For all of my brothers and sisters who wonder if they will ever get a break in life … keep reading. Use Black History Month as a reason to keep trying. Barack Obama, Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith. Their names have dominated the news over the past week. Let’s not get bogged down in the details of whether you like or dislike these individuals. Or even what kind of “hook-ups” they’ve had in life to reach the heights they now experience. Think bigger, broader, and deeper. Who they are now has a lot more to do with the last 400 years than the last 40.
How many black people fought, failed and died to change laws and customs that attempted to dehumanize and ignore the God-given dignity of countless generations? History, whether personal or national, can be painful and misunderstood, which is why many of us choose to ignore it instead of wrestling with the lessons it has to teach. All of us alive now, no matter our condition or place in life, have the benefit of not just our individual pasts, but the pasts of an entire people who have tirelessly waged one of the greatest battles for dignity, courage and self-determination this planet has ever seen. I’m not just referring to the Martin Kings, the Fannie Lou Hamers and the Frederick Douglasses, but also to the unsung legions of persons whose names will never grace a public school or have a holiday. The great names of Black History would humbly declare that the “everyday” man and woman who keeps on showing up and keeps on keeping on are the ones who really make those special moments in Black History possible.
We must learn how to use history and not let history use us. Another way of saying this is that we must learn how to manage the reality of our disappointments, failures, mistakes, and the overall craziness of life and stop letting these things control and dictate our behaviors. It took centuries for black Americans to overthrow the institution of imposed slavery, but it won’t take nearly that long to create a new institution by stumbling into a self-imposed slavery.
Too many young men and women in Austin are dying (suffocating in the quicksand of negative personal/family histories) while standing on corners and sitting in jail cells. Working the corners is guaranteed to get you that seat in jail.
If you’re in jail, become like Nelson Mandela who used his 27 years of imprisonment as preparation in case he ever got out. Never stop preparing yourself. When you get out, if you’ve got a misdemeanor, get it expunged. If you’re walking around with a felony, get it sealed or commuted. If for whatever reason your record can’t be purged right away, and employment doors keep slamming in your face, shop around the ex-offender program world. If one program doesn’t work, try another, and so on and so on. Do what you can to create a new future no matter how slow or insignificant it may seem. Don’t repeat a past that has already shackled and manacled you into the “New Slavery.”
The philosopher Santayana has rightly said, “A people who fail to remember their history are doomed to repeat it.” Frederick Douglass declared that there “is no shame in being a slave; the only shame is in being a slave owner.” I wonder what F.D. would have said about black participation in the New Slavery or, as some would call it, the “Prison Industrial Complex.” Santayana would tell us to remember that slavery was never about race and always about economics. The lesson of Black History is that freedom is never free and the cost of slavery (imprisonment) is always human life.
Look, I’m not trying to pretend that it’s easy to change for the better. I’m not even saying that it’s easy to overcome all the things that make us feel bad about ourselves and life in general. What I am saying is that in spite of everything, at the very least, not a one of us is a slave. A whole lot of people took care of that for all of us a long time ago.
We’re living lives they could only dream of. Barack Obama, Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, thanks for never giving up-and keep making us proud.
Rev. Greg Livingston is pastor of Mandell United Methodist Church in Austin.