“White Allies: Show Yourselves”
By Mark Fleischer, StoryBoard Publisher
“White allies, show yourselves.” “White people need to be speaking to white people right now.“
On FaceBook and Instagram I have seen a variety of posts and memes that have repeated messages like these in the last week or so. I am, as most of you know, a white male. And as the founder and publisher of a publication focused on arts, history and community, that has made every attempt to stay balanced and apolitical, I have kept my views fairly private in the years since I launched it.
But now it is high time to speak up.
Black Lives Matter.
(This does not imply that other lives don’t matter. Of course they do. And no one is saying that they don’t.)
It must be said. And repeated. Because through all that we have seen and all the chatter about solutions and why’s and who started what where, there are a few things we can never have enough of: Understanding. Empathy. Listening.
To deny the black and brown community of the Black Lives Matter mantra – by deflecting the conversation with proclamations of All Lives, etc. – is to silence the cause. It curbs empathy. It says I’m not willing to listen. And I’ll admit that I did not completely understand it until these past couple of weeks. But now to me it is clear.
Denying Black Lives Matter is like dismissing say, abused children’s lives matter, or homeless lives matter. It is not a matter of whose lives are more important – it is simply a matter of attention. Attention, to those lives in danger. Attention, to communities at risk.
I am no student of the Bible. However recently the Parable of the Lost Sheep was pointed out to me. (It appears in the Gospels of Matthew 18 and Luke 15). It starts “Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it?”
The message of the parable is one of recovering those lost or in danger. And who among us, if we could plainly see the danger a life was in, would not make at least some attempt to help it? Be it the abused child, the homeless woman, the disabled veteran, or the person in the wheelchair trying to cross a crowded street. Or, the black man, woman or child in imminent harm’s way.
The problem is that most white Americans cannot or do not plainly see the imminent dangers. Before the protests, before the awful murder of George Floyd, before the gunning down of Ahmaud Arbery, many Americans didn’t see the real threats to black lives. Millions still do not understand it. Millions have not gotten the message. Millions have not been listening.
We Must Listen.
“A riot is the language of the unheard.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 quote from his speech “The Other America” has been passed around often lately. (We can debate the merits of the term “rioting” later.) But as a Psychology Today article pointed out recently, what Dr. King said next is ever more important.
“And what is it that America has failed to hear?” he asked in his speech. “It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity.”
Reading this, we realize that not much has changed, and many have still not listened. Why is this? To walk a mile in another man’s shoes, as the saying goes, is one of the most difficult tasks any of us face. Who among us can say we even understand our parents, or our siblings? To truly understand and see the world from the point of view of another human being is almost impossible.
But it is not too difficult to understand the black experience as the human experience. With this in mind, I can say that I know what I don’t know:
I do not know how it feels to worry for my life when pulled over by a police cruiser. I have never had to educate my son on what to do if pulled over by a police officer. I do not know what it feels like to have someone called 911 simply because I’m walking through a park, jogging in a neighborhood, or waiting for coffee.
I do not know how it feels to know that my great-great-great grandfather was butchered at the hands of an angry mob (Memphis Massacre, 1866); of knowing my great-great granddad was hung from a tree in the north part of the county (Lawrence Shepperd, 1917, Lynching Sites); or to know that my grandparents could not buy a house in any neighborhood they desired (Redlining, 1930s on).
I do not how it feels to drive in fear from state to state, requiring the use of a guide book to find safe places to stop for the night (Green Book); how it feels to have my neighborhood declared a slum and scheduled for demolition, and being forced from my home and being relocated to a completely different community (Urban Renewal programs 1940s to 1970s); or what it’s like to have to take a 45-minute bus ride away from my neighborhood to attend a school with kids I don’t know (forced bussing, 1970s).
And I don’t know the anger, anguish and trauma of having my 14-year-old son dragged away, shot, beaten and mutilated to death before being thrown into a river, simply because he may have said that a lady was pretty (Emmett Till, 1955).
These tragedies may be entrenched in our history, but as William Faulkner said, the past is never dead. Redlining still exists, in more veiled forms. Kids in African American communities may not be in danger of lynching, but they face numerous other threats to their health and safety (food deserts, poor education, stray bullets).
And really, as we’ve seen, road travel is just as treacherous. There’s no Green Book guide to protect African Americans from – some say modern-day lynchings – from what we’ve read about or seen on video: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, and Stephon Clark. Breonna Taylor, in her own apartment in Louisville, Ahmaud Arbery while jogging in his Georgia neighborhood, and finally George Floyd, for an alleged counterfeit $20 bill, in Minneapolis.
I am white. And I am speaking to other white men and women, at this very sensitive time in our country, when I say that we can all do ourselves and society a favor and try harder to empathize with our fellow Americans, of all colors.
Dr. King asked us 52 years ago: What is it that America has failed to hear? It is time, finally, here and now, to really listen. <>
What is it that America has failed to hear?
StoryBoard Memphis, as a publication dedicated to arts, culture and community in Memphis, Tennessee, has always been committed to sharing the African American experience. For example, for our inaugural print issue in September of 2018 we published a front-page story on the revival of The Negro Motorist Green-Book, the guidebook published from 1936 to 1967 that served as a guide to Black travelers, providing guides to safe places of food, rest and refuge.
Since then, we are proud to say that roughly half of our published stories, from our freelance contributors to our media partners, have shared the reporting of or first-person stories of the Black experience. And although our staff is still made up of freelancers and other contributors, our StoryBoard board of directors is exactly 50% African American.
Ongoing, we are dedicating our Tuesdays on social media to sharing ours and our partner stories that bring a deeper understanding to the struggles of Black America, from post Civil War to Jim Crow, in neighborhood after neighborhood, and to the issues that we are plagued with today. Using the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday and under our new category the Black Lives Matter Files, we at StoryBoard hope to bring just a little more empathy and compassion to our conversations about race, and about humanity, and making every attempt to answer Dr. King’s question, “What is it that America has failed to hear?”