A Rise of Color

Lord of Thunder, unleash your fury, deep and black!
Fierce and flashing--lightning upon our tongues!  

We chant lions with ripped and roaring hearts, 
Beating back batons as tear gas glistens on the glowing road. 

Shadows give birth to white noise. We lynch our own color 
Foolishly thinking a story has two sides or one voice.

Evidence means nothing. I witnessed the beating of a heart.
And another heart stopped beating.

Dead daughters shiver and gasp, a cold choir with no voice.
Sons scream in soundproof booths--coffins for the living black.
"Can you hear me now?" David had to throw stones, too. 

Walk in the woods at night to see what you've become.
Velvet hollows haunt and howl, "Feel the fertile depth of black."
Now gather the blackness like berries, and be dyed by a rise of color.

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This is fucking hard to write. Fitting that it should be such a struggle. I wrote a poem. It is tidy, punctuated, redeeming. The poem lies. I woke up crying. My tears tell the truth. This is not a well-composed article with tidy distance. This is a storm with loose ends and no conclusion. 

Social justice teacher Verma Meyers says looking at pictures of strong black leaders alters our cognitive bias against African Americans. Let's look long and hard.

Clara Mae Luper was one of the early leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in Oklahoma in the 50s. She was arrested 26 times for her civil rights activities. She led sit-ins to end segregation all over OK. She was a candidate for the US Senate in 1972, and developed Black Voices Magazine in the the late 70s.

Clara Mae Luper was one of the early leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in Oklahoma in the 50s. She was arrested 26 times for her civil rights activities. She led sit-ins to end segregation all over OK. She was a candidate for the US Senate in 1972, and developed Black Voices Magazine in the the late 70s.

I had a dream.

March 25, 2014:

I am trying desperately to hold an old African American woman's hand. We fight until I am in a cold sweat. We must fight together if we are to hold hands. She's dying. I have to struggle, not give up, knowing that my intentions are good, but my view is incomplete. She has the last word no matter what. I must listen. I will not give up. I am yelling, she is yelling. To hold hands with a black woman honestly requires an engaged struggle. Only she knows what it is to be a person of color. Finally, after wrestling from sun up to sun down, we can hold hands. Something is complete. She lies down to die. 


But nothing is complete. People keep dying. I am bewildered. I don't know where to start. So many voices. So much emotion. Such nuance and complexity. I get lost in the chaos. I retract my own statements fearing their inadequacy. Inadequacy is OK. We must all speak up, all of us who can. I return to my center. I breathe. I regain my voice, knowing it's just a note in the symphony, a fluid measure of music. Music is nothing without intentional pause, and less without listening. I want to lend beauty to our song. I try to write love songs but they always come out sad.

This is Mary McLeod Bethune 1875 - 1955. She was an educator and Civil Rights leader who founded the National Council of Negro Women, and served as an adviser to FDR on his "black cabinet." She promoted the education of African-American youth.

This is Mary McLeod Bethune 1875 - 1955. She was an educator and Civil Rights leader who founded the National Council of Negro Women, and served as an adviser to FDR on his "black cabinet." She promoted the education of African-American youth.

To know deeply who we are helps us stand with each other. To look at another human being and see ourselves is the litmus of truth. When we cannot see ourselves in the mirror of others, we endanger society, and kill people of color. What are we afraid of? We are afraid of ourselves. Knowing who we are is at least as painful as it is powerful. The journey of decolonization runs deep. We are Othering our African-descended family to protect our smallest identities, so that our lesser-scale selves can continue to live and rule in fear. But true power roots down. If we don't build a tower, we can't fall from it. 

I don't identify as white. I stand in my tribes, the ancient and indigenous peoples of Europe. You may think this doesn't matter because the system still caters to my color. But I can tell you that knowing where I stand makes a difference. My roots are deep and broad. They intertwine with yours. This is no theory. We are a family. Ask any elder who holds pieces of the ancient stories of humankind. (Did you know that African Chief Maui sailed from Libya to Polynesia, settling in Maui? Or that a man from the Siberian steppe carried a golden arrow all the way to Greece to initiate Pythagoras?) 

Great chief of Balé, King Fonyonga II of Bali-Nyonga, 1901–40. Cameroon, 1935

Great chief of Balé, King Fonyonga II of Bali-Nyonga, 1901–40. Cameroon, 1935

We hold pieces of each other, for each other. When we come together with open hearts, minds, and memories, we can know ourselves more fully. When we identify with each other, we act with a broader sense of self-preservation. We preserve our roots. We preserve our future. We preserve each other. Justice arises when we stop fearing who we are. 

At the same time, we can never know the experiences of another. Amid the protests in Oakland last week, a black man who lives on the street yelled at a group of us. "Nothing you do matters," he told us. "What does any of this mean?" ("We have no idea; please tell us.") "People have taken everything from me. I have nothing. They don't even want me back in Africa." Then, "I saw a dead black man rotting on the sidewalk for two full days before the police even bothered to come get him." 

Was there a funeral?

Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute, is the first African American to be awarded an honorary degree by Harvard University. Born into slavery in Virginia, Washington moved to Alabama in 1881 to open Tuskegee Normal School. He soon gained fame as an educational leader among black Americans, a fact which Harvard recognized with a Master of Arts degree.

Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute, is the first African American to be awarded an honorary degree by Harvard University. Born into slavery in Virginia, Washington moved to Alabama in 1881 to open Tuskegee Normal School. He soon gained fame as an educational leader among black Americans, a fact which Harvard recognized with a Master of Arts degree.

Apathy makes us an accessory to murder. Inaction makes racism our legacy. If we are tired of hearing about injustices against black lives, we almost surely benefit from institutionalized oppression. We who have the luxury of ignoring this struggle are those who are now called to engage, to speak up, to avoid being complicit in systematic murder through silence. 

We who quibble over court cases and question who the victims are almost certainly have not walked in the skin of a darker hue. I can tell you with the certainty of a poet that we are standing on the wrong side of history, and missing the forest for the trees. 

In 50 years, if we are still alive, we will not want to say, "I didn't see what was happening right in front of me. I was blinded by my privilege [or my peers or my region], blind to the oppression of others because I had never experienced it myself." We will not want to tell our grandchildren that during this critical time for human rights, we did nothing. We have to make a decision. We can participate in a system that condones murder and oppression, or we can dismantle it. 

Cornel West, American philosopher, academic, activist, and author. The son of a Baptist minister, West received his undergraduate education at Harvard University, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1973, and received a Ph.D at Princeton University in 1980, becoming the first African American to graduate from Princeton with a Ph.D in philosophy.

Cornel West, American philosopher, academic, activist, and author. The son of a Baptist minister, West received his undergraduate education at Harvard University, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1973, and received a Ph.D at Princeton University in 1980, becoming the first African American to graduate from Princeton with a Ph.D in philosophy.

Every successful struggle has a singular focus. The focus here is Black Lives Matter. If we are white-presenting, let's amplify the voices of the oppressed. If someone of color has something to say about justice, let us not criticize the tone or the content. Let us not speak out of turn. Let's. Just. Listen. 

Communities of color and their allies are coming together in creative and peaceful ways for restorative justice. People of privilege often criticize the media-emphasized violence. Let's stop pretending we know how we would behave in the context of a hundred years of oppression. Martin Luther King, Jr. said riots are the voices of he oppressed. Starwhawk says, "If we refuse to hold accountable those who speak with bullets, how dare we stand in judgment of those who respond with stones?" 

Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his I Have a Dream speech on August 28, 1963.

Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his I Have a Dream speech on August 28, 1963.

What can we do?

The truth is, everything little thing we do matters. We can speak up in an uncomfortable situation that promotes or condones racism. We can eradicate euphemisms for blackness, like "thug" and "inner-city." We can ask African American activists how to best serve the community. If we are used to defending privilege, we can momentarily suspend our disbelief, as an experiment in empathy. We can raise conscious kids. We can make art. We can cry. These are no small things. Every move shakes the system, and we are a system that needs shaking. Sometimes the softest touch causes the biggest earthquake. 


Life will conspire to engage us in loving justice. Let's remember who we are, starting with our own family history. Connecting with our ancestors is always direct action. An indigenous mind is an act of resistance. Let's expand our social circles to include people of different classes, races, genders, abilities. Let's acknowledge each other on the street. Let's lean in to people of color. Let's register our biases, our inner racists. This is fiercely uncomfortable. Let's practice tolerating the discomfort. Racism is a strong thread in the fabric of our society. To change the fabric, we have to stop denying our involvement. As Verna Meyers says, "Stop trying to be good people. We need real people." 


So let's be real. To hold hands honestly with a person of color requires an engaged struggle.   Let's struggle till we're in a cold sweat. 

I'm all in.

"I have a great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift." Septima Clark (1898 - 1987), a teacher in South Carolina, established Citizenship Schools throughout the South to teach reading and increase voter eligibility

"I have a great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift." Septima Clark (1898 - 1987), a teacher in South Carolina, established Citizenship Schools throughout the South to teach reading and increase voter eligibility

Nelson Mandela, South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician and philanthropist who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He was South Africa's first black chief executive, and the first elected in a fully representative democratic election. His government focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid through tackling institutionalised racism, poverty and inequality, and fostering racial reconciliation.

Nelson Mandela, South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician and philanthropist who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He was South Africa's first black chief executive, and the first elected in a fully representative democratic election. His government focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid through tackling institutionalised racism, poverty and inequality, and fostering racial reconciliation.