In the aftermath of the horrific murder of George Floyd, I have been praying and processing a lot of thoughts. So far, I’ve come to this: We have a lot to learn. We have a lot to learn about America, about the black experience in America, about each other. And many of us have a lot to unlearn, which is really hard work, but…(insert any one of dozens of pithy sayings about how hard work pays off).
As I wade through my own choppy waters of learning and unlearning, I am sharing some of my thoughts and revelations here. Thank you in advance for reading.
Learning My Place
On October 16, 1901, newly sworn-in President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington over for dinner. He was the first black person to dine at the White House. In response to this historic moment, a South Carolina senator named Benjamin Tillman had this to say: “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they learn their place again.”
Those three words—“learn their place”—poignantly articulate what it has always meant to be black in America.
As a black Christian in America, I am scratching and clawing to hold on to God’s ultimate word about my “place”.
He “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” -Ephesians 2:6-7 ESV
These words remind me that, despite the other sentiments that have long existed in our country, only God can “put me in my place.” And that is a hope I am standing on in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
Learning Our Past
But I’ve been thinking about our story. About how we arrived at 2020 in the condition we are in. How did we get here?
No one took a time machine from some unknown moment in history when everything was “all good”, only to suddenly realize that we have a big problem with race in America. What is happening here almost feels eternal. Without a beginning, without an end. It has been an ongoing saga of lament since before America was America.
We could stop right there and have a whole conversation about a document titled “The Declaration of Independence” being largely written by a rich and powerful white slave owner. A document which many people (it seems even some Christians) hold more sacred than the Scriptures. But, I digress.
Toni Morrison said, “In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
That hyphen, for everyone who has to use it, is more than a punctuation mark. For black people, that little line between African and American is a shameful, dehumanizing, blood-soaked story.
As I watched George Floyd be ruthlessly murdered on the street by a uniformed police officer, I thought, “My God, this is really the story.” George Floyd is the American story.
Black people in America have had a knee on our necks for 400 years.
Since the moment African people first set foot on “American” soil in 1619—brought here as property, condemned to a life of forced labor and unconscionable abuses—black people have been pinned to the ground, struggling to breathe, crying out for relief and getting none. Since day one.
The fact that we have raised families, and founded universities, and created meaningful art, and succeeded in business, and smiled in pictures is a testament to our resilience, not an indication of relief. We have done all of it with a knee on our necks.
The fact that some of us have abandoned our families, dropped out of school, never engaged in an expression of art, never held a steady job, and rarely smiled in pictures, is largely scar tissue from the knee on our necks, not proof of some inherent delinquency.
This is not victim playing—this is the story.
Learning to Speak
To be clear, black history in America is not a story about “racial injustice”. It is a story about abduction, and rape, and murder, and public beatings, and mandated illiteracy, and child snatching, and burning crosses, and boys hanging from trees, and mass incarceration, and the systematic destruction of family units, and wrongful convictions, and dirty drinking fountains, and back-of-the-bus bigotry, and the denial of citizenship (which itself can be parceled into a thousand more undignifying abuses), and George Floyd.
All of this should make us double over in grief. I feel it in my gut as I write. But I am also grieved by the fact that we have euphemized the story.
We speak in code and hope that everyone listening can fill in the blanks. We say words like “racism” and “injustice” and even “slavery” without feeling anything in our gut.
This is itself a kind of violence against the story. In a certain way, it is more violent than the story itself. A subtle attack on reality. A way of revising history to make provision for our denial and shirk our discomfort. A way of remaining undisturbed by the truth. Unmoved by the narrative.
But this true narrative is a disturbing one indeed, and it should move us all. Move us to listen and to speak and to name the things that have broken us.
Learning to Understand
If you don’t feel the grief in your gut, it may be that you haven’t connected all the dots. The dots seem too far in the distant past to try to reach back and connect them to present day issues. How can these things that happened so long ago have such an acute impact on the society we live in today? This question exposes a fundamental lack of understanding, to which my response is two-fold. First, dealing with this ignorance is part of the hard work of learning and unlearning that I mentioned earlier. And second, “these things” didn’t happen “so long ago”.
We are only four generations removed from black fathers and husbands being legally considered three-fifths of a man.
We are only three generations removed from the passing of federal laws that prohibited the sale of land to black people in white-majority neighborhoods.
We are only two generations removed from entire towns gathering in public squares to witness the lynchings of innocent black men, women, and children. Yes, women too. Yes, children too.
We are only one generation removed from segregated schools and waiting rooms and lunch counters and every other kind of public space.
We are only one week removed from the street-corner execution of an American citizen named George Floyd, who was undoubtedly already suffering under the weight of the metaphorical knee on his neck before a literal knee killed him.
George Floyd is not a metaphor. He was a man. A whole five-fifths of a man. Made in the image of God. And his life mattered. The breath in his body was of infinite value to the God who made him, knew him, and loved him.
The officer who killed George Floyd did not make him, or know him, or love him. But, choosing to play God that day, he choked out the breath that God breathed into him 46 years ago. The latest chapter in an increasingly hard-to-read story.
Learning To Learn
If you don’t know this story, you need to become a person who does. Read a book, watch a film, binge a podcast. Trace your fingers over the calloused words, fix your eyes on the brutal images, tune your ears to the dissonance of the story.
Take a class. Talk to a friend. Be informed. Be self-educated. Be a student of an un-euphemized American history. Learn the stories that make up the larger story of how we got to 2020 in the condition we are in.
I don’t have any answers, but I feel deeply that this story can no longer be optional reading. We must learn, and unlearn, and give ourselves permission to feel the grief in our guts in order to change this 400-year-old narrative.
A friend of mine has created a living document full of useful resources about race in America. Some starting points for our journeys of learning and unlearning. You can access it here. I hope you will.