This evening, I walked into the Diversity Center at my local college, and witnessed something I never expected was possible. The event was called “Black History Month Extravaganza,” and many faculty and students gave presentations, including poetry by Langston Hughes and personal letters from Martin Luther King Jr. After the scheduled presentations that enriched us in the history of our country, the floor was opened up to Open Mic.
Something told me, “You can do it,” and even though my legs were shaking, and my heart hurt from pounding in my chest, I walked to the front of the Diversity Center, and gave my personal accounts of the drudgery of slavery.
When I was in elementary school, I had a neighbor friend. She told me that she was adopted, and I thought she was (like most kids) pretending to be something she wasn’t. I decided to ask her parents (who are white) if she was actually adopted, or if she was just playing around. Her mom raised an eyebrow, and said, “Uh, honey, she’s black.”
This caught me off guard at first, for before this moment, I hadn’t been able to tell the difference between her skin and mine. At eight or ten or whatever age I was, I saw her as another human being, but not as someone who was different than me. It may sound silly, but as I’ve grown up, I hope that one day more children don’t see the physical differences between each other. I hope for the day when skin color is a needless fact like hair or eye color. When what is different about people is not based on how we look, but from what comes from within. Our hearts, and our minds, and our being.
I then told a personal account that is a little more recent. We read Frederick Douglass this week in my Early American Literature class. In Chapter Two of his narrative, he wrote of witnessing his master whipping a fellow slave. He wrote:
“…No words, no tears, no prayers, from his glory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest…”
“…It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant.”
And then I told my story about how I was a witness and a participant to my own crime.
About two years ago, a good friend at the time told me a story about his older brother and an experience he had in the south. He was with a group of white supremacists, and they tied a black man to their truck with a rope, and planned to drag him across a field. They told my friend’s brother, “If you don’t ride with us, we’ll do this to you.” Scared for his life, he chose to rode with them.
He was a witness to this act of hate. He was a participant because he didn’t do anything about it.
From what I can remember, this was not an event that was found out; and as the years have gone on, I still carry this story in my heart. It sickens me to know that the black man’s parents don’t know the fate of their son – that he was murdered by the hands of hate and intolerance. And how cruel is it that a stranger knows what happened to their son, and they don’t?
And then it dawned on me: I am a witness because I listened to this story. I am a participant because I haven’t done anything about it.
Frederick Douglas remained a witness because he was terrified to have the same fate as the woman being beat. My friend’s brother remained a witness because he lacked the courage to risk his life to save another. But I am a stranger, a person who cannot be directly harmed, so why haven’t I done anything? What’s stopping me?
It seems that people are comfortable living their own lives, and conveniently forget that they can do more. And it’s true: you may be less happy, you may put yourself at risk, and you may die – but do it because it’s worth it. Because fighting for what is right is the right thing to do.
This is exactly what heroes have taught us: risk your life to better this world.
What am I willing to die for? What are you willing to die for?
We should always be willing to die for what is right. For love. For people.