Friday, September 23, 2016

Why is it so hard to listen ... and hear?

Last night I attended a public forum hosted by the Blue Ribbon Commission the Charlottesville City Council called into being for the purpose of deciding what to do about the large and prominent statues of Generals "Stonewall" Jackson and Robert E. Lee.  Earlier this year a high school student started a petition to have the statue of Lee removed from Lee Park.  She wrote:
"As a younger African American resident in this city, I am often exposed to different forms of racism that are embedded in the history of the south and particularly this city. My peers and I feel strongly about the removal of the statue because it makes us feel uncomfortable and it is very offensive. I do not go to the park for that reason, and I am certain that others feel the same way."
Last night people from the community expressed their support, and opposition to, the idea of removing the statues.  Some others offered alternative suggestions.  The meeting was, to say theleast, "lively."

One moment in particular struck me.  A man who had grown up in Charlottesville spoke about how the statue of Lee was not only part of the physical landscape of Charlottesville, but the landscape of his life, as well.  He remembered walking through the park as a boy, his father stopping them at the monument to point out that the statute was considered "one of the finest equestrian statues in the world." It was clear that for him, the statue not only commemorates a Confederate General, it memorializes his childhood, his relationship with his father, and the pride he feels for the city he calls home (which, as he said, has something in it so precious as to be one of the finest in the world).

This speaker was white.  Other speakers, African Americans, spoke of other childhood memories -- memories in which they were told not to go into the park because they would not be welcome.  They spoke of the feeling they'd had that this imposing statue, so centrally situated in the city, was a clear and intimidating message to them of their place in the community.  As Zyhana Bryant, the high school student who initiated the petition said, many African Americans feel uncomfortable in the park, and many avoid it altogether.

People who say that "Black Lives Matter" is an unnecessary slogan, who say that the problem it purports to address is one more of perception than reality, who say that it is inherently anti-police and, more generally, anti-white, are missing the point.  It's not just because Black people are more likely to be stopped by police in situations where whites would not be.  It's not just because black people -- especially young black men -- are shot and killed by police disproportionately.  It's not just because the rates of incarceration are so out of balance that it is not only infuriating, it's disgusting and embarrassing as well.  It's all of that, yes, but it's also more than all that.

Last night was a case in point.  A white man said that his fond memories of the statue of Robert E. Lee ought to be -- need to be -- taken into consideration when determining their ultimate fate.  Left unsaid, though no less clearly communicated for that, was that the painful memories of people of color ought not to be considered.  His memories matter.  Their's do not.

And until white Americans are able to really hear, respect, acknowledge, and be moved and changed by the lived experiences of African American, and people of color more generally, then we need to keep repeating that Black Lives Matter.  Until the contributions of African Americans to this country are recognized as being fully as important as those of white Americans -- even when doing so displaces the historical narrative celebrated in the dominant culture -- then we need to keep repeating that Black Lives Matter.  Until we realize that if the "heroes" of white America are not "heroes" to people of color then they are not our heroes, we will need to keep repeating that Black Lives Matter.  Until we -- white Americans -- fully acknowledge (not only with our words but in the way we live) that they -- African Americans -- are not "other than" the us we claim to be as a nation, we will need to keep repeating that Black Lives Matter.

Black feelings matter.  Black memories matter.  Black history matters.  Black lives matter.

Pax tecum,


Yesterday, on the blog of the congregation I serve, I wrote a post expressing my thoughts about the issue of what to do with these statues.

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