by Leslie Anne Lee
Technicolor Exposition of Diversity
I would like to frame my thoughts by history. I think back over the various events in our nation’s relatively young past and I am struck by the fact that so much of the conflict we have been involved in has come not because of color, but because of hate. Ignorant, blatant hate. Hate that comes from not willing to live cohesively with those of a different race, religion, orientation, or ability. And I will venture to say that there have been acts of hate on all sides. Some have been much more understandable than others, however, ALL ARE WRONG. And we do not express hatred towards someone simply because of the color of their skin. Hatred is born out of ignorance, out of a people’s indifference when it comes to learning about someone who may not accurately reflect your appearance. But while there is hate ON BOTH SIDES, there is also good. Good that has endured and served as to what SHOULD BE an example to humanity, yet so often is forgotten in the chaos.
Before we were even a nation, Thomas Jefferson wrote two of the most famous statements ever written in America. The first one, “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” Equally as famous he stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Here’s the thing. That was written by a white man, in defiance of a white man. It had nothing to do with race, but rather rebelling against an oppressor who sought wealth for himself. Jefferson also stated that ALL MEN are created equal. This would become one of the phrases that built the abolitionist movement years later. The belief that man, not a man of a certain color, religion, orientation, or ability, but ALL MEN have certain unalienable rights. The issue lies with the fact that men have always thought themselves entitled to more than a simple life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. After all, we say “life” and yet argue over what that means. Would that not therefore mean that unborn babies should not have to have someone advocate against abortion? Does “life” simply mean one is inhaling and exhaling, but the quality of those breaths does not matter? What is liberty truly? One might say it is freedom. Freedom to do, what? We live in a nation built on its desire to be “free,” and look where that got us. The freedom to choose has seemingly driven us further apart then we were before. And do not get me started on the “pursuit of happiness.” That is perhaps one of the vaguest terms by today’s standards. A child living in a tiny apartment in a crowded city may have the idea that “pursuit of happiness” means their mom comes home from their third job in time to tuck them in at night. Their prayer might be that the water or electricity doesn’t get shut off, or that school will have their favorite meal for lunch because it will be the only meal they have all day. Likewise, the privileged teenager might think “pursuit of happiness” means having that car they want, the attention of the girl/guy they think is attractive, or those pair of designer shoes they saw in the window at the mall.
When Jefferson wrote the words, “pursuit of happiness” he meant the ability to live one’s own best life. To be free to do by one’s merit, whatever they wanted to do without the worry of oppression. So often we feel we are entitled to act upon what we think or feel, simply because it’s our right. However, so often what we think or feel is not in pursuit of happiness, but rather in pursuit of retaliation or injustice. And the pursuit of violence, whatever the reason, never results in happiness.
I would like to fast forward to another time of turbulence in our nation’s history. On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln addressed the nation in what would become known as The Gettysburg Address. His words were not to the white man, but to all men who had fallen while in service to the Civil War. How often we forget that there were men who fought for the slave. Men who recognized that one man should not own another and therefore sacrificed their lives for that belief. Likewise, some black men believed that it was their duty to fight for the part of the United States that was advocating on their behalf. These men were just as heroic as their white brothers in arms, and Lincoln knew it, despite having originally doubted that they should be allowed to serve. By the time the war ended in 1865, nearly 180,000 black men had served as soldiers in the U.S. Army. This was about 10 percent of the total Union fighting force. Most—about 90,000—were former (or “contraband”) slaves from the Confederate states. About half of the rest were from the loyal border states, and the rest were free blacks from the North. Forty thousand black soldiers died in the war. And on that note, 6,000 Mexicans and 4,000 Native Americans also died in that war.
Lincoln knew this when he said, “We can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
In revisiting these words, I am reminded of this sacrifice this country made for the sake of freedom and equality. When the world is being ravaged by the coronavirus and when we are fighting one another in the streets over the same issues we have been fighting over for the last 200 years, would we not do better to remember that all mankind endeavors to seek and obtain freedom? How quickly we have turned from uniting to battle a virus, from praising the first responders, the nurses, teachers, sanitation workers, and custodians. Men and women from all walks of life, who did not see color or creed, but rather united to battle an invisible enemy. Now we turn against our neighbor, we attack over social media, we slander over the television and the radio. We loot stores in the name of justice and forget that those very stores were the ones open when we were afraid of running out of toilet paper or Clorox wipes. Their employees put themselves on the front line to provide us with essentials, many times running out to our cars in the rain and the heat. This is our problem. We are quick to forget and slow to remember.
This issue of hate knows no boundary. It infects those who cannot differentiate themselves based on color. It is not just an issue of white and against black; or privileged against unprivileged. Look at Hitler and the Holocaust. Both the Nazis and the Jew were similar in appearance, many were neighbors. Many had children who played together. And yet, the propaganda that Jews were inferior, that they were a blight upon humanity and therefore should be exterminated nearly annihilated an entire nation of people. 5 – 6 million, to be correct. And it was not just Jews. It was Slavs, Soviet POWs, Gypsies, Homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witness, and many other groups of people. And none of these countless murders had to do with the shade of one’s skin.
I agree that what has happened over the last few weeks was wrong. IS WRONG. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best. “As long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.” We cannot ignore the mistreatment of the black community within our nation. Nor can we ignore the plight of any individual who is oppressed by another. But Martin Luther King also said this. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
These are dark times. They were dark at the beginning of the year, with the spread of the virus, and they grow darker still with the outbreak of rioting and looting. We were called by our founding fathers to be a great nation, a progressive nation. With the freedom we have, the luxuries, yes, the privileges many of us have, we should not think ourselves entitled to apathy, but rather obligated to action. Not actions of disobedience or discord. But rather acts of quiet, impactful rebellion. Defy social injustice with acts of kindness. Protest peacefully. Be an advocate for ALL those who fall victim to inequality. Do not simply say “White privilege,” or “Black lives matter.” We all matter. Even if we reach a state of total equality regarding race, we will still fall short in other areas of equality. We will continue to judge, condemn, and find fault with those who are not like us because that is a flaw in our humanity. We are born with sinful and we learn to hate in a world riddled with division.
As a mother of two inquisitive children, I would like to share their perspective. My daughter is 8. She was picked up one day in March, thinking she would return to school, return to ballet class to practice for her recital, and see her friends at church on Sunday. Instead, her world was ripped away from her. In time, she came to understand what the coronavirus was and why I had become her teacher and her younger brother, her only playmate. Then, in May, new questions started arising. “Why do some people wear masks, and others don’t?” “Why are those children playing on the playground when we cannot?” Again, I gently tried to explain the idea of freedom of choice. We were choosing to wear masks, choosing to abstain from visiting public places. Once more, she understood as best an 8-year-old could. Now she hears conversations of riots and looting. She sees the plastic covering the doors to the Target that was looted. She sees people, black and white, carrying signs and marching in protest and she asks why. She sees police officers hitting people and she asks why. Why, if they aren’t doing anything wrong are the officers hitting them? Why, if the people at Target have always helped us, are people hurting their store? Why, if people are trying to help black people, are they mad at them? I have raised my children to see no difference in the color of skin, yet now they see it. Because the world has made them see it.
I read about wars and movements in history books growing up. I learned the lessons that I was told to glean from them. I was reminded that we must learn from the past to not repeat it. And now, as I watch the news, as I hear reports of brutality, and building on fire; deaths and injury, friends fighting over who is right, and who is wrong, I wonder if we have learned nothing. Has the blood spilled by men of all colors meant nothing? Have the privileges that we have been given gone to waste? We are entitled to nothing, and yet, we have everything. We can protest all we want, yet peace will never come until we put down the weapons and the signs and realize that racism is not simply born from differing shades, it is born of ignorance. Do not be cowardly and fight, be brave, and seek peace. Stop seeking differences and start seeking similarities. You cannot have beauty without color, you cannot have America without a technicolor exposition of diversity. We are ONE nation, under God, INDIVISIBLE. That means unable to be divided or separated. May we seek to strive for liberty and JUSTICE for ALL.
A little bit of Dickens and a whole lot of Austen.