towards unionizing their hospital, they picket and they conduct interviews with local news to further their agenda. They stress very clearly that their lives, their professional livelihood matters. This happens in all types of industry around the World. Do you know what I’ve never done? I’ve never attended a strike or rally for medical professionals with a sign that says ‘teachers lives matter’. I’ve never attended a rally for gay/trans rights with a sign that says ‘straight lives matter’, because declaring that some other agenda matters more in that moment, or even more tragically that ‘all of anything matters’, decentralizes the matter at hand.
I wasn’t born a teacher. That nurse wasn’t born a nurse. The wide receiver you cheer for on your fantasy football team wasn’t born in your starting line up. But George Floyd was born Black. Breonna Taylor was born Black. Atatiana Jefferson was born Black. Aura Rosser was born Black. Stephon Clark was born Black. Botham Jean was born Black. Philando Castille was born Black. Alton Sterling was born Black. Do you see the difference? Today’s fight isn’t about all lives. It’s not about blue lives. It’s not about gay lives. It’s about Black lives. And until we stop cheapening the narrative- the narrative cannot be re-written, as it deserves to be.
Wear your fucking masks. Wash your hands. Eat some vegetables. It’s OK to be scared. It’s normal to operate right now with some level of fear for the uncertain future. But do not for one second believe that we’ve progressed an inch since the fires started raging and the rubber bullets started flying. Read more. Listen more. Vote in local elections for the men and women who have the full and best interest of your communities in their hearts. And most importantly, do not be afraid to use whatever platform you’ve got to make your voice heard. I promise I won’t ignore mine ever again. Black Lives Matter today, tomorrow, and every day after that.
Push things forward with whatever voice you’ve got, and be as loud as you can.