Friday, October 15, 2010

Words at the monument to enslaved Africans

I stand here before you today with great humility.

I am grateful to be invited to give voice to my thoughts and to honor the memory of the enslaved Africans whose lives touched our state and whose unspoken stories sing in the air around us and invite us to remember.

Gathering here makes this monument to enslaved Africans hallowed ground.

We join to remember these African American men and women, who toiled in New Jersey and Bergen County.

We cannot see their faces. We cannot hear their voices and the sounds of their children. We don’t know the names of their ancestors’ villages or what words from diverse languages and traditions were lost during their cruel passage.

How many tears were shed when they didn’t believe that they could go forward? How much pain did they feel in the putrid mess of a ship where human beings moaned and struggled until their cries quieted down, useless in an impossible situation?

We know that they came to this area in chains. We know that men, women and children were sold like livestock, their yearnings, dismissed, their individual freedom, scorned.

Physical shackles tried to kill their spirit. The stripping of their names and traditions tried to kill their culture. The separation of mother and father from children, spouses from their beloved – forever - created a legacy of hatred and oppression whose cries we still hear to this day.

If we are very quiet, perhaps we can hear them now. We can imagine the buzz of work; of vegetables purchased and hauled home, the fields tended, the animals brushed, the smell of fresh laundry and sheets flapping in the sweet afternoon sun.

We can seek to know the fire of youth and the quieting of that fire by those who had to survive in order to cling to the only possibilities offered – a recognition for jobs done in the kind of obedience that enforced labor and slavery created - bonds between masters and owners in an enforced relationship.

We remember the intimacy thrust upon these Africans who nursed white babies, bore children and kept quiet when those very children and families were flesh and blood of their slave masters.

They kept quiet when these powerful men would use and dehumanize them into submission. They were forced to provide the semblance of loving comfort when they had no options to flee, to self determine or to reject the unwelcome advances of power.

And what about the African American men, who loved these women? What about the pain and helplessness they felt when they could do nothing to protect their wives and sisters?

As I stand here, I think of these men and women. I look back in horror at what those who shared my skin color have done to dehumanize and control my brothers and sisters. I think about the blindness that can allow us to believe that our brothers and sisters of other races, religions and ways are our enemies.

Remembering them is not enough. We must dig deep.

What shackles bind us? What is the legacy of these dark years? What wounds still ache and how can love help us to create a world free of such abuse and blindness? What can we do to create a future where truly, we will judge each other “not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character,” as Martin once dreamed?

As a teacher, I see the lines of demarcation all around me, but especially in school cafeterias. Brown children group together, football players, theater kids, Asian students and cheer leaders all find their “comfort zone,” which is frequently color coded.

A decade ago, Theadora Lacey and Rori Kantor, leaders in the town of Teaneck, NJ, looked around too and saw that though we had civil rights and integrated schools, we did not have the habit of social connection the way that the law said we could.

They created the idea for “Teens Talk About Racism” and spent a year meeting with houses of worship and youth to organize an event where students could create a safe zone to discuss stereotyping and to find ways that we could knock down the walls that still divide us in every organization and school today.

The first year, about 15 students gathered at the Central Unitarian Church in Paramus, to dialog and share their ideas and to find strategies to create a better world.

The next year, about April, Rory reached out to me at a quick lunch meeting at a diner in the middle of my busy school day. She asked me if I had any ideas to mobilize the youth.

I said two key things, “have the conference during the day” and “let’s partner with a university to create a conference with the kind of dignity that an adult conference might have.”

Two months later, we welcomed over 100 students to Fairleigh Dickinson University and since then, we’ve hosted almost 200 students per year, in the month of May, to lead and facilitate discussions designed to bust stereotypes and empower social action.

At “Teens talk” we discuss interracial dating, racial profiling, differentiated treatment based on race in school settings, the lack of students of color in AP classes, mentoring, connecting students in a multitude of schools via social networking tools, immigration reform.

The best part is that the conversation is totally youth led. The teachers leave the ten rooms where discussion is happening to youth facilitators who organize icebreakers, theater and art activities and to talk around issues that matter.

Each year, they change the world in significant ways by creating a safe space to talk about the stereotypes we bring to the table and why these stereotypes have no place in our shared world.

We bring the discussion to the heart of matters because if we don’t confront the beliefs we carry in our hearts and minds as a legacy of an enslaved past, we are doomed to allow them to format our minds, contaminate our actions and create instant responses to situations that are racist, limited and sad.

At the end of the conference, the students sing “Lean on me” and they really mean it. They stand up and hug each other – white and brown children locked in embrace, ready to connect to create a better world for themselves and their families to come.

And they don’t do this to “be good.” They do this because the “ah ha” moment they’ve shared at “Teens Talk” is what we all need to share as adults - we need each other.

Without the stories and perspectives of my African American brothers and sisters, I am less. The world is less clear, less warm, less connected.

Without my friendship, my African American friends would not understand the unique sort of blindness that living in racial privilege creates. They would not hear my stories, my dreams and hopes for a shared tomorrow.

We fumble together through this conversation because we must rebuild the future by re-scripting a story of racial togetherness and understanding.

We can laugh about our short sightedness and our limitations. We can bring our ignorance out to the public eye, in a safe zone we designate for such hard talk, only when we recognize that our limitations have been caused by the lack of experience that enforced and inherited segregation has caused.

We see the poison and then, together, we destroy it with the antidote that only love can give us.

We must accept that nobody is “color blind” and that what we believe about race must be dismantled in a conscious and often painful journey of self-awareness that will take us a lifetime.

And so, in closing, I invite us all on such a journey. In honor of these enslaved Africans, I rededicate myself to a path towards a greater openness in thinking. I commit myself to continue to help create the kinds of dialogs that are so sorely needed and apparently so difficult for us to begin.

Barack Obama had a good idea when he invited Professor Henry Louis Gates
and Sgt. James Crowley, the Massachusetts police officer who mistook him for an intruder, to the white house for a beer. His great insight was to join together two apparent opponents, both mad as a hornet, to just talk and share their perspectives and stories and to say:

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know who you were. Can we begin once again?”

Maryann Woods-Murphy
Hackensack, New Jersey
October 9th, 2010

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