Even as we mourn the incalculable loss of human life in the COVID-19 pandemic, we also mourn yet another onslaught of anti-black violence that highlights the long-standing sickness in America. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and George Floyd in Minnesota, along with a white person’s blatant attempt to intimidate Christian Cooper in New York City’s Central Park, are all tragic events on many levels. These events claim national attention because there is video evidence in some instances to corroborate the violence, intimidation, and presumed entitlement of some white people to control, and kill, “colored people.”
Am I deeply saddened by all this? Yes! Am I surprised by any of this? Absolutely not! Let me explain why I am sad but not surprised and what the implications of this are for me as an educator and as an African American man.
Sadness caused by events like these is justified. The sadness at times expresses itself in lament. In our family rooms, classrooms, cultural spaces, and private places, we must encourage personal and communal lament. Lament is a ruggedly honest declaration that something is deeply wrong and severely out of joint or that someone who is dearly loved is now significantly absent.
Lament takes many forms: guttural groans, copious tears, long stretches of silence, fits of rage, quiet questioning, bittersweet remembering, tension-riddled tossing and turning. We lament because people matter to us, because values such as dignity and the presumption of safety matter to us. We lament because there remains somewhere in us a faint hope that today’s pain will not completely swallow tomorrow’s possibilities. As an educator charged with cultivating the hearts and minds of emerging leaders, I lament the violence and death in these difficult times, and I encourage our students to lament.
While I have a great appreciation for lamentation, I also harbor a growing intolerance for people acting surprised by tragic events like these. It is a vexing question for me: why would anyone be surprised?
The sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark insist, “Nostalgia is the enemy of history…. We frequently accept…tales that corrupt our understanding of the past and mislead us about the present.” I know enough history about the United States, and I have had enough encounters with racism to never again be surprised by any form of aggression against black people.
We will slow the spread of the coronavirus by wearing masks. We will slow the spread of virulent racism by unmasking the presumption of ignorance. Some people are “surprised” by the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 or aggressive policing on communities of color only because of their willful ignorance.
Deep down inside, most adults and many young people in New York City and countless other cities and towns in the United States know where the visible and invisible color and (economic) class lines are. These color and class lines either rope people into, or out of, better or worse economic and educational outcomes and personal or communal wellbeing. While the landscapes and skylines of our communities have changed dramatically across the centuries, these color and class lines were laid down a long time ago by “the framers” and colonial architects of the American republic. Unfortunately, these lines have proven thus far to be indelible.
In 1963, James Baldwin delivered “A Talk to Teachers” as the United States was reeling from highly publicized episodes of racial violence. With probing prose, this literary sage exploded the myth of ignorance and, along with it, the myth of American innocence. Baldwin remarked:
The point of all this is that black [people] were brought here as a source of cheap labor. They were indispensable to the economy. In order to justify that [black people] were treated as though they were animals, the white republic had to brainwash itself into believing that they were, indeed, animals and deserved to be treated like animals…. What I am trying to suggest to you is that it was not an accident…. It was a deliberate policy hammered into place in order to make money from black flesh. And now, in 1963, because we have never faced this fact, we are in intolerable trouble.
More than half a century later, we are still in trouble, but trouble need not last always.
Educational institutions—from colleges and elementary and secondary schools to museums—are engaging in robust discussions about equity. While equity has many components, it certainly entails intentional individual and institutional efforts to counteract the disproportionate privilege and power related to difference that are unfairly afforded to some people while denied to others. As teachers, we can create equitable places and practices by courageously dispelling ignorance—both the benign lack of knowledge that welcomes instruction and the malignant ignoring of knowledge that revels in nostalgia.
In these times of violence and death, our classrooms—whether in-person or online—can be sites for sharing meaningful information and forming moral identity. According to the theologian Kelly Brown Douglas, a moral identity “is one that is relieved of pretensions to superiority. It lets go of any myths that suggests one people is more valuable than another…. A moral identity affirms the shared humanity of all human beings.”
Let’s create a world where everybody counts, irrespective of color, class, creed, or condition. Now that would be a most welcome surprise.
Further Resources for Families and Educators
- Talking About Race (National Museum of African American History and Culture)
- Story Circle: Arts of Change, Resistance, and the Common Good (Smithsonian Folklife Festival)
- Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth. (Smithsonian Learning Lab)