Wednesday, April 12, 2017

You're Hopeful or You're the Problem

Mainly I went to the Siegel Center because hope is power.

Tonight, as part of VCU's Common Book program, "Just Mercy" author Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative was in the house talking about increasing justice in our country. Mac and I walked over to join the hundreds of others who wanted to hear this lawyer who works with death row inmates talk about how we can possibly hope to create a post-race world.

This is a man who has made his life's work beating the drum of justice.

Along with scores of students, some busier looking at their phones and laptops than paying attention to Stevenson, there were plenty of adults like us interested in hearing from this man who's dedicated his life to working with marginalized populations.

The middle-aged woman sitting next to me could barely contain her excitement at hearing him speak. "He's like a rock star, a real rock star to me!" she gushed. I only wish the students - whom he characterized as "more woke" than our generation, although I have my doubts - who began drifting out midway through his talk had realized that.

Mac and I had picked up his book when we'd seen the film "Thirteenth" about that amendment and the subsequent institutionalization of mass incarceration - which included Stevenson as one of the savviest talking heads - and decided then that we needed to hear this man speak.

A big part of his appeal is that he's not all doom and gloom despite a vast knowledge of all the disturbing history that would justify such a stance so rather than focus on that history, he instead offered solutions the country and especially young people could use going forward.

He talked about the power of proximity and how necessary it is for white people to position themselves near communities and people in crisis. With passion he explained the need for changing narratives that sustain oppression, things like the existing narratives of death row, of childhood, of race.

Referring to the U.S. as a post-genocide society, he showed how our forefathers denigrated those they wanted to control, calling Native Americans "savages" (while keeping Indian names for rivers and settlements) and using the misplaced notion of white supremacy to justify slavery.

Pointing out that our culture has gotten "too celebratory about the Civil Rights movement," he spoke truth to power to the audience. "You shouldn't live in Richmond and not know where the slave auction sites were." I admit, I only know a couple, but I intend to change that.

Stay hopeful, he told us, because you can't change the world if you lose hope. Pessimists and pragmatists, take note. It's particularly important in a world where trucks still proudly wave the Confederate flag and it's still possible to see a bumper sticker - as Stevenson did - that reads, "If I'd known it was going to turn out like this, I'd have picked my own cotton."

His final advice was to be willing to do uncomfortable or inconvenient things, which is just another way of saying, "Lean in when it gets uncomfortable," advice far too many white people are unwilling to take because, as a species, we are instinctively attracted to what's comfortable and easy.

Race relations are neither.

After the Q & A, we picked up the Equal Justice Initiative's 2017 calendar, as much for its iconic photographs (both vintage and modern) as for its 365 days of racial injustice history dates, every single one of which is positively heartbreaking.

On my birthday, for example, in 1796, President George Washington offered a $10 reward for the return of Oney Judge, an enslaved black woman who fled after learning that Martha planned to give her away as a wedding present.

That's right, a First Lady using human beings as gifts. Lest people think that things got better with time, how about June 16, 1944 when a 90-pound 14-year old black boy is wrongly accused of rape and murder and electrocuted in South Carolina, becoming the youngest person executed in the 20th century? Our country's history is strewn with such mortifying facts.

Calendars in arms, we walked over to 821 Cafe, to discuss what we'd heard and share an order of black bean nachos. When our affable server spotted our calendars with their haunting black and white photographs, he wanted to know where we'd been and from whence the calendars had come, afterward acknowledging that he had some important reading and film-watching to do.

When he came back to clear the table and found the platter all but licked clean, he was suitably impressed. "Not too many people can finish the whole thing," he said with awe. Hell, Mac and her main squeeze had tried recently and hadn't been able to. "Good job!"

Technically, the "good job" accolades go to VCU for assigning a compelling common book and bringing the rock star author to Richmond to share his vision of a better future with Mac, me and the masses.

With racial inequity as with most other things, the two of us have no intention of being part of the problem.


  1. Did you ever notice the slave auction block where we used to meet in Fredricksburg?

  2. Yes, I did! That one is better marked than the ones here. Boy, those were the days (when we were monthly)!