What did I do to be so black and blue?
– Louis Armstrong “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue”
The last few weeks have left me feeling black and blue. Recent police shootings of Terence Crutcher and Keith Scott in Tulsa and Charlotte have re-ignited conversations about Black Lives Matter. When I think about the events in Tulsa, I cannot help but think of the similarities between Tulsa and Springfield and how police shootings can and do happen anywhere.
Receiving much less media attention, two on-duty police officers Timothy Brackeen and Kenneth Steil were killed by gunfire in Detroit, Michigan and North Carolina during the past month (https://www.odmp.org/search/year). Here in Springfield, the community is still trying to heal after the shooting of Officer Aaron Pearson from a few years ago.
America is bleeding. We see these open wounds manifest themselves in street protests, dinner conversations, Facebook posts, and twitter updates.
There is anger and frustration. There is disappointment and hurt. Good people find themselves on opposing sides of the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter divide, feeling disrespected, violated, and isolated. Too often, opponents willfully mischaracterize these hashtags to suggest that “only” black or blue lives matter. To me, I have always read these hashtags with the word “too” at the end: black and blue lives matter too. Perhaps naively, I read the hashtags as pleas to value lives whose ends have come too quickly.
Because I have studied African American literature and culture for the past twenty years, I approach this debate about whose lives matter in light of the long history of violence, both legal and extra-legal, against African Americans. Race-based violence imposed or condoned by the state has all too often worked to disempower and disenfranchise African Americans. Writers from Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells to Martin Luther King and James Baldwin have spoken eloquently about how black lives have been shaped by the power of the state. That history, however, is not something that is stuck in the past; it continues to shape our worldviews and how we interact with one another. Even a person like LeBron James who seems to have everything has recently expressed his concern about what will happen to his son who is entering his teenage years when he meets with the police.
My African American literature class began the semester by reading slave narratives and texts from the post-bellum period through the Harlem Renaissance. It has been eerie. Debates about law and order, the rights of African Americans, and the role of the literature in the pursuit of social justice have been central to our discussions. It does not take much to make connections to recent events. Students seem both desperate to have these conversations and hesitant about talking about the current state of race relations.
While the conversations have been difficult at times, they are important ones to be having. It makes me wonder about the responsibility of universities, like Drury, in taking a leading role in fostering dialogue and debate.
Drury prides itself on its heritage: “In 1873 the Springfield Association of Congregational Churches resolved to open an institution of higher learning in southwest Missouri, to assist in healing the horrid wounds of the civil war . . . . The founders believed that the silent work of reconciliation, occurring as the children of Confederates and Unionists sat together in classes, would contribute to real union of all parts of the country.” (http://www.drury.edu/academic-affairs/the-drury-community-heritage)
Today’s debate about policing and civil rights is part of this historical movement. Even though the Civil War ended over 150 years ago, we are still dealing with its aftermath. The reconciliation that Drury’s founders were working towards has still not been realized, and the wounds of the Civil War get re-opened with each bullet that flies.
I challenge my friends, colleagues, peers, and students to embrace Drury’s mission and “to participate responsibly in and contribute to a global community.” I don’t think that there are easy answers to these problems, but I also know that we will not find solutions or paths toward reconciliation if we don’t admit the true depths of the conflict or look for potential solutions. I also know that institutions like Drury avoid wading in these waters because it is messy work that can upset stakeholders and community members. I cannot, however, imagine more important work. We owe it to those who started Drury with a hope, to those who live today in suffering, and to our children who deserve a better world than the one we have to tackle these issues head on.
Of course, Black Lives Matter. So do Blue Lives Matter. Let’s make sure that our lives matter too by working to meet the ideals upon which Drury was founded.