By Patrice O'Neill
We who believe in freedom cannot rest…
This moment requires our Full Attention.
Like most of you who are reading this, I’ve been struggling with the pain and challenge of this moment as the deep layers of racism in our country are now on the surface and displayed as an open wound.
The thought and the sound of George Floyd’s voice calling for his mother as his killer holds down his neck with his knee is almost unbearable. His Mom had died recently. Maybe he knew he’d be with her soon. But it is that call for our mother that is the deepest cry of humanity. You know me, you love me, please help me stop this pain.
When will this stop? When will Black mothers and their children be free from the sorrow and fear? When will Black children be safe to be who they are? When will this sickness stop?
“We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
I keep hearing Bernice Johnson Reagon's voice with Sweet Honey in the Rock from "Ella’s Song," dedicated to human and civil rights leader Ella Baker.
The song, which I sang often in my younger years, is one I've returned to often over these past years. The intention of the lyrics resurfacing when Trayvon Martin was killed, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Tamar Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Laquan MacDonald, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor... and the far too many Black lives that were taken who we may never hear about.
What more evidence is required for us to stop this massive and persistent harm?
On a walk today with my friend, writer Valerie Haynes Perry, she read me these stunningly salient words from the great American novelist Richard Wright in 12 Million Voices, a book first published in 1941.
“We watch strange moods fill our children, and our hearts swell with pain…..They spend their nights away from home. We cannot keep them in school; more than 1,000,000 of our black boys and girls of high school age are not in school…. The city has beaten us, evaded us; but they, with young bodies filled with warm blood, feel bitter and frustrated at the sight of the alluring hopes and prizes denied them. It is not their eagerness to fight that makes us afraid, but that they go to death on the city pavements faster than even disease and starvation can take them. As our jobs begin to fail in another depression, our lives and the lives of our children grow so frightful… And many white people who know how we live are afraid of us, fearing that we may rise up against them.”
How could it be, after decades of these painful descriptions of black lives in 1941 that these words seem so much of this moment?
Here is Ibram X. Kendi in the Atlantic:
To be black and conscious of anti-black racism is to stare into the mirror of your own extinction. Ask the souls of the 10,000 black victims of COVID-19 who might still be living if they had been white. Ask the souls of those who were told the pandemic was the “great equalizer.” Ask the souls of those forced to choose between their low-wage jobs and their treasured life. Ask the souls of those blamed for their own death. Ask the souls of those who disproportionately lost their jobs and then their life as others disproportionately raged about losing their freedom to infect us all. Ask the souls of those ignored by the governors reopening their states.
The American nightmare has everything and nothing to do with the pandemic. Ask the souls of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd. Step into their souls.
Now is the Time for Attention, From the Depth of Our Souls
I was talking to my husband about why effective action to stop racism, not just now, but for the long term, seems to be so hard. He read me this quote from the French Philosopher Simone Weil who posited that, "We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will."
“Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue. This something is much more closely connected with evil than is the flesh. That is why every time that we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves.”
How do we destroy the “evil,” the sickness of racism in ourselves, in our communities, our country and our world? It’s hard to fathom the painstaking attention needed to face and overcome the generations of trauma caused by racism. So many before us have forged a path, but it will take the full attention of millions more of us now, in our deeply challenging time.
We make the road by walking. I am so honored to learn from and walk with the diverse leaders — including many in law enforcement — and spirited community members in the Not In our Town movement. You can help guide your communities through these perilous times. With eyes wide open, hope and compassion in our hearts and a fierce commitment to face the change, we can stop hate and racism, together.
Find ways to take action now on NIOT.org.
There are many powerful African American writers and leaders reflecting on the blatant and violent displays of racism that are surfacing at the same time as the Covid 19 pandemic. Here is Ibram X. Kendi in the Atlantic. Michelle Obama on CNN. Charles Blow in the New York Times. It's past time to listen and learn.
Lyrics to Ella’s Song By Bernice Johnson Reagon
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons Is as important as the killing of White men, White mothers’ sons
And that which touches me most is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me
To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail
And if I can shed some light as they carry us through the gale
The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hand of the young who dare to run against the storm
Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me
I need to be just one in the number as we stand against tyranny