Rev. Brad R. Braxton, Ph.D. writes in response to Religion and Racial Justice: The George Floyd Protests, "The Birmingham Four, the Charleston Nine, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many others are embodied reminders that in the fight to make black lives matter, 'we have come over a way that with tears has been watered; we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.' We must say their names, and especially the names of black female martyrs whose stories often are rendered invisible in public protests and national dialogues."
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Sad but Not Surprised: “A Talk to Teachers” in Times of Violence and Death
(Reflections of Dr. Brad R. Braxton, May 28, 2020)
Even as we mourn the incalculable loss of human life in the COVID-19 pandemic, we also mourn yet another onslaught of anti-black violence that highlights the long-standing sickness in America. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and George Floyd in Minnesota, along with a white person's blatant attempt to intimidate Christian Cooper in New York City's Central Park, are all tragic events on many levels. These events claim national attention because there is video evidence in some instances to corroborate the violence, intimidation, and presumed entitlement of some white people to control, and kill, "colored people."
Am I deeply saddened by all this? Yes! Am I surprised by any of this? Absolutely not! Let me explain why I am sad but not surprised and what the implications of this are for me as an educator and as an African American man.
Sadness caused by events like these is justified. The sadness at times expresses itself in lament. In our family rooms, classrooms, cultural spaces, and private places, we must encourage personal and communal lament. Lament is a ruggedly honest declaration that something is deeply wrong and severely out of joint or that someone who is dearly loved in now significantly absent.
Lament takes many forms: guttural groans, copious tears, long stretches of silence, fits of rage, quiet questioning, bittersweet remembering, tension-riddled tossing and turning. We lament because people matter to us, because values such as dignity and the presumption of safety matter to us. We lament because there remains somewhere in us a faint hope that today's pain will not completely swallow tomorrow's possibilities. As an educator charged with cultivating the hearts and minds of emerging leaders, I lament the violence and death in these difficult times, and I encourage our students to lament.
While I have a great appreciation for lamentation, I also harbor a growing intolerance for people acting surprised by tragic events like these. It is a vexing question for me: why would anyone be surprised?
The sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark insist, "Nostalgia is the enemy of history... We frequently accept... tales that corrupt our understanding of the past and mislead us about the present." I know enough history about the United States, and I have had enough encounters with racism to never again be surprised by any form of aggression against black people.
We will slow the spread of the coronavirus by wearing masks. We will slow the spread of virulent racism by unmasking the presumption of ignorance. Some people are "surprised" by the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 or aggressive policing on communities of color only because of their willful ignorance.
Deep down inside, most adults and many young people in New York City and countless other cities and towns in the United States know where the visible and invisible color and (economic) class lines are. These color and class lines either rope people into, or out of, better or worse economic and educational outcomes and personal or communal well-being. While the landscapes and skylines of our communities have changed dramatically across the centuries, these color and class lines were laid down a long time ago by "the framers" and colonial architects of the American republic. Unfortunately, these lines have proven thus far to be indelible.
In 1963, James Baldwin delivered "A Talk to Teachers" as the United States was reeling from highly publicized episodes of racial violence. With probing prose, this literary sage exploded the myth of ignorance and, along with it, the myth of American innocence. Baldwin remarked:
The point of all this is that black [people] were brought here as a source of cheap labor. They were indispensable to the economy. In order to justify that [black people] were treated as though they were animals, the white republic had to brainwash itself into believing that they were, indeed, animals and deserved to be treated like animals... What I am trying to suggest to you is that it was not an accident... It was a deliberate policy hammered into place in order to make money from black flesh. And now, in 1963, because we have never faced this fact, we are in intolerable trouble.
More than half a century later, we are still in trouble, but trouble need not last always.
Educational institutions - from colleges and elementary and secondary schools to museums - are engaging in robust discussions about equity. While equity has many components, it certainly entails intentional individual and institutional efforts to counteract the disproportionate privilege and power related to difference that are unfairly afforded to some people while denied to others. As teachers, we can create equitable places and practices by courageously dispelling ignorance - both the benign lack of knowledge that welcomes instruction and the malignant ignoring of knowledge that revels in nostalgia.
In these times of violence and death, our classrooms - whether in-person or online - can be sites for sharing meaningful information and forming moral identity. According to the theologian Kelly Brown Douglas, a moral identity "is one that is relieved of pretensions to superiority. It lets go of any myths that suggest one people is more valuable than another... A moral identity affirms the shared humanity of all human beings."
Let's create a world where everybody counts, irrespective of color, class, creed, or condition. Now that would be a most welcome surprise.
James Baldwin: Collected Essays edited by Toni Morrison
Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas
The Churching of America 1776-1990 by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark
The Two-Way Street Called Love
(Letter to St. Luke's School Community, October 7, 2019)
The Parents of Students of Color (POSOC) met last Thursday evening for the first time in the 2019-2020 academic year. Sixteen parents from beautifully diverse backgrounds joined me at school for food, fellowship, and fun. Laughter, comfortable dialogue, and a hospitable energy filled the room.
As we introduced ourselves, I asked parents to respond to several questions including these: 1) What tangible dish would you bring to the "Welcome Table"? and 2) What intangible "gifts" do you bring to the "Welcome Table"?
In response to the first question, parents described the most delectable dishes that they and their families enjoy. The parents at St. Luke's School could outdo any award-winning chef when it comes to cuisine and creativity. As we imagined the Welcome Table, it became abundantly clear that the effort to build a care-full community involves tangible activities such as eating together and crossing culinary boundaries with curiosity and appreciation.
In response to the second question, parents described the most heart-warming personal characteristics and values that they gladly bring to our community to make us better and brighter. Words such as joy, optimism, hugs, wisdom, passion, and gratitude lept from the lips of one parent into the hearts of other parents.
Several parents said that a precious gift that they bring to St. Luke's School is love! My soul needed to hear that. Our world needs to hear that.
Love - truth-telling love, justice-seeking love, heart-mending love - must undergird our efforts to build care-full communities - both inside and outside the walls of St. Luke's School.
James Baldwin, the 20th century literary genius and prophetic seer, once reflected on love - not the syrupy love of Hallmark cards - but rather the serious, strong love upon which a better today and a brighter tomorrow can be established. Baldwin remarked:
If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don't see. Insofar as that is true, in that effort, I become conscious of the things that I don't see. And I will not see without you, and vice versa, you will not see without me...
The only way you can get through it is to accept that two-way street which I call love.
Many streets in New York City are woefully congested. The traffic, however, on the two-way street called love can flow easily if we let it.
Brad R. Braxton, Ph.D.
Interim Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion
and Church-School Initiatives
St. Luke's School
A coeducational Episcopal school welcoming children of all faiths.