“Oh my God, I haven’t even thought about that… what’s even going on down there?”
“This is why I don’t watch the news. I just don’t want to see that negative stuff, you know?”
“Oh, right, yeah… I’m so sorry. It just hasn’t been in the front of my mind. Didn’t really much watch of it. So bad with the kids around, you know? When the news gets bad, I don’t watch…”
That’s just a sample of the things people have said to me today. People who I like. People who know that I’m from Maryland. People who absentmindedly, in that small-talk way we do, asked me how I was doing this morning. Of course, they were halted by my honest answer:
“I’m having a rough time. I can’t stop watching what’s happening in Baltimore.”
It was supremely disappointing, time and again, to see people have to flip four switches in their brains to figure out what I was talking about. “Ohhh… right… that…”
The arguments are loud and fierce in my Facebook feed and even among my family members… everyone who I love in Maryland is taking part in an intense conversation. There are status wars and comments running the spectrum from “What the fuck is wrong with our people” to “what the fuck is wrong with you people” with a mosaic of nuanced posts in between.
Marylanders talking to Marylanders or people who love Baltimore.
All of the rest of the universe seems to be out of it. There is this silence from the other corners of the universe I know: Massachusetts folk, mid-west folk, west-coast folk…
Because Maryland is far away from a community near you. Baltimore is not your problem, right?
Because Baltimore was home for me for a long time, because I have family, friends, even former students who now attend college in the city, the tension and unrest there is quite raw for me. The emails went flying between me and the rest of my Maryland family: Every single one of us has lived in Baltimore for a given length of time. It’s our “second hometown.” Our hearts are there. And my heart bleeds because I love that city. People who have never been there or who only believe what they see on television don’t get Baltimore. They don’t want to know it. That city is worthy of so much more than the reputation outsiders have decided to give it. And the wonderful people who live there, who represent every color and creed known to man, also deserve more than the labels they’ve been given.
So I have been, at any given moment over the last 48 hours, on the verge of tears.
I don’t actually want to make this post about me and my feelings. Yet, I feel like I am living in some Twilight Zone scenario where there are giant elephants stomping and shitting on every corner of town, and all of the comfortable White people around here merrily live around it… sometimes stepping in it, without so much as a care. I want to scream at every person, “don’t you see this shit? Don’t you care that you’re stepping in it??” and yet, that would somehow make me the crazy one.
I wrote a post on Facebook on Tuesday morning asking my fellow Marylanders to do something with their still-raw feelings. A friend of mine wrote her thoughts in reply, adding the perfect line: “Boston is Baltimore is Ferguson. This is everywhere and we cannot choose apathy.”
Baltimore is Boston is Ferguson is New York is A Town Near You is A Neighborhood Near You is Your Neighborhood. You can choose to turn the “negative images” off for now, but one day, you might not be able to. One day, this might end up in your city on your doorstep. You can decide that Black communities aren’t your communities, that the deaths of Black people are not relative to you, and that Black anguish is not anguish that you’re interested in until consequences of all of these things end up directly in your lap. I’m not saying that violence is coming your way tomorrow. I have no idea what the future brings. But I know that the constant barrage of oppression against people of color is starting to reap severe consequences for all of us. We must all come to the understanding that we reap what we sow. Apathy, in this regard, is oppression.
How much longer are we going to choose to ignore that fact that we are multiple generations in on failures for neighborhoods like Sandtown in Baltimore? Why do we choose to close our eyes to it? Why do we think that if we tighten our oblivious bubbles just a little more, build less homes in exclusive spaces, raise property taxes to price out “certain elements,” vote down measures that help to uplift others, vote in people who run on platforms of exclusion… why do we think that we can behave this way and then reap no negative consequences for our behaviors?
And why do we think it is ok to look at the anguish of people in those communities and then dismiss it out of hand? To say that the way they choose to express their anger is somehow inappropriate, and also sweep away their pain in the same instance? You don’t have the right to feel pain and anger about your circumstance. Even when we make it almost impossible for you to climb out of the oppressive space you are in, you must live in it and be quiet. Your anger/pain makes me uncomfortable, thus it is illegitimate. You may think that your expression of anger/pain is called for, but I disagree, thus it simply is not. That even others, Black folk who aren’t in the communities but feel the pain, are told that we, too, should shut up about our anguish is just… flabbergasting.
And yeah, I say “we” because I know that I’m part of the bigger problem, too. I moved to far-out suburbia, selfishly seeking good schools for my sons the easy way instead of choosing a neighborhood in the city and applying my talents and passions to demand good schools for all. I could have chosen a neighborhood in Boston, planted my feet, and decided that I’d fight every day to raise the tide for my boys and all of their classmates. Instead, I ran, cowardly in the face of the potential consequences for my sons.
We, all, in our own ways, are part of the problem.
So my tears are for the helplessness I feel. I feel like there are no right answers. There are certainly no easy ones. My words are empty, cotton in my mouth and numb on my fingers. My small donation to a Baltimore organization is ultimately a pittance. My actions here, so far from home, mean nothing for the people in the city that I love.
But at least I choose to watch. At least I choose to listen and understand. At least I choose to speak.
It is very fair to criticize the way that the media has decided to run with this narrative. There were six days of peaceful protest in Baltimore that was only covered by local media (even DC affiliates didn’t much care about the story). It took the sort of sensational actions of a very small number of people for outlets to perk up their ears and give a damn. Suddenly, Lester is hosting the news on a Baltimore street, suddenly Don Lemon (grr) is in a hoodie and jeans speaking to Black folk like he cares. They gave ya’ll the riots that you wanted. Is that what it takes for you to tell their stories? Why is the narrative of abject generational poverty, police brutality spanning decades, gentrification paired with disinvestment and absolute, unabashed disregard for inner-city education not enough to cover and care about? It doesn’t get ratings? Doesn’t garner you prestigious awards? White folk who spend money turn off their minds, hearts and media devices when ya’ll report about oppression?
Well, here in Metrowest Massachusetts, full of White folk who spend money, they turn off and tune out the Black anger, too.
So, I’m back to where I started from. Here are the giant elephants stomping around, taking up space, and shitting on the sidewalks: segregation, poverty, disinvestment, destructive gentrification, deplorable educational policy, sanctioned police brutality and generational oppression. They are there in plain sight. It feels like nobody wants to see them.
At what point do you just stand in the middle of an intersection and just start screaming at the top of your fucking lungs?
Please don’t tune it out. Don’t choose to ignore it because it feels too big or too challenging. Don’t decide that this is another community’s problem, another issue for another time. Elijah Cummings said it on television yesterday, “this is this generation’s civil rights fight of their time. This is their voting rights. And we’ve gotta pay attention.” He was speaking about Millennials, of course. Me and younger.
Choose to hear their voices. Choose to see them in their fullness, which includes their anger. Choose to acknowledge their anger, to accept the way that they express it, and look past your own discomfort to get to their grievances and understand them. Find yourself uncomfortable in your quest for understanding and change.
Then choose to champion them: with your votes, your investment in their community businesses, your donations to benefit the organizations on their corners, your mentorship, your internships and opportunities, and your strong voices in powerful ears.
Do anything, but don’t stop watching.
The Episcopalian Prayer For Cities (Sent to me this morning by my good friend Britt)
Heavenly Father, in your Word you have given us a vision of that holy City to which the nations of the world bring their glory: Behold and visit, we pray, the cities of the earth. Renew the ties of mutual regard which form our civic life. Send us honest and able leaders. Enable us to eliminate poverty, prejudice, and oppression, that peace may prevail with righteousness, and justice with order, and that men and women from different cultures and with differing talents may find with one another the fulfillment of their humanity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.