By Robert M. Sellers
Growing up the son of a minister and two civil rights activists, one of my favorite gospel songs is “I don’t feels no ways tired.” That song, like so many other songs from my African American culture, evokes an everlasting optimism about tomorrow that is built on “the faith that our dark past has taught us” as well as “the hope that the present has brought us.”
I have always said that Black folks are the most optimistic subscribers of the American dream, despite our long history of dehumanization and degradation in this country. This other-worldly optimism is perhaps most famously exemplified in Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech (that America ironically likes to co-opt by trotting it out every year on his birthday as a self-congratulatory sign of how much progress we have made as a society since his death).
This morning, I woke up very tired. Not your normal tired. I woke up with a kind of tired that can only be found on the other side of loss, anger, frustration, sadness, and despair. This morning, I woke up in a state in which African Americans make up roughly 13% of the population, but comprise 31% of the people with COVID-19 and 40% of the people dying from COVID-19. I woke up in a country where a White woman can not only accuse an African American man of threatening her because he is simply asking her to obey the law in a public space, but she can actually weaponize the police for her own aims simply by repeatedly referring to him as being African American.
The scary truth of the matter is not that she believed (or even hoped) that she would get a different response by evoking race when making her 911 call. The really scary thing is that she was right. By evoking race and Blackness specifically, she placed a target on his back, putting a man’s life in real danger. The recent murders of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery make this point abundantly clear: being a Black male interacting with law enforcement can be hazardous to one’s health. Lest we get it twisted, being a Black woman in these situations is no picnic either. I woke up in a country where a Black woman is being repeatedly punched in the head by a member of my local sheriff department.
This morning, I woke up bone-weary tired.
Some people argue that this country, while being built substantially by us, was never meant for us. (They are not wrong.) As such, some of these same people believe that other-worldly optimism is a sign of weakness and is ultimately what has sealed our fate as a people. They question the wisdom in holding out such faith and hope for change in a system (in a society) that has time and time again demonstrated that Black dignity, Black bodies, and Black lives matter a little less. (It is hard to argue with the logic of the question.)
These times really do raise for me the question of how long must we wait, plan, work, march, agitate, forgive, and vote before we have a society in which all lives matter equally, regardless of race or color? In my bone-weary tired state this morning, before I even got out of bed, I asked myself why should I continue to fight to try to change a system that has proven time and time again that it simply does not regard me and people who look like me as fully human.
As I woke up this morning, I could not get out of bed. I laid there for a while trying to grapple with my feelings of exhaustion and despair. Often, when I am struggling to understand important things in my life, I turn to my parents’ example for guidance. I tried to access the collective wisdom of those who came before me, those who sacrificed so that I could have more. I wondered what they would say about the state of race in today’s society and what my role should be. From birth, my parents instilled in me and my siblings through their words – and more importantly their actions – that the fight for racial justice is a long, intergenerational one. It is also one that we are destined to win because right is on our side.
No matter the nature of the setbacks they faced (and there were many and some brutal ones at that), they were always able to get through them through tears and laughter, forever keeping their eyes on the prize. In many ways, they epitomized that other-worldly Black optimism. Don’t get me wrong, they never hid their own feelings of frustration, anger, and tiredness from us. In fact, that is how I recognized my own feelings this morning. Nonetheless, my parents never veered from their belief that the brightest day only shone on the other side of the darkest night.
As I laid in that bed thinking about what lessons I could glean from their lives and what they had said to me and my brothers and sister, I was hoping for some form of instant relief from my feelings of tiredness. I was hoping that their legacy and story would wipe away my doubts about our society and where we are going. I was hoping that my reflecting on my parents’ lives would magically re-charge my batteries and somehow soothe my pain. Sadly, my reflections did none of that.
What my recollections of my parents’ example did do was provide me with a perspective, a lens through which I can view and understand all that is happening now. This lens reminds me that this struggle is not new, nor is it likely to be won in my life time. Sadly, it is likely that more Black people will die before we become the country that remotely resembles the one described in our constitution. This lens also reminds me that this country is MY country. My ancestors sacrificed their lives in building this country.
Their blood, sweat, and tears fertilize the rich soil upon which much of this country’s wealth and standing in the world is built. I have no choice but to fight for it – to fight to make it live up to its creed. I owe it to those who came before me, those who fought and died to make this country just a little bit better for those who came after them. They fought for me. To not do so would be akin to walking away from my birthright. It is a birthright that does not belong only to me; it also belongs to future generations of Black folks.
What reflecting on my parents’ example provided me was renewal – not in the form of relief, but instead in the form of resolve. My reflections on their example gave me new insights into that other-worldly optimism that is foundational to the strength and resilience of Black people.
That optimism does not reside in a belief that America will simply change, it actually resides in the knowledge that each generation of African Americans has changed America for the better and a great faith that the next generation will take the next steps in changing America even more (even if it feels way too slow). This perspective has renewed my resolve to do all that I can to make whatever change I can. For me, to do otherwise would be turning my back on the investment that my ancestors made in this country and disinheriting my descendants.
I am still tired of this shit though.