In June of 1998 in Jasper, Tex., just about three hours southeast of where I was raised, where the Lone Star State pushes itself into the back of the boot shape of Louisiana, a black man named James Byrd Jr. was subjected to what folks called a “lynching-by-dragging.”
Three white men had given Byrd a ride, but instead of taking him home they took him to the woods, where they beat him, urinated on him, tied his ankles to the back of their truck and dragged his body for three excruciating miles.
He was believed to be still alive while the asphalt ate away at his flesh. Reportedly, he died only when he was decapitated by a culvert.That was just 15 years ago. I was in my 20s. Yet the memory of that story remains fresh and wet in my mind like blood seeping through a bandage. It was a story that changed me, that revealed how my country’s violent past was linked to its present vestige.
For no matter how much progress had been made, or will be made, there will always linger, in the dark corners of cruel minds, something sinister: an assumption that not all men are created equal, or, perhaps, that some men aren’t even men at all.
I have struggled with the violence visited upon men who look like me — often by other men who look like me — for so long, trying to find a way to acknowledge it and remember it without being consumed by it. How to look optimistically to the future, while gazing painfully at the past?
Unfortunately, these sorts of defining moments keep coming. I have James Byrd Jr. My parents had Emmett Till. My children have Trayvon Martin.
These events play a defining role in the African-American dilemma. They violently remind us of otherness and give voice to frustration about nonviolent forms of societal inequality ever bubbling beneath the surface. They let the air out of aspirations.
Does this struggle affect young people today in the same way it affected me? Do centuries of violence inflicted on a people inculcate something deep within them? Has a culture systematically assigned to poverty and whose families were routinely plucked apart succumbed to the vision of the oppressors?
And how do we hold the system accountable, and yet break free from it? Are the scars too long and too deep?
I’m generally an optimistic person. I believe that, as the coaches and preachers say, “if you can conceive it, you can achieve it.” But, I’m also a person who keeps track of numbers and trends and I see just how daunting a reality many of us face.
These are not issues that can be overcome by the ever-elusive “national conversation on race” that folks always seem to call for after something egregious happens. Truth be told, I don’t know what that phrase — the “national conversation on race” — even means. People talk about race all the time. If it means something akin to a “truth and reconciliation” conversation, I won’t hold my breath for that. Personally, I don’t want or need that.
On the one hand, I prefer to focus on eliminating the systemic bias that sweeps across our culture like a bitter wind — invisible but inescapable. We must acknowledge what the data clearly show: that anti-black bias is real and widely affects people’s lives.
On the other hand, I want every person, especially every child, to understand and embrace the value of their beauty, worth and potential, cultural cues notwithstanding. Sometimes gathering the courage to simply love yourself — the skin that you’re in, the way your hair grows out of your head, the creativity that stirs in the pit of your stomach and the brilliance that erupts from your mind — is the most radical and transformative thing a child can do.
I want to encourage them to never give up “because of…” but to always keep going “in spite of…”
I’d like to share with them some words of one of my literary fathers, Langston Hughes, and his poem “Mother to Son”: “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” And yet, we must continue to climb, “sometimes goin’ in the dark, where there ain’t been no light.”
That poem helped change my life when I was younger. It steadied me when the world was rocky. Maybe today, it can do the same for someone else.