Leave it to young people to poignantly explain the most misunderstood – deliberately or not – three words in America’s sociopolitical lexicon.
Prompted by comments from a student after last fall’s Black Cross Project – in which 300 miniature crosses were planted on campus to represent the number of unarmed blacks killed by police over a three-year period – SUNY Buffalo State associate professor Beth Hinderliter began a summer online class on the Black Lives Matter movement.
As part of the course, Hinderliter – coordinator of African and African-American Studies – had the undergraduates record one- to two-minute audio files responding to the national movement’s prompt: “If black lives mattered ...”
The recordings, done in the two weeks leading up to July 4, don’t capture the Minnesota and Louisiana police killings of black men that precipitated the murders of five white officers by a deranged black man in Dallas.
But after the last two years, it wasn’t necessary to experience the past two weeks to feel the anguish of wondering if your life counts as much as someone else’s in a society in which significant segments pretend not to even understand why you’d ask and resent you for doing so.
For those who have to wonder how things would be different if black lives really mattered, the students say it far better than I could:
“In a world where black lives matter, I imagine ... a world where color is only used to identify crayons ... where wearing a hoodie doesn’t mean trouble at night ... I imagine a world where Afros are adored as sculptures. I imagine a world with a million Obamas, not just one.... I imagine a world where life isn’t a privilege, but it’s a right.” – Levar Leys of the Bronx.
The young men and women recognize it is hard to believe black lives matter when every cultural clue tells them it doesn’t.
“ ... I imagine a world where Afros and corns rows to black vernacular and the deepest of melanin is not acceptable because someone has made it a fad. It is acceptable because it is a way of life, and a way of preserving your culture that has been fought so hard to be kept.” – Amanda Bauza of Rochester:
And they see the toll this constant battle takes on the psyche of too many young blacks who remain emotionally and mentally chained.
“... Imagine everyone loved our broad noses, full lips and dark skin. Imagine the African-American woman wasn’t treated with the least respect, as if Aretha never existed. Imagine more African-American males filling the void of their child’s heart instead of a jail cell ... Imagine the greatest mass murder on American soil, to decimate Black Wall Street, never took place. If blacks weren’t programmed to hate themselves and unconsciously remain docile.
“Imagine if slavery never existed. Then again, imagine if it were to ever end. Imagine that.” – Richard Rouse of Buffalo.
They even imagine a world in which the content of their character is how they get stereotyped and walking down the street does not become a life-and-death exercise.
“ ... I imagine that my skin would not be a prominent factor in distinguishing my life’s journey. But my intellect? My intellect will determine my future success. Walking down the street? It wouldn’t be a problem. Only smiles and head nods from police officers rather than the fear of having to text my mother one last time before my life is taken. See, in that world, there would be no reason to cross the street when I walk by you ...” – Ronel Beausejour of Queens.
“... black people will be able to travel into any neighborhood without being seen as dangerous. The activists of the past will smile down from Heaven because the black life is more valuable than it is today. Black men will treat black men as their brother, not enemy; black women will band together as a sisterhood and raise our children... Where racism will not be a determining factor for jobs and the criminal justice system ... Black women will know their worth ... Black men will know their capabilities and their possibilities.” – Brandi Smith of Buffalo.
And Buffalo’s Rachel Orton sounds as if she were speaking directly to those like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani – those politically dishonest enough to pretend not to understand the implicit “too” at the end of those three powerful words; or honestly too obtuse to recognize it, and thus to be accorded any standing as a national commentator.
“In a world where black lives mattered, I imagine being taught the brutal realities of slavery and I’ve learned about the lives of women who impacted the civil rights movement. Sojourner Truth, Ella Baker and Rosa Parks would have been names that I knew in grade school, not college ....Natural hairstyles would be celebrated in the workplace, not appropriated by celebrities or models ... Black ideas and opinions would not only be heard, but valued... In a world where black lives mattered, not one death would result from police brutality or hatred. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and others would still be alive.
“And in a world where black lives truly mattered, this movement would not be necessary.”