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'Black People are the Anchor of This Ship Called America' from Fierro Consulting: Inspiring People. Growing Organizations. Strengthening Communities.'s Blog

Black People are the Anchor of This Ship Called America

Jul 15, 2016
Category: Antiviolence  Racism  Art  Art and Social Justice  Antiracism 
Author: Rita Fierro, Ph.D.

African American people taught me how to live well, at peace, while feeling like a fish out of water. It hurts to watch how many people, and our media, assume that violence is norm in Black culture. 

By the standards of most Americans I am an incredibly weird person. I am an Italian American woman who spent seven years studying African American culture in college, first for a Master’s in Sociology, then a PhD in African American studies. I left a life in Rome, Italy, the eternal city, to study in Philadelphia. I wish I could make a collage with the look on people’s faces, of all colors, when I tell them what I just told you. 

I studied to end injustice, but I also studied to make peace with my own dual Italian American cultural heritage. I felt at odds in my own skin.

In those seven years, I did a lot more than study. I grew up, too. The journey started at 23. I got my PhD at 30. And in those seven years, I met two women, who led me, taught me, assisted me, held me, and walked with me in the path to becoming a woman. Both of these women are Black. So I joke at times that I’m an Italian American raised by Black women. Without these women, I could not be who I am.  They taught me to love myself unconditionally, forgive myself, express myself, express my art, stand and walk in the world, while never fitting in.

It’s been ten years since the PhD and I’ve continued to grow. I’ve continued to listen and learn about Black folks in America. And I feel that I understand now that while my mentors are phenomenal individuals, their lessons were cultural, from a collective experience. They taught me some of what their families had taught them: how to survive in the face of incredible adversity.

I’ve reached the conclusion that Black people are the ethical anchor of our country. Because of ongoing discrimination, in housing, education, voting, employment, health, and the criminal justice system, Black folks have needed to dig deeper into their humanity, their resources, their talents, their networks, than anyone else in order to survive America. Of course, many other people of color have experienced these challenges, too. Over the years, I felt an affinity for African American culture that made me want to know more.  

To me, the reason why Black folks dominate the art world is because they’ve needed to use art to express their deepest pain, injustice, and emotions. From old spirituals to blues, Nina Simone to Miles Davis, India Arie to The Roots, art has become a vehicle for humanity, for expressing humanness, aliveness. Playing hearts, souls, and pain through the beat of drums, voices, guitars, trumpets, saxes, and basses.

I’ve traveled the world. Yet in my experiences, Black folk in America, as a people, have deeper compassions, feelings, and forgiveness than any other culture I know. They have been trying to forgive white folk for hundreds of years of injustice. They’ve been nurturing community and organizing peacefully as long as they’ve been on this land.

Dressed in Sunday’s Best 

I know most white folks are scared that Black folk will become violent and attempt to turn over the social order and be on top. This has not happened and will not happen because Black folk will not do to whites what we did to them because the majority of Black folk have worked hard and work hard every day to be productive, patient, and loving.  To believe that a better world is possible. To not judge the few for the actions of the many.

Spirituality upholds Black folk. The strong connection to each other, to God, to a higher power, to prayer, to whatever you want to call it, that connection has kept Black folk alive and positive for centuries. Have you noticed how in Black neighborhoods there is a church every few feet? Learning to elevate one’s heart, mind, and soul above limiting circumstances. Moving mountains with kindness. Drawing strength, never easily, from the bowels of existence, which in the words of W.E.B. DuBois “dogged strength alone keeps from being torn asunder.”

Most of us white folk are so attached to having things our way that we lack the same capacity to be positive through hardship, love through challenges, patient when times or tough, and to express when we’re in pain. Think how much you would love your neighbor if you knew that their great-grandfather had raped your great-grandmother, during slavery, and that your neighbor’s family has forgotten this, but yours has not.

How much would you love your neighbor if your neighbor’s brother also worked for the police force that killed your dad when you were 5?  And your brother when he was 15, and your best friend when he was 20?

Now add on the fact that your neighbor also has better access to better healthcare, education, employment, housing, legal and political representation than you. Would you even try to love your neighbor? Would your protests against inferior access to healthcare, education, employment, and legal representation be peaceful?

It is this ability to connect with humanity, with humanness that causes white folks to be so enamored with Black music, culture, food, fashion. We white folks reach out to Blackness to connect with our own humanity.

A rally attendee on a scooter holds a sign reading Black Lives Matter at Justin Herman Plaza, San Francisco.

This is also why I believe when we white folk say something we know is questionable in a group conversation, we look at Black folk for a reaction. Deep down, we know Black folk are the measure of our humanity.  We know they are the measure of whether what we said was fucked up.

Most Black folks are already modeling humanness with incredible compassion and grace. But we cannot demand they do what we as a country, don’t do.

Our country is a ship in the waters of ethical confusion. Black folk are the anchor. They anchor us with the deepest and most profound parts of our country’s humanity: our ability to love, to create, to forgive, to connect, to organize for justice.

The waters are getting choppy. And the captain--society, the government, white folks, our institutions--is revving the motor. How can we expect the anchor to keep the ship grounded?

Every murder is an acceleration. Every child charged as an adult is an acceleration. Every bargain deal accepted by an innocent man is an acceleration. Every person in prison because they cannot pay a fine is an acceleration. The ship cannot stay still if the acceleration continues.

It is unjust to expect Black folk to anchor our collective ship.

The chain linking the anchor to the ship is breaking. 

So whomever you are, wake up. Find your humanity. Choose whether you want to keep revving the motor on our ship or demand it stop. Get involved to change the conditions that are generating this insane acceleration. Join an organization, that suits you, that is working to slow it down. There are many.

 

 

Langston Hughes described it well when he wrote:

“What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?...

 

Or does it Explode?”

 

Langston Hughes

***

I wrote this in response to the killings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling by the hands of police officers. May your souls rest in peace. May your lives not be ended in vain.

Five hours after I wrote this, Micah Xavier Johnson, a Black man who had served in the United States Army in Afghanistan, earning several medals, shot 11 white police officers, killing five, in Dallas, TX.

Images: 

Dressed in Sunday’s Best by Su-Chan 

https://www.flickr.com/photos/su-chan/

A rally attendee on a scooter holds a sign reading Black Lives Matter at Justin Herman Plaza, San Francisco.

By Pax Ahimsa Gethen - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50063410

 


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