I have had a difficult time digesting many of the conversations regarding race that have occurred following the tragic events in Ferguson. I couldn’t put what I was feeling into words. I was at a loss.
Then one morning I was driving my daughter to school and I glanced at her in the rear-view mirror. So many thoughts flooded my head. So many images. So many words. So much history. My eyes began to water and I got a lump in my throat. I was five minutes away from school. In those five minutes, here is what I thought:
I am standing on the shoulders of Titans. I’m living a life – though I know I am entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – that I have not “earned.” I am in debt. I was born in debt. I didn’t cultivate this life, but I am benefiting from the fruits of others’ labor.
My ancestors cultivated this life – OUR ancestors did. I am not saying that my achievements were merely handed to me, there is much that I have earned, but instead I am simply saying that I was afforded my opportunity to work hard through the hard work of those who came before me.
My ancestors were farmers – OUR ancestors were farmers. They weren’t perfect, but they cultivated fertile soil through the unforgiving concrete that is our social history. They irrigated their crops with blood, sweat, and tears. They shielded their crops from the damage of fire hoses, burning stakes, concentration camps, attack dogs, internment camps, and other “experiments”. Many were scorched, hurt in the process. Some died. I was part of their crop.
And I am grateful.
I am standing on the shoulders of Giants. People who wouldn’t let “We the People …” be divided, compartmentalized, or sorted into some arbitrary hierarchy based on an expectation of wealth, or birthright based on the pigmentation, or lack thereof, of skin. People who didn’t claim to simply be “colorblind” as that notion ignores part of what makes all of us us. Instead, these people (OUR people) celebrated, and took pride in, who they were (are) and their history. There is a difference between celebrating your history (and others) and quarantining groups of people for discriminating tastes.
I am standing on the shoulders of Heroes. Some of their names you know. Some of their speeches you have heard. Some of their writings you have read. Yet, there are many more you won’t recognize. Their names are not found in textbooks, their faces not found on stamps, their voices not heard on the news. Yet, these Heroes stood when they were expected to kneel.
These Heroes marched when it was easy to stay home. These Heroes demanded service in the front door when only the back was open. These Heroes walked, rode buses, and commuted long distances so one day I wouldn’t have to. They cleaned houses, cut lawns, drove the cars of the elite so that one day I could be considered the classmate, colleague, the equal of the elite’s grandchildren. These Heroes worked unselfishly not just for me, but for the “We”.
There are too many Titans, Giants, Heroes to name that labored, fought, and cultivated our country’s soil to eliminate the “us versus them” in order for us to be considered the “We.” They recognized that a “house divided” could not stand. Instead, they knew that “us” and “them” needed to be united in the “We.”
Ferguson is hundreds of miles away –so why the lump in my throat? Here’s why – beyond the thought that Brown could have been me, or could have been my child, beyond those thoughts other realizations came to me.
I grew up with stories of discrimination. I also grew up with stories of hope. That morning, on the way to school, they all came crashing together. It was also the first time, as a parent, that I was plagued with the very real feeling that my parents always talked about – the nagging feeling that I can’t protect my children from every evil. The feeling that kept my mom awake at night when I started to drive, or that stayed with her when I left for college.
Then I started thinking about the people that I mentioned already – the Titans, the Giants, the Heroes. And it saddened me that after all they sacrificed, after all they experienced, after all they worked for – we are still having some of the same discussions. We are still having some of the same problems.
But, like I said, I also grew up with stories of hope. The lump in my throat shifted from one of dread to one of wonder. I wondered what my daughter and son will be thinking years from now. I wondered if they will get teary eyed driving their children to school pondering their future. I hope that my children, as parents (if they become parents), will not have the same fears that I do now. I pray that the world they inherit is better for them – in the same way the world I inherited was an improvement from my parents’ experience.
While I don’t think she noticed that morning, I hugged my daughter a little tighter that morning. I held her hand a little longer while we waited for her bus. And while she boarded her bus, sat in the front of it, and smiled and waved at me as she headed to school, the lump returned. I realized that the journey is not over, but that progress has indeed been made.
My ancestors, OUR ancestors were farmers. It is OUR turn to labor now. And for that opportunity, I am grateful.
Editor’s Note: A version of this first appeared on Tales from the Poop Deck.