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Cross The Bridge

James Warren June 29, 2020
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“You are a Joseph,” my mother used to say to me. It was her way of saying I was a bridge between people. A connector of the unexpected sort. I’ve always known this to be my calling, even when I was afraid of it. But she would repeat it often, when I was young, during college, as a young adult, and after I began raising my family. “You are a Joseph,” she would say.

More recently, I’ve thought so much about what it means to try to be like Joseph, to try to connect those who would not otherwise be connected. To bridge the ravine. That is why I write this way, to speak to those who would not otherwise hear. To activate empathy in the hearts of those who were willing. I feel convicted that I can do this best by sharing experiences, lighting pathways in the mind that bring people to a place that represents where they are, and a place that shows where they can go – to a better place on the other side.

Here is what I am bridging: his name is Elijah McClain.

All of my children are intertwined in Elijah.

I picture Jordan, the violinist always in his own head, playing songs to make the world – his world, our world – a better place. I cried on the phone with him as he began to surface long-buried wounds of racism. I picture him when I picture Elijah playing the violin.

I picture Alexis, the compassionate one. Just today, her brother Evan was upset and she came close to him and began singing her version of the song I sing to them at night, “Daddy loves Evan, Evan, Evan, Daddy loves Evan, shortnin’ bread…” I picture her when I hear his words of compassion for his oppressors.

I picture Evan, the explainer and the crowd-pleaser. Having a salvaging conversation. For him, it is about getting to mutual understanding. He wants to make sure you hear and understand him. And he wants to understand you. I heard the painstaking pleas of understanding in Elijah’s words.

I picture Christian, the lowkey defiant one. I remember how he stood up and spoke words of passion, strength and protection at the birth ceremony of his brother. Christian has always been the one I knew would do WHATEVER it takes to protect those he loves, he just doesn’t talk about it. He is the same age Elijah was.

They are all Elijah.

Just as they were all of the Black and Brown boys and girls taken prematurely from this world, taken because this nation every day fails to live up to its promise, to be the land of the free.

When I think of the souls we’ve lost to racism, injustice and inequality, I think so much about the final moments in their minds, what their eyes see, what they hear, what they feel, what they smell and taste and touch… What must they be thinking? What does that fear, the cocktail of being near death mixed with confusion mixed with a bit of hope + the last ounce of resistance, and then finally, certain death, feel like? Is it panic? Is it resignation? Is it courage? Is it faith? It is release? Do they wonder how we will remember them?

Do they wonder how we will describe their lives?

Here is what I am bridging: Black Lives.

We all focus on the stories of these innocent, beautiful, faithful, pleading, magnificent, choked out, silent Black Lives, who’ve been killed by the hands of those who swore to protect them. And we naturally focus on them as they become revealed to us. It is grief on repeat. We time travel to experience what happened months ago with our contemporary tears. To share our fresh anguish with the sorrow that has aged and hardened inside of those who already knew.

As I think about them over and over and over again, and the millions more over the centuries, as I envision them, as I take their suffering inside and turn it over, I keep coming back to a conclusion: their deaths would be in vain if we only saw them through the lens of police brutality, and not through the lens of the systemic racism they had experienced practically every day.

Their deaths would be in vain if we only saw their deaths and not their lives.

They cry out from the grave telling, urging us, screaming at us to see their whole lives. Their Whole Black Lives. To see and to say that their Black. Lives. Matter. Indeed, the people in the street cry out, not just demanding justice, but pleading equality. Wrapped in anger born of the experience of a limit reached – No more! No more! – still they plead.

What is a Black Life?

It is ancestry.

It is birth.

It is death.

It is home.

It is journey.

It is love.

It is family.

It is babies.

It is grandparents.

It is neighbors.

It is breakfast.

It is dinner.

It is hope.

It is faith.

It is resilience.

It is righteousness.

It is beauty.

It is strength.

It is heaven.

It is earth.

It is music.

It is art.

It is science.

It is math.

It is suffering.

It is triumph.

It is language.

It is industry.

It is sport.

It is laughter.

It is work.

It is joy.

It is sorrow.

It is escape.

It is resistance.

It is life.

It is death.

It is legacy.

It is us.

And it is you.

Yes, Black Life is you, too, America. Of course, the experience of being Black in America is to be seen as “other” in America, an existence most White people would not willingly, knowingly trade for. Still, if you look at Black Life with love and empathy, surely you might find something in this list that you might relate to… that you may see as “us” instead of “them,” right? Surely you can imagine yourself in those places and spaces. Those of you who insist that All Lives Matter, yes, yes, of course they do – if only you can close your eyes, substitute your life in that frame for Black Life. And then act to preserve this wonderful, wonderful Black Life, this American life. It is a life worth preserving, because it is a life worth living.

I am bridging this, too: the reckoning.

We are indeed at the place of reckoning. This doesn’t just feel different. It is different. To make this stick, we need systemic change in all areas affecting Black lives, as well as those of other communities who have been less advantaged, less privileged, oppressed and marginalized.

If you’re not willing to make these changes on behalf of Black lives, you’re not willing to value all lives equally. And that is the reckoning: coming face to face with your humanity, your morality, your decency, and choosing what you are going to do.

Will you lean in to the truth of racism, or seek shelter in the comfort of your prized existence?

Whether it was your power, your privilege or your prejudice, White people, you have been afforded you a station in life over the lives of others. And there is a natural and systemic urging to keep things that way, as matter of preserving your way of life. There are forces that are trying to tell you not to wake up, not to wake up to humanity, to morality, to our collective ideal, to our American truth.

These are the forces of racism, and they aim to prevent you from crossing the bridge.

It is time to begin your walk across the bridge. Know that the first step can’t be on your terms. You will get pushback and you have to embrace it. If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not yet on the bridge. You’re still on your side of the bridge. The reckoning is the foot of the bridge.

This is a battle for your soul, for our souls. Now that you know, you cannot unknow. You either lean towards equity, or you lean towards racism.

Choose racial equity. Empower it. Embrace it.

The day America is truly America is the day America embraces Black America. This is the day American forsakes its own Original Sin, in favor of its Original Promise, a new jubilee. We are the key to the lock. When you embrace Blackness, you embrace America. You embrace who we are, together.

See us as you see yourselves. Cross the bridge.

See Elijah in your children’s eyes and find all of us together on the other side.

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