Coronavirus Diary #11: Do Black Lives Matter?

Since the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, “Black Lives Matter” has been the rally cry of all those who seek equity for people of color. Some who are seemingly unfamiliar with America’s history of systemic racism, who minimize its impact, or who openly oppose broad cultural change often answer this cry with “All Lives Matter”. Right now, these battling cries are resounding, the latest shouting match between two sides dug into opposing positions, unwilling to budge.

This is happening, of course, in the midst of a global pandemic, where I find myself in the seat of privilege, safety, and comfort. I’m not feeling threatened or oppressed: I’ve continued to work from home; I have a solid health care plan; I’ve remained untouched by Covid-19 and by racial inequities.

I’ve been sitting here for almost six years now in an idyllic little house by a quiet little river. I’ve got acres of campus to roam, someone else to mow the lawn and repair the broken faucet, and I have little to no concern for my safety. I came here hoping to heal after years of soldiering — fighting my own internal battles, injuring others unintentionally, and sustaining my own soul-impacting wounds.

As I’ve healed, I have realized that although the soldiering years were tough on me and those I love most dearly, they were also some of the richest years of my life, mainly because they were lived largely in spaces of cultural intersection where my world view was challenged and expanded.

Shortly after we moved to St. Louis in 2004, I took a position teaching at Roosevelt High School. This enormous structure in the central part of the city was built almost a century earlier (1923) and was intended for the overflow of white students from two nearby high schools. By the time I walked in the doors, the once-majestic building was in poor repair and all but a few white students had begun learning their lessons in other, cleaner, brighter spaces.

At Roosevelt, most of my students were Black and Hispanic — born into a centuries old system in which they had limited access to cleaner, brighter spaces and from which they would emerge successful only by some mystery combination of hard work, miracle, and chance. They walked into my classroom exhausted from the struggle against poverty and the public gaze of suspicion, to find me — a thirty-something white woman in khakis — handing out overused and outdated textbooks and insisting that they engage in stories of American literature. I mean, I’m not insensitive. I saw the irony of teaching early American stories written by white men, many of whom owned slaves and engineered the system that would keep nonwhites in their places, of having my students read how Frederick Douglass gave his bread to poor white children so they’d teach him how to read, of showing my students how to analyze MLK’s dream of white children and black children playing together as they themselves sat in a school that was almost completely Black. I saw the irony, and I was uncomfortable.

The very structure they walked into every day, the materials they used, and the constantly revolving staff gave my students one message loud and clear: their Black lives did not matter.

I was there only a semester, not nearly enough time to build relationships founded on trust that might’ve led to educational transformation. I was one more teacher who left them to go work with students who were better resourced.

I, too, unwittingly, affirmed that their Black lives did not matter.

And, just as the principal who hired me away from Roosevelt promised, within the school that was well cared for, supplied with high quality materials, and staffed with well-qualified and committed professionals, I was able to build relationships with my students in classrooms that were a mixture of black and white. I was able to build trust and foster safety in my classroom. I was able to point out the irony in documents like the United States Constitution that declared all men to be free and equal, as long as they were indeed men, had white skin, and owned property; I was able to examine with my students the deep generational grief in the writing of Native Americans and Black Americans who had been denied their freedoms — their livelihoods — for the sake of free white men; we were able to interrogate the voices of white writers who seemed oblivious to the lived realities of their ‘darker brothers’; and we were able to dialogue about how our lives fit into the American story.

I was able to communicate — at least I hope I was — that these Black lives mattered.

When health challenges and a relocation took me away from those students, that community, that mission — I landed here in a nest of comfort, safety, and security.

I needed it. I really did. I’ve spent the last six years getting my health on track, experimenting with different ways of continuing my teaching career, of connecting with students through their reading, their writing, and their thinking. I’ve explored ways that I could continue the work of hearing, respecting, and valuing the lives of Black students, and yet, in this critical moment in our nation’s history — a moment that seems full of promise for change — I find myself working mostly with white children of means, whose parents can afford the one-on-one instruction that my company provides.

It doesn’t feel right.

Yes, I was able for a short time last spring, to Zoom into classrooms in another state, to provide remediation for students of color who were several years behind grade level, but it was just not the same as the day in and day out relationship-based journey that I was once able to take with a room full of students. Those students challenged me. They changed me. They won’t leave me.

I see them on social media — business leaders, heads of school, social workers, doctors, nurses, government workers, entrepreneurs, and educators — living testaments of what can happen when a student believes that their life — their Black life — matters.

They are having hard conversations right now — they are taking to the streets — they are raising their voices. They are shouting “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!” because they have too often seen their brothers, their sisters, and their friends on the ground, a knee in their backs or on their necks saying, “I can’t breathe.”

They, too, have found themselves in spaces occupied and controlled by whiteness where they felt they could not breathe.

I’m having a hard time sitting here in my safety, in my comfort, in my privilege right now, knowing that I care about Black lives, knowing that I know how to communicate that, knowing that I have what it takes to educate, to advocate for, and to elevate the voices of Black lives.

Because here’s the thing, all lives can’t matter until all Black lives matter.

When all Black students — even those at schools like Roosevelt — have the resources, the committed and well-compensated educators, the clean, bright spaces, and the opportunities to succeed without a miracle; when all Black students are educated with respect; when all students regardless of income, Zip code, or race, are given access to accurate histories, equitable opportunities, and even reparative measures to make up for all the time that has been lost; when all Black students have the opportunity and the supports to graduate from high school and even college and the freedom from worrying if they will be unjustly pulled over, arrested, or killed by police, then you might be able to convince me that all lives matter.

Until then, I’m gonna be looking for opportunities to walk beside and join the cries of those who are shouting as though their lives depended on it, “Black lives matter!”

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and the needy.

Proverbs 31:8-9

If you are interested in learning more about school inequity in America, check out this resource list published by Teach for America.

If you would like to read more about the Black Lives Matter movement, click here.

If you’d like to dig deeper into the history of racism in America, check out the New York TimesAnti-Racist Reading List.

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