Keefe: How Forward

Racial Justice Book Spine Poem

Tonight, where I live, there is silence except for the now-and-then coyote call far out in the canyon. It’s a lone howl that sounds for all the world like desperation, but simply means, I am here.

Tonight, in Orange County, some humans are locked down under curfew in Anaheim and Costa Mesa as a measure against rioting and looting. Others pace the streets, working off anger and devastation, looking to start a fight, or cleaning up after Black Lives Matter protests. Citizens have joined what has now become an international movement to demand justice and equality for Black lives. In Orange. Santa Ana. Garden Grove. Huntington Beach. Brea. Even on the steps of the small Rancho Santa Margarita City Hall, bodies of all colors hold posters high to insist Black Lives Matter. It’s a lone unified howl that looks sometimes like desperation, but simply means, I am here.

On May 8, 2020, I sent an opinion piece to the editors here about Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was born on May 8, 1994. Ahmaud played high school football and like many of us, he enjoyed staying fit. When he went for a jog in Brunswick, Georgia on February 23, 2020 wearing a white t-shirt and running shorts, just like any of us, he expected to return sweaty, maybe breathing hard, feeling good for sure, but definitely not dead.

Do you want to stop reading right now? Do you think Ahmaud Arbery is old news? Don’t stop.

Ahmaud Arbery did not return home. He was shot dead by two men who were charged with his murder two months later, only after a video of the killing surfaced. Georgia is one of four states without a hate crime law. A hate crime, according to the California penal code, and similarly expressed in 46 other states, is defined as “a criminal act against a person or her/his property that is committed primarily because of a person’s real or perceived disability, gender, nationality, race/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or because of an association with someone from one of these groups.” (P.C. 422.6)

Orange County Human Relations Commission has a dedicated Hate Crime response and reporting division.

My opinion piece didn’t run because I hadn’t made concrete ties between Ahmaud’s death and our county other than to suggest that, “If you join today’s #irunwithmaud movement, if you decide to run 2.3 miles, a distance chosen to represent Ahmaud Arbery’s death date, hold Ahmaud’s mother in your heart.”

I failed to make clear that what has happened through the generations to one human who shares our land has happened to us collectively. It will always impact you. Yes, you, regardless of where you live.

Let me be clear now in case you’re missing the message on our streets.

June 1, 2020. Orange County. America is on fire protesting, in dire pain. Still. Not again.

Since February 23, 2020 when Ahmaud Arbery was killed, three more racially charged events gut-punched an America already feeling hemmed in, scared, vulnerable, and uncertain about our health and economic future because of Covid 19.

March 13, 2020. Louisville, Kentucky. Breonna Taylor, a black woman, was killed in her apartment by police officers who had entered with a “no-knock” warrant in the middle of the night. Investigation on-going.

May 25, 2020. New York, New York. Christian Cooper, a black man, was birding in Central Park. After he asked a white woman to leash her dog, she called 911. “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.”

George Floyd was killed on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, MN by a police officer now charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. His death was the spark for the current uprising.

I’m a white woman. If I solely identify as white, I don’t have to spend one second of time or energy fighting or fearing racism on my own behalf, or that of my family. I statistically benefit every day from things I did nothing to earn but being born of white parents.

I live in a country where white families are statistically still – as in it’s always been this way – wealthier than non-white families. Google “Prosperity Now Scorecard. Vulnerability in the Face of Economic Uncertainty.”

I live in a country where white students statistically still – as in it’s always been this way – score higher on standardized testing. And that was before Covid 19. Students of color are now disproportionately locked out of education as the challenges of remote learning – internet access, computer availability, quiet space to study, parental help – have a more direct impact upon them.

I live in a country where white babies are statistically still – as in it’s always been this way – twice as likely to survive their birth than Black babies. Google Infant Mortality and African Americans.

I live in a country where the Covid-19 pandemic kills more black bodies, more brown bodies, proportionately than white bodies. So do the police.

If you’re white, especially if you think of yourself as a good white person, not a racist, not one to call the police on a black man, not one to chase a black man with a gun, then try something.

Find the quietest corner of your room, of your heart, and grieve. Howl if you must. Then listen. Listen to Black voices and believe them when they say they struggle to stay alive. Every. Single. Day. Then stand up with them and for them, but not instead of them and for goodness sake don’t hand-wring. Stand tall and strong, with and for all our fellow humans who have been threatened, incarcerated unfairly, murdered for their “real or perceived disability, gender, nationality, race/ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.”

We are better than bodies beaten and broken, unsafe in their homes or cities. We are better than a county, a country, that ignores bodies with odds so stacked against them, that even when faced with statistics and violence and protests, we white voices dare to say it’s all a bit much.

It is too much.

And it’s our work to take up, standing with and fighting for justice for all, the same kind of justice good white folks take for granted. Criminal justice. Social justice. Economic justice. Representation in the arts, in the classrooms and in our political systems.

Read the Orange County Human Relations Statement on George Floyd. Read it aloud and let it begin the oath of solidarity for yourself, your friend group, and your family. ” We stand with Black, Indigenous and Communities of Color. We will do our best to be a learning organization whose work brings the voices and experiences of all the communities who have been pushed to the margins to the center of our understanding.”

In Old English, “kindness” or “kyndness” means “nation.” In Middle English kinde means “natural, native, innate, with the feeling of relatives for each other…from kunjam meaning family.”

“With the feeling of relatives for each other…” What wouldn’t you do for family?

1: Speak up. “That’s a racist comment.” Practice saying that in the mirror. Practice saying it so often you don’t even have to think about it. Practice saying it so when you’re suddenly surprised at a dinner party, a business meeting, out with friends, when someone, a “good” someone, maybe your boss or a long-time colleague, or your uncle says something blatantly or subtly “insider White,” Call it out. Say it twice. “That’s a racist comment.”

2. Commit to your fellow humans. Set a recurring date, complete with a weekly or monthly reminder on your calendar. Call it the Human Dues appointment. I know you’re busy, but give yourself a minimum of one hour a month to read, watch films, listen to podcasts, to educate yourself about being Black in America. Do the work yourself, don’t ask a Black friend what it’s like.

3: Learn. Develop a reading list that’s issue-based. This problem isn’t going away when the protests stop. Don’t wait for the next hashtag. Three excellent books to begin:

 How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi.  “In How to be an Antiracist, Kendi asks us to think about what an antiracist society might look like, and how we can play an active role in building it.”

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. “An unforgettable true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to end mass incarceration in America.” (Also a 2019 film which Warner Bros. just released for free rental through June.)

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, an anthology edited by Jesmyn Ward.  Jesmyn Ward put together a book that “In the pages she [a girl in rural Mississippi] could encounter a voice that hushed her fears…she would find a wise aunt…who saw her terror and despair threading their fingers through her hair, and would comfort her…You matter. I love you. Please don’t forget it.” Jesmyn Ward admits that “these essays give me hope.”

Of all the things we need today, hope is top of the list, and a lifelong attention span devoted to eradicating racism.

If you join this season’s Black Lives Matter protests or vigils, hold Black families forefront in your heart. Wanda Cooper-Jones held her breath when she sent her Black son Ahmaud into the world, and she keened the way you or I would when the worst happened to him.

When you return safely home, be grateful for that small miracle.

Catherine Keefe is a poet, essayist, and a member of the Orange County Human Relations Commission Anti-Hate Speakers Assembly. Catherine spent many years teaching writing at Chapman University and as a journalist for the Orange County Register. She works now as a story coach, helping families shape and document generational narratives.

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