Moments in Black History: The importance, and the exhausting nature, of standing against racism
As part of JD | Finish Line’s commitment to act against racism, bigotry, hate and violence, we choose to honor Black History Month in an educational way.
Each week in February, we will feature a piece from a Black writer examining significant moments in Black history. We hope you find this series informative and enlightening.
When John Lewis died last year, I remember that along with the celebration of his immense life, there were calls to continue his fight against racism. He worked and suffered so much in pursuit of freedom, justice, and equal protection and participation in American society for Black people, that the best way to respect his life would be to continue his legacy.
In a short essay before his death, Lewis himself made the same call to action. He wrote:
“You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, though decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.”
“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.
When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war.”
When I read his essay and the other calls for action, I felt inspired but that inspiration was soon met by a deep sadness. What Lewis achieved speaks for itself, and his words are a great source of strength and hope. To know that someone of his stature and experience still believed in the possibility of a more equitable world, even after what he suffered and the opposition that he faced on the streets and in the courts, and that he believed in the next generation to make that possible world a reality is an incredible comfort. Yet, I couldn’t get past how absurd it was that he lived and died fighting for the same world that the next generation will probably live and die fighting for.
In his essay, Lewis mentioned that Emmett Till was his George Floyd. He then named Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor, all who were killed by police in recent times. Lewis was 15 years old when Till was killed, and in the last year of his life, he also saw Floyd killed. And between those two victims are a great number of other Black people who were killed in similar manner.
Lewis lived a long life, and while it’s not correct to say that nothing has changed since he was 15 — such a statement and way of thinking would be unfair to the tremendous work at all levels to even get to the stage that we’re in — yet it’s despairing to see how dynamic, powerful, and self-sustaining the bigotry and violence against Black people has been and still is. Such a deeply rooted and consistent ideology morally demands that each generation of anti-racists and good people continue to chip away at it.
But that chipping away is such an absurd and exhausting effort. Racism is incredibly ridiculous and yet so omnipresent. At all levels it is maddening: the racial slurs, the coded language, the police violence, the violence of law, housing and school segregation, job discrimination, scientific, environmental, medical racism, the demeaning portrayals in film and art, so on and so forth.
Not only does a person fighting against racism have to do the work of imagining and building out a better world in whatever avenue that they’re working in but they also have continuously explain that the different violences exist and convince the nonbelievers that Black people should not be subject to these horrible things as the normal order of American life. And that though Black life is better than it was decades ago, it’s still a great indictment of the country and its ideals that Black people are still fighting to have their dignity recognized and protected.
It is a ridiculous experience to see a video or read a report of the police killing another Black person and be drawn into a nonsensical conversation around whether police brutality exists, and whether in fact the Black person did something to deserve their execution. Or to be in another protest in a string of constant protests and realize that thousands of people across the country are coming out to plead to be treated humanely and the state’s response to such a simple plea is tanks, riot gear, and even more violence.
When those protests become violent, there are always critics who argue that the effort is invalidated by the violence. The stance is that in order to win the better world, the current one must be challenged in legal and proper ways, with the right messaging and popular tactics. I understand the reasoning behind the argument but knowing that so many of those proper and legal efforts have still been rejected, it once again feels absurd to think that Black people have to find the secret and “correct” ways to ask for their humanity to be recognized and defended, and until they solve that riddle, the violence will continue.
There are times when I feel so exhausted by the surreal nature of the experience that I wonder whether it’s better to bow out of the fight. One can only read so many reports about the inequalities of the country, see so many friends lost in the prison system, deal with so many microaggressions and watch so many videos of Black people being killed before it causes a level of mental and emotion strained that can’t be avoided. James Baldwin once said: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” While true, that consistent rage does eventually lead to a feeling of burnout. An additional problem is that one doesn’t feel worthy enough to be burned out in such a critical and necessary fight.
One of those times was when I watched the short film My Nephew Emmett. I saw it during a screening of short films by the Detroit Film Theater, and because there was no introduction of the films before each begins, it took me until I heard Emmett Till’s uncle in the movie call him by name before I realized what the story was. From the moment his name was uttered, I had a steady sense of dread and panic.
The film was only 20 minutes but they were 20 minutes of eternity. His death is never shown in the film, but it didn’t need to be. At the end, a clip of Mose Wright, Till’s real uncle was played. In the clip, Wright detailed the events of the night that his nephew was taken away and killed. While the film was harrowing enough, what really drove in the despair for me was knowing the other deaths that came after Till’s. Knowing that his mother wanted her son’s murder to show the incredible violence of hatred, yet rather than being the signal for the ending of that hatred, her son became another name in a long list of names. A list that grows longer each year. Emmett Till was John Lewis’ George Floyd.
I remember leaving the theater feeling so sad but exhausted from the sadness. I had felt that panic and dread many times before and I had seen many videos where the death isn’t kept from view. It felt like I had reached the limit. The world built on white supremacy was absurd, overwhelming, and unbelievably violent that the best way to engage with it at that limit of sadness seemed to acknowledge defeat.
Yet, what took me to that limit of sadness is also what keeps me from total despair, and I imagine that this is a similar experience for many people who recognize racism as the destructive and suffocating force that it is. When I ask myself what the root of the fight is, why it’s necessary to avoid despair, I come to the decision that it’s a matter of life vs death. If a person values human life and thinks that humans have a dignity which should be recognized, then that person has to be against racism.
The ideology of racism is an ideology of death, both physical and spiritual. It is a system that kills people: through police brutality, by disappearing them in prisons, and through engineered poverty. It degrades human beings who experience it, and even more those who embody and enact the hate on an individual level.
Racism is also a waste of time. Time that should be spent on life. Beyond the nonsensical and circular arguments around whether racism exists or not, I felt a sadness about Lewis having to fight until his death and about the future generations who will have to keep that legacy alive. None of them should have to spend so much of their lives pleading for their lives.
Lewis should not have had an Emmett Till, and he should not have had a George Floyd, and Emmett Till and George Floyd, and all the other people in between, should have had years of extra life to spend as they wished. People fighting against racism and for that better world should not have to spend so much of their time fighting, educating, organizing, and grieving, all because the country has refused to budge on that historical structure around Black people being dominated, abused, and exploited.
A few years ago, a friend of mine gave me a book of poems by Joseph Rios titled Shadowboxing. Halfway through the book, there is a prose poem titled There Is No Tomorrow where one of the characters quotes Mario Savio’s famous speech:
“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!”
The passage is wonderful but I think the title There Is No Tomorrow is a perfect mantra when racism feels so overwhelming. The past is full of injustice and hatred. Lewis and other giants like him did everything they could to save as many people as they could. But rather than imagining future generations continuing the fight, I like to think that there is no tomorrow and should be no tomorrow like what has come before and what is here now. The time when the operation of the machine has to be stopped is at every single moment in the present. Every name that came before and after Till should have been the last one. The same for Floyd.
In that same prose poem, the same character also quotes Tupac’s metaphor about the rose that grew in the concrete. And he laments that while we should foster the growth of roses, the problem is the concrete:
“We roses have to do more than show off our pretty petals. We roses must grow hands and feet. We roses must remove the concrete, man, or none this shit is worth a damn.”
Zito Madu is a writer living in Detroit, Michigan. He is an ex-SBNation staff writer, and a contributor for GQ and Plough Quarterly, both online and print.