I Have a Dream


I Have a Dream.

Only words, a collection of letters, random markings made divine when early humans first scratched symbols in the dirt, trying to communicate with each other. Trying to connect. The animals are here. The water is here. This is the way. This is what I know.

Only words, but words are all we have, and so we keep scratching.

I picture Martin Luther King, Junior, scratching away, crossing out, circling words, drawing arrows from one paragraph to another, shaking his head, crumpling up his paper, and starting again. Forgetting to pray, getting frustrated, praying, and starting again. And again.

He had a dream, and he needed words. And eventually, God answered his prayers and gave him the words that have been such an unspeakable gift to the world. I have a dream . . .

Today some folks from my church are getting together to watch Dr. King’s historic speech. Afterwards, we’ll talk about racial justice, white privilege, and reconciliation. It will probably be hard to find the right words. We’ll be afraid of using the wrong words. It might be hard to hear some of the words that are spoken; I mean really hear them.

We’ll forget to pray, get frustrated, pray, and start again.

“This is my experience. This is what I know.”

Words of Love

Words are a gift from God. Of course, they can be misused, even turned into weapons. Just tune in to a presidential debate, FOX News, or a so-called “Christian” broadcasting channel and you’ll see how words can be used to drive wedges and stoke the fires of hate and fear.

But love is stronger than hate or fear. Dr. King knew this. Words of love and hope have more power than words of hate and fear could ever dream of having. His words reach across the decades, bridging the great differences that divide us and diving deep into the common spirit that unites every one of us, throughout all time and beyond time.

This week’s photo challenge from WordPress is to share a photo that reflects the word: alphabet. This MLK Day post was inspired by these two photos taken outside a community center in rural New Mexico:




Wake Up, White People

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“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

— Benjamin Franklin

It is time, white people. It is well past time. We can pretend that we are “unaffected” by police violence against people of color in America, or we can be outraged. Those are the only two options I see. Because you can’t watch the video of the police swarming all over Eric Garner in Staten Island and see it as anything other than homicide.

There are no questions, no conflicting accounts as there were in Ferguson; it’s all on video. As is the aftermath where six or seven officers, presumably trained in CPR, stand around watching Eric die on the sidewalk. One goes through his pockets. Another pats his shoulder and gives him the encouraging advice to “Breathe in, breathe out.” How sweet.

Parallel Universe

When I heard that the Staten Island grand jury would bring no charges, I felt as if I’d had the wind knocked out of me — like I was the one pleading, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” And I don’t have brown or black kids. I have a lot of friends who do, though, and I can’t imagine how they must feel every time their child walks out the door.

Meanwhile, my white Facebook friends are “outraged” at the latest changes in Facebook privacy policies, or else super-excited because Safeway has whole shopping carts full of candy bars for only a buck. I look around to see if I’ve crossed into a parallel universe. Haven’t they heard the news? I don’t even have a TV, and I heard the news.

But no, life in the white world goes on as before.

But not entirely.

Signs of Humanity

One white girlfriend calls in tears, partly hopeful because there are people demonstrating in the streets all over the country, and partly distraught because of “what has happened to our country.” She has made a sign for her window that says simply, ERIC.

Another white friend who teaches at an elite private school struggles “to justify teaching the structure of a sonnet when there seems to be no structure in the world —or when it seems that the structures that do exist appall and offend you.” I wish more people had his soft heart, where “simply falling asleep in secure comfort feels viciously calloused, knowing there are people dying wrongfully at the hands of others while the world looks on and declares No harm, No foul.”

A Facebook friend asks, “Where is the fierce urgency of now among my fellow white liberal base? The cultural state of the country feels more dire than at any time in my lifetime.” (I might add, where is the conservative base that’s supposed to care about individual rights? Oh, that’s right, they are too busy creating cartoons of our black president’s head coming out of a dog’s butt to notice people being gunned down and strangled in the streets.)

So, Mr. Benjamin Franklin, white Americans may be slow to wake up and slow to outrage. I know that I feel powerless over all this, and it’s easier to be in denial. But there are signs of an awakening. And this is a democracy — or at least it used to be. I think it’s possible that perhaps, just perhaps, these African-American men and boys will not have died completely in vain. Perhaps justice will one day be served in this country when White America recognizes that there is no one “unaffected” by racial oppression.


“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Martin Niemoller

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Writing Challenge: The Story of John


John had been here before, a long time ago. I watch as his eyes follow the train tracks into a copse of trees. His chocolate brown pupils have turned milky with age and look almost purple against the bloodshot whites.

“That was almost sixty years ago,” he says dreamily.

Then he straightens his shoulders, hitches up his belted black dress pants shiny with wear, and looks directly at me. “That’s when God put his hand on me and called me back,” he says with a vigorous nod.

John knows the moment he left God. He was fourteen, living in a small town in North Carolina not far from where his family had been enslaved a few generations before. One Sunday after church, John opined to his mama that he didn’t think he believed in the God that Granny’s pastor talked about, “the one who sends people to Hell and tells us we are despicable creatures. No sir, I didn’t know that God.”

“Mama whipped me good that time,” he said. But he was used to it. His mother often disappeared, going on drinking binges and leaving him alone for days at a time, only to beat him when she returned.

A few days later, still sore from the thrashing, John stepped out of a movie theater into the bright afternoon sunlight. His guilt-ridden mama had treated him to the show. “All the white folks were on the ground floor and all us blacks were up above. I decided it should not be like that. Things were wrong. That’s when I decided to go where the train goes.”

Going where the train goes...

Going where the train goes…

That’s also when John told his first lie. He asked a man outside the theater to give him a lift to the depot, and told him he had permission from his mother.

Then John hopped a train.

“Just like that,” he said. “My mama kept disappearing, so I disappeared.”

Enslavement and Liberation

By the time I noticed we were walking, we were some distance down the tracks. John was striding from tie to tie as if his feet had rediscovered an old familiar pathway, like fingers recalling a musical instrument after a lifetime away. I trailed behind.

“I had to lie again when I got to Raleigh,” John said over his shoulder. “I told the man at the depot I was sixteen and that my parents had died.” The man helped John find a job on one condition: that he go back to school. “Yes sir, God had his hand on me all along.” John shakes his head in wonder.

He stayed in school and worked afternoons at a hot dog stand. On Sundays, he would make good money selling wine and whiskey from behind his stand. “Soon enough I couldn’t do without the stuff; I was an alcoholic just like Mama.”

John slows his gait and looks up and down the tracks and over at the copse of trees. “Right about here,” he says, stopping,”right here.”

“One night I was sitting by the tracks — here — with another wino, wondering where we were going to find the money for more booze. All of a sudden, I see he’s crying. I asked him, ‘What’s the matter, Pokey? Don’t worry, we’ll find a way to get more wine before we go to sleep.’

‘It’s not that,’ Pokey answered. ‘It’s you I’m worried about — you’re not going to make it.'”

John is silent for a while, as if reliving that conversation.

“That was my low point, yes it was,” he says finally. He toes the dust with his black lace-up shoe. “I thought about it all night. After that I went to an AA meeting and had a miracle. God took away my desire for alcohol. It’s more than drinking, it’s liberation . . . that’s where I found the true God.”

Pokey went to a few meetings with John, but he’s the one who didn’t make it. “He died of alcoholism in his forties,” John says, “but he saved my life.”

* * * * * *

Based on a true story (John’s name has been changed) and in response to the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge, which this week offered a selection of photographs and introductory lines to kick off a story. I chose the train tracks and a variation of “I had been here before, a long time ago.” Photo credit: Cheri Lucas Rowlands/The Daily Post.

Abdicating My Soapbox but Still Mourning Trayvon

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I’m staying out of the Trayvon Martin thing. I just can’t do it this time. I know that makes me a bad progressive, maybe a bad Christian, certainly a bad social networker, and perhaps even a bad American.

The media tells me I should have been glued to my TV for the past several weeks, cheering when “my side” scored a point, scoffing at the lawyers and witnesses on the “other side.” But I do not have a TV (much to Verizon’s incessant chagrin – I’m missing out on their BUNDLE, don’t I know??).

No, I have not been a proper “media consumer.”

I did not accept my free ticket to the summer circus.

The Facebook Frenzy

So when I got on Facebook yesterday to see what was going on in the land of cute kittens and pretty sunsets and weddings and babies and random photos of food, I was taken aback.

The verdict had been handed down twenty-four hours before; Zimmerman was walking the streets again, and all hell had broken loose!

I felt a moment of panic. I did not have my case prepared! Everyone else seemed to know every detail of the case, they had opinions on the lawyers and the judge and the witnesses and the pre-trial this and that.

No worries, my Facebook friends would tell me what to think. Most of my friends are progressive types, and they were all over the story. Dozens of articles, some searing with sarcasm and seriously funny, some digging up dark moments in civil rights history that many white folk have probably never heard of.

Pictures of hoodies and Martin Luther King, pictures of Martin Luther King IN a hoodie, pleas for civil suits, and petitions for the Justice Department to take action.


My conservative Facebook friends (the few, the proud, the brave who suffer my rants about global warming, peace, WalMart, and even presidential elections) were all over the gun thing. This had nothing to do with race, they said, it was all about the right to bear arms. Some had moved into compassionate conservatism, feeling badly that George Zimmerman “is going to be spit on, literally and figuratively, for the rest of his life.”

Remarkably, I refrained from commenting, “I hope so.”

This was a turning point for me.

What I Do Not Know

Because you see, I do not know. Am I even allowed to say that, to not have an opinion?

I do not know the facts. I was not there. I was not on the jury. I do not know the defendant or the dead teenager.

I want to think that the jury did their best to put aside their prejudices, preconceptions, and personal politics and to seek the truth. “Reasonable doubt” is always subjective, but what else do we have?

I do not know. That is why I’m abdicating my personal soapbox for the moment.

I often jump to conclusions, often react with knee-jerk assumptions. People I know and trust say this, so it must be so. The wealthy corporation claims this, so it’s probably not true. Past history in America is this, therefore

We all do this. We base our opinions on our past experience, our beliefs, and our context. Nothing wrong with that, up to a point.

But in a court of law, that would be hearsay and circumstantial evidence.

What I Do Know

The circumstances in the Zimmerman/Martin case, as I see them, seem pretty clear. I can understand why people are holding vigils.

George Zimmerman has a history of violence towards cops and women; he has a history of racial hate speech, and he has called the police more than forty times about “suspicious” black people in his neighborhood.

The police told him not to go out there with his gun that night. The National Sheriff’s Association completely disavowed Zimmerman’s action and said his group was not a Neighborhood Watch.

Trayvon Martin smoked pot, I hear.

What Others Know

Many of my African American friends are devastated by the verdict. I am sick on their behalf, on this nation’s behalf.

Even setting aside the Zimmerman case, why are we still like this? Why should my friends have to worry that their teenagers will be shot when they walk out the front door? Like any parents, they talk to their kids about respecting their elders and responding appropriately to authority, but in their case, it can be a life or death conversation.

The FOX News commentators  say this whole mess is because the black people, including our President, keep bringing up all this race stuff. If they would just stop stirring the pot, everything would be fine.

Right. Let’s move on from all this unpleasantness.

My younger friends seem to have been hit upside the head with this verdict. It seems clear to them that Trayvon Martin was stalked and murdered. They thought that things had changed since their grandparent’s day. They know that politics is broken, but had hoped the judicial system was above that.

They have had their eyes opened.

I know the feeling. I remember the gut-kick I received when the Supreme Court said, “Stop counting the votes,” during the Bush v. Gore electoral debacle in — oh yeah . . . Florida.

Stop counting the votes? Isn’t this America? Don’t we count the votes here?

Well, folks, this is America. And shit happens.

 Bending the Arc of History

It’s up to us to keep trying to get it right. We must not give up. We are Americans.

Try to be civil. Try to consider the facts. Even try to examine the other side with an open mind, if you can find someone who is able to state it reasonably. It’s harder and harder these days, on both “sides.”

To my progressive friends, I say work for justice – don’t give up. Try to speak reasonably and don’t set your hair on fire. The arc of history bends towards justice – we must believe this and put all of our collective weight into bending that arc.

To my conservative friends who think that the word “justice” has been co-opted by “liberals” and is really something that God will hand down in the by-and-by, I say read your bible about justice and oppression and pray about it. Shut out the noise and see what God might be saying to you, personally. And pray for peace.

We should all be praying for peace. Real, true peace, not covering-things-over peace.

And we should be talking about morality, not just legality. Because as it turns out, sometimes laws are immoral.

I feel a little guilty for not diving into the blazing house of opinionators this time. But also a little liberated. I’m not informed, and I don’t know how to get informed at this point.

You guys already know how I feel about racism, and if you don’t, please read There’s No Such Thing as Quiet Racism. The disease is alive and noisy in America.

It is possible that Zimmerman is innocent, under a less-than-moral Florida law. It’s just as possible that he’s guilty as sin.

Either way, I hope that there are further investigations.

Because the kid is dead.

OK, maybe I do have an opinion.

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