As the world reacts to the decision not to have a trial about the killing of Michael Brown, we see pictures and video that range from peaceful protest to enraged destruction. Online exchanges are getting heated, and some activists think words are too tame for what is happening.
Still, scholars like Dr. Yohuru Williams are elevating the discourse. He warned in the LA Progressive of fueling “fears in a city already on edge" and of rationalizing further violence against the community. This morning, he posted the poetry of Langston Hughes. Elevated indeed.
The action after the unjust Rodney King verdicts was undeniably powerful. The civil unrest destroyed parts of the city—and enlivened our consciences. Having moved to Los Angeles from Indiana, my first reaction to emergency was ridiculously to make sure the refrigerator was stocked with milk and bread. My brother hid at his in-laws’ house in South Central for a couple of days because everyone was afraid his white skin and blonde hair would announce an unintended message in his adopted neighborhood during those few days when there was lots of action and few words and 53 people were killed.
I grew up in Indianapolis in the 70s and 80s when it was controversial for a white woman to marry a black man, the way my sister did. Controversial enough so that when she got pulled over driving his car once before she even had a license, the cop didn’t care so much that a 16-year-old was driving without a license. He checked the registration and uttered words that revealed his idea of a much bigger violation: “Does your father know your boyfriend is black?”
When I was in high school, her now husband, Mel, treated me to dinner at the Spaghetti Factory downtown. While we enjoyed what felt like a grownup evening, a white guy dropped a napkin on our table with scribbles that read, “Stay away from the white girl, n*****.” Those words struck me in the gut. Though I tried, I would never imagine what they felt like to Mel. I thought there would be a fight, but there was not. There are times when ignoring words demonstrates more power than any action can.
In what some historians have called one of the great public addresses of the modern era, Kennedy warned of disillusion and divisiveness. He drew on his own tragedy, speaking of his brother’s assassination for the first time publicly.
I live in Venice, a four-square-mile community—suffering and benefiting from gentrification. Oakwood, where I first lived, was one of the first neighborhoods in Southern California to officially ignore the words of the racial covenants in real estate deeds, allowing blacks to own homes by the beach and build a community here, decades before there was regular talk of desegregation. Today, in our notoriously boisterous neighborhood meetings, words divide and unite us. I feel gratified when Jataun and Jackie, elderly sisters from original Oakwood families, approve of my comments at community meetings. I can tell if I’ve done okay if they nod and say, “That’s right.” In that small way, words matter.
There are some historical words that I’ve been thinking about lately, too. In 1968, Robert Kennedy was campaigning in my hometown. I was a mere babe, so I cannot claim to remember. And he chose to go to the “black ghetto,” during a time in history that the chances that I would have been there at all are almost none. He went to that neighborhood very purposely because, as he boarded his plane for Indianapolis, he received word that Martin Luther King had just been assassinated. Instead of giving a rousing campaign speech—or cancelling his appearance altogether—he announced the tragic news to the crowd.
In what some historians have called one of the great public addresses of the modern era, Kennedy warned of disillusion and divisiveness. He drew on his own tragedy, speaking of his brother’s assassination for the first time publicly. He recited the words of the ancient Greek playwright, Aeschylus, and comforted and calmed the crowd: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
On a night when riots swept the nation, killing 35, injuring over 2500 and 70,000 National Guard troops were deployed, Indianapolis was the only major city to escape violence. It happened because a community decided to do something different and they were led by a great man’s words.
I am not great and I am not a poet or a scholar. I cannot calm and comfort everyone who feels the raw pain in the aftermath of a too slowly bending arc toward justice.
Still, for me, words will do for now. I will seek the words of those who find a way, as Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy did, “to dedicate ourselves to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world.”