“When you tell me as a black man, that the Black Lives Matter movement, doesn’t matter. You’re essentially saying to me that I don’t matter. That my life isn’t as valuable as other people’s lives. Yes, of course ‘All Lives Matter’. But to say that Black Lives Matter doesn’t, is to ignore a systemic problem that I as a black man in America have to live with on a daily basis today.”
This wasn’t a conversation I intended to sit in on. It wasn’t a conversation I had any intention of joining in. And to be totally honest, I’m not even sure if I’ll actually post this blog post or not. But I’m going to write it anyways first. And once it’s been written I’ll decide what to do with it.
I try to avoid openly divisive issues as much as possible on this blog, because I like to think of it as a welcoming forum for anyone who wants to read along for my travels to come along for the ride. I never want anyone to be deeply offended or harmed by anything I write in this forum.
I’m sure that happens from time to time because I am who I am, and I have a tendency to accidentally rub people the wrong way with my offhanded self-assuredness in how I present some topics and viewpoints.
But that said, I recently had an opportunity to sit in on probably one of the deepest and most insightful discussions about race relations I’ve ever been a part of, and I feel compelled to share this experience.
A City Still Recovering
Charlottesville Virgina is an interesting little college town just down the hill from Thomas Jefferson’s home of Monticello. As I drove through the town I was oddly reminded of my times driving through Bloomington Indiana. Winding roads. University flags up in front of houses. Stone walls running along the sides of the streets. Clearly a lot of mid-tiered rental properties for kids to rip through during their four years away from ‘home’.
A lot like Bloomington, only replace the Cream and Crimson with Orange and Blue.
On August 11th, 2017 though a 32 year old woman died at a rally standing in opposition to a group of neo-nazi protesters. The story is well documented elsewhere, and I’m not a news reporter. What I reflect on personally is that as of this writing I’m 33. This girl was slightly younger than me. Crazy to think that you go to a rally to stand against neo-nazis marching in your town, and you end up dead.
That very well could have been been me. Or you. But that’s not what the conversation I sat in on was about.
The Meeting at Starbucks
I was at the Starbucks catching up on a lot of writing and blog work that I needed to get done. I had originally thought that while staying with family for the previous week it would be an ideal time to do said work. However, upon arrival at my various pit stops, I realized fairly quickly that it’s pretty rude to lock yourself away in an office for eight hours writing while visiting someone nice enough to give you shelter and a bed for the night.
About three hours into doing various writing and photo editing chores, a well dressed black man sits down at the same long table as myself but on the other side.
I see him looking underneath the table looking for an outlet with little success. “The outlets are in the pillars underneath the table legs themselves. Totally threw me off as well man.” We both laugh at the positions of the outlets in such an odd place.
Shortly after he sits down another well dressed man shows up and they make introductions. The only outward difference between these two men is that one is black and one is white.
I’m trying to focus on my work and I don’t want to easy drop on their conversation, but I’m backing up files in between pit stops and the process takes a while over the old USB 2.0 cables. I can’t do any other tasks on my computer as these file back themselves up.
At first I assume it’s yet another Starbucks interview. I’ve sat next to two others this morning. In addition to providing coffee, Starbucks appears to have become the non-official place for informal job interviews for people without working offices.
However, quickly into the conversation I can tell, that this isn’t going to be a normal interview.
The black gentlemen goes into detail about his childhood and past. It’s not my place to tell other people’s stories, so I won’t. But I what I hear is moving and reminds me of many of the same things I’ve dealt with in my own life.
The white guy then shares his story as well. The reason for their meeting is still a mystery to me though. I try to stay focused on my own work, but as the files upload all I can do is sit there and try to patiently wait for the ‘upload complete’ update icon to pop up.
The conversation has turned to talking about the Black Lives Matter movement. It has turned to the recent events in their town. It is a discussion about something that has left the main stream news cycle and is now considered ‘old news’ by MSNBC. But this isn’t ‘old news’ to them, this is an event that’s still effecting their town and their lives.
At the Unitarian worship service that I went to on the Sunday before at the First Unitariann Church, there was a moving speaker who gave a short ‘share’ of sorts during the Sunday service. He was a black gay male living in the city of Baltimore, and he recalled a story of how when he was eight years old he had asked his mother why he couldn’t be white. And how for years he had beeen ashamed of his homosexuality. But that through the Unitarian church, and the acceptance that he has found there, he had finally begun to embrace himself and who he is. He closed his share with a simple request, for others look at him as he sees himself today. A proud black gay man. With nothing to be ashamed of.
Black and White
The two men in the coffee shop continued to share their stories with one another. There are elements of each in my own story. Personal details that one doesn’t just air out on a casual travel blog.
These two men have come together to discuss how they can help their community and discuss how they’ve been put in touch with one another to do so. Each discuss how they want to get out to the community and begin the dialogue for change. But each acknowledges that due to each of their own respective skin colors, the community and our society at large put constraints on each of them as to what it does and doesn’t allow each of them to do. But that by working together, a white man and a black man, there is no one who won’t be able to hear their message.
“Attraction, not promotion…..sorry I didn’t mean to interrupt you two, but the line I think both of you have been circling around for some time now is ‘attraction, not promotion’. I didn’t mean to be easy dropping but I’m kinda sitting right here next to you, and I relate to a lot of what both of you have said”
I share some of my backstory as mentioned, and we have an unspoken connection.
“I can tell you both have an intense passion for the ministry and the church; and one of the big things that you’ll read about from various religious and spiritual organizations is to always remember to stay true to the idea of ‘attraction, not promotion’. Or let ‘your deeds speak louder than your words’. It’s not nearly as effective to go out on street corners with a bull horn scream ‘see the light, be saved today!’ Opposed to living by the Christian values you’ve both been discussing. If you live that type of life, than those most effected by, and most in need of your message, will naturally be attracted to come and learn more.”
I don’t know if it was a ‘happy accident’ or a more of a ‘well that just happens’ moment. But it sure seemed like I was supposed to be sitting next to those two guys that morning to hear their discussion on race and on spirituality.
Racism didn’t end that morning. And the wounds of Charlottesville weren’t healed either. But things have to start by having an open and frank conversation.
When you remove faceless nameless titles like ‘Black Lives Matter’, and you give it a face. And you give it a name. And you get to know that person as an indivdual. That’s when things start to change.
Book and academic knowledge is great to have in life, but it is only through experiential knowledge and engaging others in dialogue that we get to truly know our inner selves. Guys like Gill in Charlottesville are starting the dialogue and doing what they can to make change happen.
He said it best when he said: “Oh course ‘All Lives Matter. But to say that Black Lives Matter doesn’t, is to ignore a systemic problem that I as a black man in America have to live with on a daily basis today.”
Crazy the conversations you find yourself in on the road…