Racial Justice: A Constant Challenge for an Inconstant People

The challenge is that we’re inconstant. I am inconstant.

I walked in two marches on Saturday here on the Eastern Shore, partly because I haven’t had the words to put to my feelings about my country in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands (and knee) of the Minneapolis police. I had the sad sense that we’ve been here before, too many times. A senseless death that reveals a deeper rot that brings about a spasm of protest before retreating to silence once again. 

So I wanted to be in the presence of wise, older heads who might say the words I’m searching for. And I wanted to be in the presence of the young who bring something that has never been brought to these times before—their selves.

We walked the streets of Accomac and Exmore. We joined in chants with simple words that have been lifted in other places. I can’t breathe. No justice, no peace. Say their names. And that phrase which is so convicting because it seems so inhuman that it is denied—Black lives matter.

Bishop David Sabatino got my attention when he spent a little of his speaking time before the Accomac march talking about the Confederate flag. Addressing those who claim it as a symbol of their heritage, he said, in essence, “If you want to know if that flag is offensive to me as an African-American, it is. Because it’s my heritage, too. And what it means to me is a heritage of suffering, slavery, and oppression. You have a right to fly it, but if you want to know if it’s offensive to us, now you know.”

undefinedThe flag seems like a small thing, and maybe a side issue in this debate about race and policing. But it’s not. For southerners, it’s a symbol of how deep the racism is. A visible sprout of the deeper roots that spread beneath the ground under our feet. One indication of how this time might be different is that George Floyd’s death and the response to it has been strong enough to crack Confederate marble and bronze all the way to Monument Avenue in Richmond.

In front of the library, we stood in a hot silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time Derek Chauvin’s knee was on George Floyd’s neck as he cried out for his mother and his life. I was standing behind a young African-American boy and his mother. The boy was still the entire time with who knows what thoughts. But I could sense what he’s learning: It’s a dangerous world. For him in particular. And it’s a rare moment when others will stop long enough to pay attention and speak up.

Later in the evening, in Exmore, I walked beside Gerald Boyd, executive director of Eastern Shore Training and Consulting, Inc. (ESTACI). He was carrying a sign that said ‘Victim No More.’ Gerald has been a patient and generous presence in the lives of many people, especially in the youth he has mentored, helping them find what they are so often denied or told that do not have—agency, the power to make a difference for themselves. As we turned the final corner back to the park, I was wondering whether, in three weeks, we’d still be talking about this. We are so inconstant. I am so inconstant. “What conversations aren’t we having that we need to be having?” I asked Gerald.

He talked about his work, and said, “I feel a need to spiritualize this conversation.”

Gerald has his own thoughts about what that means, but it spoke to where I am at this moment, too. We aren’t short on political stances and performative disgust in this moment. We’re all extremely proficient in the practices of signaling to our tribes. In the church we have debased our discourse with borrowed rhetoric from the ridiculous culture we inhabit. The invective just keeps scrolling by.

But a different language beckons. It’s as old as Africa and as deep in us as a cry for freedom. It’s hidden in plain sight in scripture passages about dividing walls torn down and new shoots from old stumps. It’s the language of the Spirit creating unexpected bonds between unlikely people. And to speak it we need to develop the ears that we only know we have when we meet in the encounter.

What am I saying with these scattered pieces? I’m sure I don’t know. I am fighting off the rust, clearing the dust from my throat so that I can mouth the words I should always be saying. I am, once again!, pushing back against the despair that says, “We’ve been here before. We are inconstant. I am inconstant.” But the Spirit flows on like a current of mighty water and gust of mighty wind. The Spirit is constant.

So the best I know to do is to pay attention to that—that Spirit that I meet in every one I see. It has helped that I have been reading Jesmyn Ward’s memoir, Men We Reaped. As an African-American woman, she has struggled with what all the deaths of black men in her life means. And she concludes by saying:

I write these words to find Joshua, [my brother], to assert that what happened happened, in a vain attempt to find meaning. And in the end, I know little, some small facts: I love Joshua. He was here. He lived. Something vast and large took him, took all of my friends: Roger, Demond, C.J., and Ronald. Once, they lived. We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing. (249)

–Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped

We are inconstant. I am inconstant. But in some small way we are giving witness in this moment that what happened happened. And it is not nothing. God forbid.

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