This week a young African American man was shot to death by two police officers in his grandparent’s back yard. As often happens, the police has some official explanation for what happened, and have put the two officers on “paid administrative leave,” while the investigation continues. Perhaps some prosecutor in Sacramento where the shooting occurred will take up the case and bring charges against the officers. Maybe they will go to trial, where some mostly white jury will acquit them. The black community will erupt in protest, it will be on the news for a few weeks, depending on the level of uproar in the community and the impact that it has on the white community. And then it will all die back down until the next time. And we are left to question, “whose lives matter?” Because most certainly it is not ours.
It would appear that if you are black in the 21st century United States, you are increasingly unsafe. You cannot drive any kind of car (especially a nice one), go shopping in a Target store, drive with your girlfriend and child…you cannot walk in your neighborhood at night, play with a toy gun on a play ground, be injured and seeking help, play your music too loud…without the possibility that you will be shot to death, not by some random “bad guy,” but by the very people who are supposed to “protect and serve.” This most recent example serves as a reminder to those with noticeable, visible African heritage, that you are never, ever truly safe.
I yell and swear at the television as the news replays the chaotic scene in which this latest victim is shot 20 times before the officers, who swore he had a gun, stopped firing. Seriously, does it really require 20 bullets? At what point was he on the ground and no longer moving and still they were peppering him with bullets? I thought police officers practice shooting on firing ranges where they take aim and hit specific points on their targets. How come they can’t seem to aim when shooting at unarmed black people? Can’t you aim for their legs or arms, or do you always aim for the chest or the head? How come white criminals can get talked down, disarmed, captured, shot, but not killed? How does that happen exactly?
I rarely depart from my usual neutral, spiritual, sometimes whimsical reflections when writing this blog, but what I see happening around me to my people is deeply painful at a level for which I am hard-pressed to find neutral words. Whose lives matter, really?
I am reposting a piece I wrote two years ago, titled “On Being Hated,” because what I wrote then (March, 2016) is as true, perhaps truer, today than it was even back then. It is not an easy read, but it is an important one, at least to me. And if you are a regular reader of this blog, and are likely someone who knows and cares about me, perhaps it will be important to you too. May it be so.
The Next Forty Days, Day 32–On Being Hated
I’m going to write about something that I have never written publicly about before—at least not in this direct a way. I want to address the emotional weight connected to being hated. It is very unusual for me to write about something like this; I have striven over the past few years to be positive, affirmative, optimistic. But lately I suppose I’ve been a bit of a funk, and as I really began to assess where it’s coming from I realize that at least part of it emerges from the invisible and constant presence of hatred that surrounds, envelops, and blankets me and others like me in this country, and perhaps even in the world. I am not sure how clear and articulate (yes, I used the “a” word) I can be in describing this feeling in the constrained, brief format of a blog. I could write a thousand words, or 10,000 or even 100,000 and still not adequately or clearly express what I, and so many others, are feeling/have felt/will feel. But, as always, I will try.
I can remember as a child saying to or perhaps about someone, “I hate you.” My mother would say, “That’s not nice. You should not hate anybody.” Years later, as a mother myself, I found myself echoing her words to my children after they said “I hate you” to one of their playmates or classmates or someone “mean” they saw on TV. I admonished them not to hate the “mean stranger,” who frightened them or wished them ill, but instead we would offer prayers for them along with those for our family and friends and others when we said our nighttime prayers. How wonderfully simple that was, but life is quite a bit more complicated than that, isn’t it? It might be a simple thing to tell children not to express hatred for another being, but much harder to teach them not to hate, and harder still to explain to them how to deal with being hated.
I grew up in a family of action, raised along with my five siblings, as a product of civil rights activist parents. We learned the power of words and marching and boycotts, and to battle hatred with love, determination, steadfastness. Now here I am all these years later, a so-called champion of social justice, and still feel the weight of hatred all around me. People hate me simply because of who they perceive me to be, rather than who I am, and the weight of that is crushing.
White people tell people of color that we should “get over it,” “move on,” “stop whining” and “stop playing the race card.” Here I am, an advocate of social and racial justice, having worked for over 30 years on issues of equality and freedom for all people who have historically been ignored at best, hated, reviled, and even murdered at worst. I am tired, and I am discouraged, and I would like to do nothing better than to run for the safety of the hills, to retire quietly, and “study war no more.” But in this environment today I cannot do that, not because I am too tired to fight (which I am), but because I’m not sure there is any place that is safe in the hills, on the coast, in the cities, or anywhere else. This is the weight of being hated.
I am sure that my white friends, and perhaps even some of my nonwhite friends would say to me, “Oh my dear, you are most certainly not hated. You are loved and cherished.” And, that might be true, however, I as an individual may be loved by individual people, but I, as a person of African descent—brown-skin apparent to all, no “passing” or hiding—am hated by hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people in the United States and around the world. And the weight of that hatred is crushing.
White people talk a lot about “the angry Black woman” or “angry Black man.” They are afraid of our rage, as well they should be. But the rage, born out of centuries of being considered and treated as “less than” (less than equal, less than qualified, less than human) is not the only, and perhaps not the predominant emotion that I, and many others like me, feel. For me, it is the mixture of rage, deep, deep sadness, and confusion—genuine bafflement—about the depth of hatred that people who don’t know and have never met me and mine have of me, that presses down on me on a regular basis. And please, please don’t tell me to “stop whining.”
I don’t write much about politics in my blogs, and I won’t today either. But what I will say is that the current political season with its vitriolic and hateful rhetoric directed at entire swaths of the US (and world) population is fanning the flames of bigotry and hatred against nonwhite people that have existed and remained healthily crackling since the first white people set foot on this continent in the 1400s. This wildfire is scorching hot and spreading, threatening to consume people like me who are held up as the problem, the enemy, the outsiders in this nation full of outsiders. It is this hatred that follows me around in stores, that hurls insults at me out of car windows, that has me literally fearing for my life and those of my family, friends, and loved ones. I mean actual fear. In my 58, nearly 59 years on this planet, I am more afraid that someone I love will be murdered simply for being Black than I have ever been—even in the 60s when some fool blasted several shotgun shells through our house in the “white neighborhood” because we had the nerve to move in.
So here I am, writing about, exploring, and trying to find meaning in the solemnity of these 40 days of Lent. And so how to reconcile this oppressive weight of hatred that crushes down on me in March of 2016, with 2,000-plus years of history since Jesus walked the earth. Jesus and his “kind” were also hated, reviled, and murdered by the political and social establishment of the time. I suppose he knew what it meant to be utterly hated, to be surrounded by people who plotted and schemed to bring about his death. I do not know and cannot speculate whether or not he experienced it as the same oppressive weight that I do. I mean, after all, he was the son of God, who incarnated on earth for a very specific purpose. He had a direct connection to God, and so perhaps had some sense that while the situation in which he—Jesus—and his people found themselves was in its way horrific, he was in on the ultimate plan: resurrection, redemption, revolution, and so forth. He came with foreknowledge, assurance that everything was going to be alright. That yes, he would be beaten, tortured, and murdered in the most ignominious way, but that he would come back to life and ascend up into heaven to be with God, his father.
I have no such luxury, no direct connection to the divine, no assurance whatsoever that lets me know that there is a plan and a purpose and that even though things look really bad, it will come right in the end. When is the end, anyway? How long must I/we wait until the end? Please don’t tell me “stop whining,” that I am imagining things, that the hatred I experience doesn’t exist.
So what to do with the hatred? I want to say to my white friends and family that this is not about visiting hatred back on others—I have neither the inclination or the energy to be hateful and vindictive. It is about me trying to explain and hoping you can begin to grasp, as I walk through every day life, wanting only to live and love and go on engaging in the mundane, routine business of life, that I am utterly exhausted, mentally, emotionally, and now even physically, by the weight of the hatred that surrounds and smothers me like a leaden blanket. I can only hope that my spirit, the spark of the divine that resides in me and within us all, continues to keep my feet moving, my hands laboring, my heart pumping, and my eyes searching for the glimmers of love that must exist somewhere in this world.
Please don’t tell me to stop whining, that I am being dramatic, that the world is a beautiful place. Please don’t deny my actual lived experiences of hatred and tell me about how you’ve been hated too. Please don’t. In these remaining days of Lent, may we each ask the question the disciples asked Jesus on the night he was betrayed and given over to be tortured and killed: “Is it I, Lord?” Is it I, will it be me? Am I willing to look inside my heart, my life, my actions, and be willing to accept the very real possibility that I am capable of doing the unthinkable—of betraying, denying, perhaps even contributing to the suffering and death of someone I love? There is the contemplation for these 40 days and the 40 to come and the 40 after that. Let us pray.