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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Help My Unbelief: Were You There?

We have been here before, in 1857 in which the highest court of the land ruled that blacks were “beings of an inferior order,” and that they were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

We have been here before, in the years between 1882 and 1920, in which nearly 4,000 documented cases of lynchings of African Americans took place.

We have been here before, as the judicial system looked the other way, while both Southern and Northern trees bore strange fruit with blood on the leaves and blood at the roots.

We have been here before, in 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma when 35 square blocks of homes and businesses were torched by racist mobs and hundreds of African Americans were killed and thousands were left homeless.

We have been here before, in 1923 when a violent mob burned down almost every structure in the town of Rosewood, Florida and caused the deaths of 6 innocent black men.

We have been here before, in 1931 in Scottsboro Alabama, where a cover-up, an all-white jury, rushed trials, and angry lynch mobs led to a miscarriage of justice for nine black teenage boys.

We have been here before in 1955 in Mississippi with Emmett Till and then later in Chicago, when a grieving mother allowed her son’s lynched body to be photographed to demonstrate to the entire world the fate of black boys who dared to be free.

We have been here before, where an article of clothing - a hoodie or a headscarf or a hijab or a short skirt - seems to be a license to hate, disrespect, and enact violence.

We have been here before, when the victim’s past is on trial, where the very person who has been violated or raped or killed is the subject of scrutiny and speculation and suspicion - while his or her murderer or violator walks free.

Here is a place of brokenness and despair, where the lives of black and brown men, women, and children seem to be less valuable than the lives of others.

Here is a place where we confront our naked racism and the evidence that we have not come as far as we think from the Jim and Jane Crow era.

Here is a place where we are comfortable killing the black body and the brown body, and even after it is dead, raising it again and crucifying it, because the very color of this flesh is suspicious.

Here is a place of police brutality and public indifference.

Here is a place where the institutions built to protect and serve often bully and belittle.

Here is a place where we despair that justice will ever be done; where we are tired of marches and rallies, protests and petitions.

We have been here before, weary of good-doing; weary of having to explain; weary of the ways human beings can hate and harm each other.

But there is good news: we do not always have to be in this place. We have the power to strike a mighty blow at racism. We have the power to ensure that justice is served. We have the power to call on the names of the forgotten. We have the power to treat each other with human decency, knowing that “justice is what love looks like in public.”

As we continue the Lenten season, I am reminded of the words of an African-American spiritual, "Were You There:"

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

This is not a rhetorical question and it isn't about the people who may have witnessed the crucifixion. The song is about whether we show up in times of trouble. The song is about whether we are aware of suffering and sorrow. Were you present? Did you know? How did you react? Were you paying attention? Were you mourning the loss of an innocent man? Or were you a part of the crowd yelling "crucify Him?"

Injustice should cause us to tremble; indifference should cause us to tremble; racism should cause us to tremble; complacency should cause us to tremble; justice delayed should cause us to tremble, tremble. Were you there? And will you show up?

© Yolanda Pierce

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