The land of the free and the home of the brave. Powerful role model athletes kneel, often with hands over hearts in hope, as the national anthem is played. They protest non-indictments in cases of police brutality against people of color. Teammates stand and touch the shoulders of the protesters in solidarity even if they cannot kneel themselves. Our president belittles the protesters. Team owners join the players. Major corporations join the protest. Scientists from all over the world kneel. The response snowballs. American patriots who cannot bring themselves to recite the Pledge of Allegiance when freedom and justice are demonstrably not for all. I am white, middle class, privileged, Yet, in conversation with my students of color and diverse colleagues I can clearly grasp the frustration, anger and, yes, fear. Fear in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Fear that people who do not know me, hate me.
The, now, famous 75-year Harvard study of men from both Harvard College and the Boston slums has shown that the factor in life that makes men happy, healthy and live longer is good relationships. Not wealth. Not fame. Relationships. Relationships with spouse, family, community make us healthier and happier over time. The act of bickering and arguing and disagreeing makes us healthier because we are confident in the reliability of our relationships when crunch time arrives. Irrational hate doesn't make us happy and healthy. Nor does it lengthen our life spans. Relationships do that.
Perhaps the Trump years of greed, self-aggrandizement and isolationism will motivate us to expand our communities, our relationships, beyond class and racial barriers. Perhaps Trump "speak" is the shock we need to seek out new relationships across social and economic boundaries. To listen to new and different ideas. To consider those ideas with an open mind.
A former teacher, colleague and insightful poet, Dawn Richberg, dares to struggle with our community's racial issues with great compassion. I share with you here a poem that she brought to our faculty at Ann Arbor Skyline High School as we discussed issues of equity and anti-racism in education. I invite you to read with an open mind and try to understand the profound scope of racism that "Take a Knee" symbolizes. I invite you to take a risk; overcome your fear and talk with someone from outside your comfort zone about something outside your comfort zone. Even the smallest ray of understanding will contribute to your health and well-being and the health and well-being of our nation.
When we don’t talk about Ferguson in class
(for all of our students)
When we don’t talk about Ferguson in 1st hour science
I put my head down and tune out covalent bonds
When we don’t talk about Ferguson in 2nd hour history
I wonder if my teacher has forgotten that
we just finished Chapter 14: Jim Crow America
When we don’t talk about Ferguson in 3rd hour choir
I stage my own silent protest
When hypocrisy sings There is Sweet Music Here
I refuse to lend my voice
There is a demonstration on The Diag at noon
But the city bus does not come during school hours
When we don’t talk about Ferguson in 4th hour math
I interrupt the teacher three times
even though it’s my favorite class
Do you see me? Could I be your dead son?
By the time I get to 5th hour
My chest is tight
So when Alex tells me to move
because he cannot see the board
I say fuck you
Out loud so the whole class can hear
And I wait for Miss Whitehorn to say
That is inappropriate language, Mister
But she doesn’t
Instead she says: Class, today I am going to change up our lesson
We will come back to Gatsby tomorrow
For the prompt I want you to write a persuasive paragraph
about the Ferguson decision
And she writes on the board: Do you agree or disagree
with the grand jury decision to not charge Officer Wilson
in the death of Michael Brown?
And finally I CAN BREATHE
Dawn Richberg is an Ann Arbor-based writer and social justice educator. She wrote "When we don’t talk about Ferguson" in response to the frustration she and some of her students felt about the lack of teacher-initiated classroom discussions of police brutality and other social justice issues that continue to affect students once they are inside the school walls. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: detail from a photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes for the Associated Press published in the Washington Post, September 26, 2017.
Buffalo Bills players kneel during the national anthem before their NFL football game against the Denver Broncos on Sunday in Orchard Park, N.Y.
Zinn Education Project: Teaching the People's History a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of United States history than is found in traditional textbooks.
Teaching Tolerance, a community of educators committed to democracy founded in diversity, equality and justice.