Tag Archives: race

Livin’ on the Edge

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There’s somethin’ wrong with the world today
I don’t know what it is
Something’s wrong with our eyes…

If you can judge a wise man
By the color of his skin
Then mister you’re a better man than I…

Livin’ on the edge…
– Aerosmith (1993, inspired by the L.A. Riots)

Jerry Mitchell visited Nashville to promote his new book shortly before the pandemic swept across the United States, and I dropped by his book signing at Parnassus to pick up an autographed copy. Race Against Time chronicles Mitchell’s work as an investigative journalist to reopen unsolved murder cases from the Civil Rights Era, ultimately resulting in convictions of multiple people decades after their terrible racist crimes. It was later during the global quarantine that I took the time to read the book, and although I am aware of the history and reality of racism, I am somehow still stunned by many of its true stories.

With the book still fresh in mind news emerged from Georgia of the unconscionable killing of Ahmaud Arbery, and I had to wonder if anyone is truly winning this “race against time.” As a runner, I was shaken in a new way, forced to recognize that mindlessly enjoying such a simple hobby is yet another unearned advantage that I possess. Even during an unprecedented era of cultural transformation due to a rampant virus, there is unfortunately one thing that remains—the ubiquitous influence of a centuries-long assumption of white superiority.

More recently, I read another book titled, Nashville 1864, this time a work of historical fiction that recounted the Battle of Nashville in the American Civil War. The novel was frustrating in its romantic approach to the Antebellum South while helpfully portraying the terrible specter of war, and it simply reinforced in my mind the terribly complicated history of this nation. The novel describes the decisive encounter of the battle that occurred at Shy’s Hill, which happens to be one mile from my house. I finished the book on Memorial Day weekend, and early on Memorial Day itself jogged over to and up on Shy’s Hill to consider all the lives lost. It seemed random to see a marker for Minnesota on Shy’s Hill in Nashville, Tennessee—random until I learned that more Union soldiers from Minnesota died in that battle than from any other state.

And then the despicable murder of George Floyd in Minnesota was televised on the evening news.

Friends, it has been 156 years since a significant number of Minnesotans died in my neighborhood fighting a war that presumably put an end to the notion that Black Americans were less than White Americans. But it is all too clear that all the lives lost and all the efforts made and all the progress achieved has not ultimately prevailed.

For multiple reasons I chose years ago to post less about issues on social media instead of more. Among those reasons was a desire to read and listen more (and talk less), and to focus on things that carry the possibility of creating actual structural changes so that the reality 156 years from now is different—things like using my advantages to instigate conversations that lead to changes in education systems, hiring practices, and ultimately, changes in hearts.

But in times like this I question whether I am doing the right things, or things that really matter, or, maybe most of all, whether I am doing enough.

So today, for what it is worth, I say aloud that I recognize the deep wrongs screaming at us on the evening news—wrongs that exist in a nation where the two people competing to be its CEO are both White men who have independently and recently managed to offend millions of Black Americans. In such a time and place, I simply say that I stand alongside Black Americans and declare their full beauty and worth as human beings. It matters more whether I live it than whether I say it, but in case it helps or matters, I say it.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

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“The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His.  They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.” – Zora Neale Hurston

Read more novels. That was #2 on my list of 20 goals for 2020, and I have read four so far, including the classic from Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God. It was probably Oprah’s made-for-television adaptation in 2005 that placed the captivating title in my subconscious, and I am glad. Whatever made me pick up a copy at the used bookstore has my deep gratitude. What a powerful and beautiful story.

I won’t soon forget the primary characters, including the moment I walked with them into the line that generated the title of the book. Having lived through a powerful hurricane myself, sitting in the dark with Janie and Tea Cake as a reader was easy to do, straining and staring in awe at God.

Nor will I forget the Afterword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as he attempted to share the author’s complicated life and legacy. Gates introduced me to Hurston, Barnard grad with multiple Guggenheims, prominent author and figure of the Harlem Renaissance, who died an ignominious death in a welfare home and was buried in an unmarked grave. Gates showed me Hurston, criticized by her rival, Richard Wright, for the way she approached Black America in her novels, who responded that she wanted to write a novel that was “not a treatise on sociology.”  As Alice Walker (The Color Purple), whom Hurston inspired, wrote, Hurston portrayed “a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings.” Black people as, in a word, people.

It took all this to help me understand what captivated me so about this particular love story. I appreciate treatises on sociology, particularly those that help me develop a greater sense of race consciousness, but this was quite simply—and by “simply” I mean that highest compliment of somehow making the ineffable obvious—a human love story.

It helps me remember today that, although Black History Month is now over for 2020, black history month is, in fact, every month.

Telling the Truth in America

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“I think we do need truth and reconciliation in America. But truth and reconciliation are sequential. You can’t get to reconciliation until you first tell the truth.” – Bryan Stevenson

My dad was born and raised in Kennett, Missouri, the largest town in the Missouri Bootheel located just across the Arkansas border and not far from the Mississippi River. He was born in 1920, over four decades before singer-songwriter, Sheryl Crow, Kennett’s most famous native.

I don’t know much about my dad’s childhood years but have never forgotten a haunting story he told of witnessing the lynching of a black man on the courthouse lawn for allegedly raping a white woman. Children were not supposed to be there, but my dad wiggled his way to the front while the crowd was shamefully mesmerized by the spectacle of a human being with a noose around his neck being asked if he had any final words. The man answered, “Well, I didn’t do it, but I know that doesn’t make any difference to you all.” And then he was killed.

I don’t remember my dad telling the story with any particular emotion so I’m not sure why he shared it with his young son over fifty years after the fact, but it was obvious that it had made an impression. And here I am almost another fifty years later telling it again. If you wonder how far we have to go back to find race-motivated lynchings on a courthouse lawn, for me it is one generation.

I think Bryan Stevenson is a remarkable human being and encourage you to read/watch/listen to him in any way that you can. Stevenson is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative (“EJI”) in Montgomery, Alabama, and among many wonderful projects had the idea of telling the truth about lynchings in the United States.  EJI published a report titled, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, which documented over 4,000 lynchings between 1877-1950—a period of time after, of course, the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, and the other Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution. I looked at the map and noted zero lynchings identified in Dunklin County, Missouri, where Kennett is the county seat. I know a man who witnessed one, so I can only imagine how many race-motivated lynchings actually occurred.

Stevenson’s message is that we must tell the truth before we get anywhere on racial reconciliation, so on a day set aside to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I will use my small platform to say that my personal heritage includes a history and ongoing legacy of things we can be proud of alongside things for which we should be deeply ashamed. We cannot honestly claim one without the other. And among those things that require deep shame is nothing less than domestic terrorism that targeted a particular race of people motivated by white supremacy.

May we tell the truth. May we lay markers so that we never forget. And may we recommit to the pursuit of Dr. King’s not-yet-realized dream.

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted and every hill and mountain shall be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963)

To Race or Not to Race: That Is the Question

I am competitive.  It’s not like I hip check small children to get ahead of them in line or anything.  I prefer creating distractions so they don’t notice.

On one hand, I treasure my competitive nature.  It motivates me to get out bed each day and leads to achievements otherwise beyond imagination.  But on the other hand, it drives me a little wackadoodle.  Sometimes, staying in bed would be a nice change of pace.

My ongoing affair with running is a prime example.  After a twenty-plus year break, I started running again in 2010 and in the past six years have completed four half-marathons and a variety of shorter races—and it has been awesome.  I love the thrill of the big race where all sorts of humanity gather on a weekend morning for a good cause, and I love the battle within myself to see if the long hours of training can produce a new PR (“personal record”).

But training for those races tends to make me a little nutty.  I do, mostly, enjoy those training runs, watching my times, seeing improvement, envisioning the big race, and counting down the days, but it has a tendency to become an obsession, which is a nicer way of saying that I become a little like Yosemite Sam but only in a bad mood.  And that’s no fun.

Recently, I have enjoyed running with friends all over the map—from Paul in Kenya to Dodie and Rusty in Arkansas to all sorts of friends in California.  With no race on the calendar, I simply enjoyed the company and stories and scenery without worrying about times or mileage or anything.  And yet, signing up for a race calls me like a siren.

I’ll do it.  I know I will.  And on certain days I will regret it, most notably on race day when my lungs are burning and I open up negotiations with God.  But when it’s over, and I inhale that intoxicating sensation of accomplishment, I will be glad.

Race

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Go see “Race.” The critics apparently do not think it is the greatest movie in the history of movies, but the story of Jesse Owens is one of the greatest stories in the history of stories, so there. But be prepared. American race relations in the 1930s is not fun to watch, and then you encounter Nazi Germany. It is a tough, hard, heroic story well worth the price of admission, not to mention the attention of your heart.

I traveled to northern Alabama in June 2007 to speak at a church that had supported our church during Hurricane Katrina, and while there, noticed that the Jesse Owens Memorial Park & Museum was nearby. I had to go. Jesse, a grandson of slaves, was born into a family of sharecroppers in tiny Oakville, Alabama, and the museum grounds contains a replica of his childhood home. Mr. & Mrs. Owens had nine children in that tiny house, and the children had no beds. Eventually, the family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, where life was bad, but better, and it was there that Jesse’s spectacular high school track and field performances catapulted him on to the world stage where he forever defied Hitler’s claim of Aryan supremacy.

This picture is my personal favorite from the museum (and my favorite scene in the movie):

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The friendship that formed between blond-haired, blue-eyed Luz Long from Nazi Germany and African-American, Jesse Owens, from the United States in the long jump competition at the Olympic Games stands as a testament of hope for the world.

An article on ESPN.com shared the following quote from Owens: “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace. The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War II.”

Eighty years after the 1936 Olympic Games, the world sure seems to remain a mess. But there is hope. There is always hope. And it begins when people defy social expectations and form the most unlikely friendships.

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