I cringed. Recently, I sat watching a cable news broadcast — can’t remember which one. What I do remember is it featured people doing good in the world … and it made me cringe.
Lots of people were highlighted, but the two young black people they featured both shared the same general narrative: So and so had a hard life. He came from poverty. She came from abuse or neglect. But they rose above. Now look at all they’ve accomplished. It was striking. None of the stories of white people started with this narrative. Rather, theirs usually went something like: Little Suzy or Johnny took a class project and turned it into a major non-profit that helps thousands of orphans … in Africa.
No matter where you tuned into this broadcast, blackness unconsciously was associated with hardship and overcoming while whiteness was associated with genius and compassion.
I sat there thinking: The truth is we have had centuries of hardship to press through. Our history is present, the good and the bad. As in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the ghost of slavery haunts us. It affects our present. But it’s not just the past that haunts us. It is the same basic oppression of yesteryear —confinement, control, and disregard for black lives. So, it makes sense that the stories of our overcomers are as potent in current-day narratives as they are in history.
Jackie Robinson, Joe Lewis, Paul Robeson, Zora Neale Hurston, Billie Holiday, were the overcomers of our past. The black children in that broadcast were the overcomers of our present.
But what about the black future? One hundred years from now, will my family’s descendants still have to watch featured stories of black people doing good that always begins: So and so had a hard life?
During Black History Month we typically look back on all the accomplishments of those who paved the road for generations to come. But this month, we have been inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter movement to look forward to another kind of future for black men, women, and children.
Last fall Ferguson Action issued its Vision for a New America along with a list of clear and actionable national demands. The vision is clear: justice for Michael Brown and freedom for black communities. Freedom looks like this:
- An End to all Forms of Discrimination and the Full Recognition of our Human Rights
- An Immediate End To Police Brutality And the Murder Of Black, Brown & All Oppressed People
- Full Employment For Our People
- Decent Housing Fit For The Shelter Of Human Beings
- An End to the School to Prison Pipeline & Quality Education for All
- Freedom from Mass Incarceration and an End to the Prison Industrial Complex
Sojourners convened a group of 50 national and local faith leaders in Ferguson in early December. The leaders reviewed the Ferguson Action vision and were struck by how biblical the vision is. In fact, it reminded them of Isaiah 65:17-25: “No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in [Jerusalem], or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days or an old person who does not live a lifetime …They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit …They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity…”
Now, in the middle of Black History Month, I am compelled to look forward. We are in the middle of the fight of our lives. There is unfinished business and a window of opportunity. We must step through — all of us.
And lest we think this Black Future Month is fundamentally a “black thang,” know that it is not. To achieve the vision, all of us must confront the spiritual lies we believe about blackness and whiteness: to be black is to overcome and to be white is to be noble.
In the world of our children’s children, the reality of evil will persist. They will have to pick up the baton and fight for justice in their own times. But they shouldn’t have to fight the same fights we’re fighting right now. If my great nephews and nieces are still drawing up the same vision and demands, then I — we — will have failed them.
But it’s greater than that.
If, in the age of our children’s children, streams of black men have not yet found, embraced, and lived into the image of God within themselves …
If rivers of black women and men have not yet walked in their God-given call and capacity to exercise dominion …
If in the age of my nephews’ nieces, white, Asian, Latino, Arabic, and all the peoples of the earth have not yet embraced and welcomed the full image of God in black bodies, faces, voices, hands, and feet …
If they have not welcomed them into the community of full humanity, recognizing their gifts and strengths and welcoming their leadership …
If our children’s children face such a world, then I — we — will have failed them.
And so we must fight — all of us — to face the unconscious biases planted in our souls by centuries of spiritual lies. We must fight — all of us — for a world where it is not normal for black babies across the globe to be born into calamity.
I am reminded of words penned by Assata Shakur. Her words became the young people’s chant on the front lines of Ferguson marches. They became the words the faith leaders repeated in the police wagon as we were rolled away during the Ferguson October Moral Monday march: "It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains."
It is our duty to fight … for the sake of our future.
Lisa Sharon Harper is Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith.