Ferguson: Black and White and Everything In Between

The wail reaches me from the adjoining room as I stand at the sink washing up, and its pitch and intensity rises by the second. Before I can dry my hands and rehang the towel the situation has escalated into tears, five-year-old-boy tears and two-year-old-girl tears. I step into the room to find him on the ground clutching a torn book to his chest, and she is reaching toward him opening and closing her little fists repeatedly. Both of their faces are red-hot with crying and righteous anger, and their mouths let loose galloping screams. "What just happened?" I shout above the shouting, to little effect.

I am the judge and the jury, a luxury afforded me because, well, I'm in charge, because this little skirmish isn't my battle, and also because the issue in question is often decidedly black and white. But justice can't prevail until the bellowing stops! I send them to their corners and wait out the streaming tears and the stuttered gasps of gearing up for the next good sob. There may have been a deep injustice here, but I do my best to reserve my outrage until the full story can be heard, until there is quiet.

For the last several days I've been treating the events in Ferguson, Missouri like I treat my children.

I've been waiting for the quiet, waiting for truth, reserving my outrage. My instinct has been to wave my hands back and forth and say, "Whoa, whoa, WHOA! What just happened?" After all, we don't know what we're looking at here, right? There are two sides to this story, and we can't hear either one as long as everyone keeps shouting.

But I can't be judge and jury here. The rules are all different.

Firstly, I'm not in charge. That much is clear.

Secondly, though I may choose to be apathetic I can't claim impartiality. This is my battle. While history's wars over slavery and civil rights may not have been mine, the consequences of history's mistakes (and the animosity over the mistakes we're still making) are the battlefronts of today whether I've chosen to fight or not. While I've been waiting for quiet, my own silence has spoken loud and clear. Consider these words excerpted from an excellent post by Austin Channing:

Many of the white Christians who changed their profile pictures to stand in solidarity with Christians on the other side of the world, were absolutely silent while black Christians right here in America were in turmoil.

Ouch.

Thirdly, while this issue is about black and white and every other color that God has given us, there is decidedly little that is black and white about it. We are mired in a grey fog of morality and emotions, a reality that's touched on in a  moving and eye-opening article by Thabiti Anyabwile sketching the consequences of relocating his family from Cayman to the United States:

I don’t care about the color of the hands that pull the trigger. They could be pink, brown, sandy. What I care about is the value of my son’s life. What I care about is the dignity and life-destroying devaluing of his life because in this country he is “black.” And the absurdity of it all is that he’s not “black” in every country. Only his own. In Cayman, he was Titus. In Cayman, he was free to be Titus. In the States, he’s “a little black boy” long before he’s “Titus.” And that calculation, the “racial” attribution that happens at the speed of sight, is deadly. It’s deadly.

I read these words again today, and I weep. I weep for Thabiti and his son who live under this. I weep for Michael Brown who died under this. I weep because I've lived for so long not knowing this was all the further we've come.  I weep because I see how far we have yet to go. Today though, I'm seeing the light ahead with a new sense of responsibility; I want to help us get there even as I'm hobbling there myself.

So while I may reserve judgment, I can't reserve my outrage any longer. Before any of us hears the truth, long before the fiction can be sorted from the facts, before reality can be knife-edged away from the narrative many interested parties would have us believe, the story will go stale. Something will distract us, and our collective conscience that has been so uncomfortably stirred over the last few days will be predictably muted as our attentions turn to whatever new calamities lie ahead.

Simply said, most of us will stop caring long before the truth has its say.

The truth is a man was shot six times. So I am shocked and saddened, but my shock and sadness is not enough. Not near enough. No matter where he chose to do his walking, no matter where he may have been a few hours before, no matter the color of his skin, shooting a human being six times is another matter entirely.

Doing that kind of violence to another person follows only after we internalize two insidious narratives. The first narrative is that the life of that other person is somehow less valuable than our own. The second is that the other person is animalistic and not to be trusted; therefore, he or she will come after us until we have subdued him or her by whatever means necessary.

Both of these stories have been told openly in the past, and their half-lives secretly linger in the hearts of many of us, dormant and unnamed.

Let's name them. The first story is called hate. The second story is called fear.

A primal scream: Stop! We must stop telling these stories. We must stop believing them.

The people in Ferguson have been screaming stop. They've been screaming it from the top of their lungs and in silent marches. Screaming it with bricks through windows and through shots fired. Screaming it with their hands in the air. Screaming it through tears and tear gas. Do I condone their methods? No. But I do empathize with their screams.

Those screams have been shouted down with megaphones, riot gear, rubber bullets, and stun grenades. They've been told to behave...or else. This is the message, loud and clear, they've received their whole lives, the same one that's been shouted to generations before them: Behave in this white world... or else.

The outcry in Ferguson has already begun to diminish to a low hum, and as it continues to quiet the country will lift a tepid and distracted cheer because the crisis is over, order has been established. And in some ways, yes, order will have been established: The Pecking Order.

But maybe there will be others who will lift up the internal cry of people of color throughout this country, lending our voices so that together we can speak for progress in a chorus that is deftly defiant, persistent, and peaceable.

Again, the words of Austin Channing:

This is an opportunity. A new generation could speak out. A new generation could make a difference. A new generation could turn over laws, vote what's best for black/brown communities, could dismantle systemic racial injustice. A new generation could reclaim the soul of the white church long mired in the mud of power and supremacy. This is your chance. You can join, or you can sit this one out. But as the community of Ferguson showed us—we will stand with or without you.

So I'm not sitting this one out, instead choosing to navigate the middle of black and white. Here's my voice. Can we stand together?