What is Great?

Last night I went to see Central Intelligence with Duane Johnson and Kevin Hart. It was very funny, yet I found myself in an all white audience feeling, quite honestly, shameful at laughing at some of the racially charged jokes about white people. It bothered me a lot.

People that I respect deeply have publicly shared in the past week their stance on racism and how we should and shouldn’t address this issue as white people. Having grown up in Oklahoma, with a great grandfather in the KKK, and there was certainly racism in the home I grew up in. This is a historical, societal, and generational issue.

Just because civil rights legislation happened, didn’t change the beliefs of many. One of the current candidates for President of the United States seems to have ripped the mask off of those beliefs, offering permission for his followers to speak the prejudice that was never okay to discuss in, as we used to say were I grew up, “polite company.”

We are at a critical time where we are faced with the opportunity to change what the generation who fought for civil rights were unsuccessful. Yet, I think Brene Brown was right when she said, “You cannot talk about race without talking about privilege. And when people start talking about privilege, they get paralyzed by shame.” I know I feel shame for things I have said throughout my life.

I swallowed and digested the labels. I became the labels. And as I try to work through the damage done and find a way to correct the insidious issue, I see a phenomenally complicated issue that leaves me reeling in which came first, the chicken or the egg that honestly I have wrestled with for over 20 years.

I think about a community I worked in for number of years, first as an exercise instructor and then through grad school trying to help save the community from being eradicated through an airport buyout program. The men and women lived in constant fear. They knew there was a solid chance at some point they would be pulled over or questioned by police, not because of their actions, though some it was for their actions, but more often because of the color of their skin.

As we tried to work with the officers in the community, we would hear their stories and challenges. As we worked with the schools, we would see children who were labels trouble makers. There was no time or resources to explore what was happening in that child’s life. There were no mentors for the children. With a migratory and transient community, children transferred in and out of schools at an alarming rate. Overworked and underpaid teachers did the best they could and yet it was all they could do just to get the kids to a passing level.

So we’re no looking at inequality, poverty, education, historical and generational trauma. That in and of itself is a lot to unpack. But we’re not done. Perhaps because of these cycles, it becomes easier to rely on public assistance than fight your way out. Being a victim is an easy trap to fall into and a might hard one to get out of.

We’ve all heard stories of youth who grew up in poor and dangerous neighborhoods who could have easily joined a gang, turn to a life of crime and make more money than a parent who was working multiple jobs, or maybe their parent was absent or an addict. But something in that child knew that wasn’t the life they wanted and saw something better, busted their ass through school, and got out of the cycle. It happens. Far more than we give attention to. Yet, not quite enough. It’s hard to beat the odds.

Langston Hughes wrote a poem in 1938 called “Let America Be America”
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

I hear Donald Trump saying, “Make America great again!” Yet, I always think of the people trapped in the historical, societal, and generational traumas who never experience the wealth and privilege Mr. Trump uses to define “great.” I think of my friends and graduate school classmates- Gil, Joy, Tsigi, Lam,  Alex, Norbu who taught me so well how much America has harmed their countries for ours to be “great.” I think about my part and I remember lessons learned in the summer of 2008 at The Center for Peace and Justice.

Restorative justice is a process to involve as best as possible those who have a stake in a specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations in order to heal and put things as right as possible. There are 5 driving questions in restorative justice and I believe these are the ones we need to be asking now:
Who has been hurt?
What are their needs?
Whose obligations are these?
Who has a stake in the situation?
What is the appropriate process to involve stakeholders in an effort to put things right?

When I say I believe we are all a piece of the Divine, and therefore all One, I mean that. And I also hold true that I have bought into labels. I have elevated myself as better than  others, which is not true. I have diverted my gaze, made fun of, and participated in the trauma. And, I will probably be guilty of that again because old habits are hard to break. But I am trying to change. Every time I am more conscious of what is causing contraction in myself and collectively and what is creating an expansion. If I can tip the scales in favor of the expansion, I know I am doing my part. In this moment, I am doing the best I can, even if it’s not enough. And I am sorry for my part in labeling, judging, and ignoring.

I don’t have the answers. I don’t even know how to move forward. I want us to be able to laugh together without fear of creating deeper wounds. I want us to walk together as one. I want us to unpack these complicated issue and find a new, better way to live.

Reflect on the poem. Ask yourself the questions. Ask other s the questions. Be aware. Love more. We start small. We think big. We act now.