Reflections on the Life of a Black Man in America
By the Reverend Chester Hines, Jr.
Chairperson, Diocesan Commission on Dismantling Racism
Deacon, Holy Communion Episcopal Church
Here we go again. Or if you put it in the words of Henry Ford, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” My prayer is that this time we come away from the turbulence we are experiencing in our American history with a new direction and resolve to change what is needed and necessary in our racial relationships so that we really realize liberty and justice for all. Each one of us should be able to realize the opportunity to pursue life and happiness without fear because of how we look to the other.
As I watch the many news reports from around the country and the world relating to the death of George Floyd, killed by the Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020, and the significant protests and destruction that have occurred as a result, I am reminded of a similar time in our country’s history which occurred in the range of a half century ago, during the Civil Rights Movement that resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Lessons from history
I also recall the first lesson I learned from my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, all of whom grew up and lived their adult or early adult lives in Mississippi. Even though my parents had relocated to St. Louis as a young couple, I was actually born in my grandparent’s home in Macon, Mississippi -- a situation I later learned was attributed to a lack of available health care for my mother in St. Louis. So even though I have no recollection of actual life in the south, I have been educated and regaled with the many, many stories of how Black people in the south were treated and forced to live -- at least in Mississippi.
In 1955, Emmett Louis Till was a 14-year-old African American boy who was lynched in Mississippi after being accused of offending a white woman in her family's grocery store. I was slightly younger than Emmett Till at the time but we certainly are of the same generation. The brutality of his murder and the fact that his killers were acquitted drew national attention to the long history of the violent persecution of African Americans (more commonly referred to as Negros at that time) in the United States. I learned many lessons from the Emmett Till killing.
Another lesson I recall was from my cousin who was a year or two younger than me at the time and was extremely upset and disappointed because his parents would not allow him to go and visit his grandparents the following summer. His grandparents lived in Aberdeen, Mississippi, which was a little more than a hundred miles from Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till was killed. However, the message and lesson was clear: this type of attitude and behavior that lead to the death of Emmett Till was a general type of attitude and behavior that white people held toward black people. Then, as today, this attitude and behavior knew and knows no geographical bounds and was not and is not constrained by distance.
My parents used this event to lay the foundation for my education in what was necessary for me to survive in white America. They gave me the same lessons I had to give my sons more than a quarter of a century later. You are a black person in a country controlled, owned and orchestrated by white people; you are deemed a threat because of your skin color; you are the lessor in all situations and circumstances; even when you tell the truth, you are likely not to be believed; when the authorities come, if you are there, you are the immediate suspect; you will be denied equal access to goods and services, even government services. And this list goes on and on. The conclusion of this lesson ended with, but it is “your” job to overcome all of these challenges. Even for the most capable and well-prepared person, this is an insurmountable task.
Avoiding the ultimate sacrifice
Nevertheless, through oral histories and lived memories, I learned both the needed mental, physical and psychological skills for survival in white America. But for some black men, even with the best and most intense training for survival, that is not enough. All of the structured systems, family input, personal preparedness, knowledge, skills and abilities were not and are not sufficient to overcome the insidious effects of the deeply seeded and rooted racism that lives and breathes heartily in our country. Though I have been able to avoid the ultimate sacrifice for being a black man in America, I have personally experienced and can testify to the sometimes sub-human and intimidating experiences of the different life lived because of the darker color of my skin.
I am confident that Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Jamar Clark, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Botham Jean, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd (and this list is not all inclusive) all received similar types of lessons, histories and memories. But the challenges presented to them by a local police department/police officer was more than they could overcome and the outcome was fatal. There is no lesson to be given or learned when you are eating ice cream at home and the police break in and kill you; there is no lesson to be taught or learned when you are at home asleep in your bed and the police break in and kill you in your own bed. These situations and circumstances are for me beyond comprehension and I would not know where to begin in terms of preparing myself to give this lesson or preparing a student to receive it.
None of these men or the woman, Breonna Taylor, were doing anything that warranted them being killed by the police. The only thing they had in common was the color of their skin. We don’t even have the excuse of them being at the wrong place at the wrong time. And even though we may discuss the level of the amount of melanin in their skin, that is whether they black or brown, one thing we can all agree on is that they were not white and as a result were not afforded, or in the minds of some, not entitled to the rights, protections and equal access under the law and the constitution of the United States. These types of deaths are no longer an aberration, they have become a pattern of behavior.
So there is no confusion, I am an ardent supporter of the police and respect and appreciate them for the difficult tasks they perform daily in serving and protecting our communities. As a community we give them the power of policing, we do not give them the power of judge, jury and executioner.
Racism is an extremely powerful force and comes in many forms, institutions, ideologies and practices. The misuse of this power and prejudice against others because of the color of their skin is destructive to the community and debilitating to the individual. I have experienced all of these forms of racism over the course of my life -- too, too many to begin to share with you in these brief words.
Over the course of the past nearly two weeks we have seen the impact and effect that practicing racism on a continuing basis can have on large populations of people. What is happening in our country today is an outward manifestation of the research and studies that have been completed and reported on for nearly the past hundred years or more, that is before and after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Our community has to have known this day was coming, black and white, and all colors in between. All of us have lived the effects of racism in St. Louis and the affect has been very destructive.
The effect of oppression and suppression on a group of people for no other reason than the color of their skin will not stand. It was and is inevitable that this conflict and confrontation would occur. Over fifty years ago, it occurred over the issues of segregation and discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin and gender in the workplace, schools, and public accommodations and in federally assisted programs. Some, not all, of that has been addressed.
Following the Civil Rights Act, life moved forward for both black and white people in America. The result was not and is not perfect, but in the main, life was marginally improved. Clearly there is more work to do but the foundations for an improved quality of life and standard of living were laid in this legislation.
The battle for change
We are again on the frontline of a great battle for change in America. I applaud the youth for picking up this mantle for change in the way they want to live their lives. A change not for one population of people or another population of people but for all people in America. I am greatly struck by the composition of the crowds of protesters. From my view they are a complete and absolute cross section of the population of the people who make up America. That is very heartening and a very different composition from the protests and marches of the fifties and sixties. This new generation has a very different perspective on what it is going to take to move our country forward. I encourage them to continue while I simultaneously admonish those who would use this opportunity for ill gain and destruction.
We cannot make the needed and necessary progress and change by fighting each other because of the color of our skin; we cannot do it fighting each other because of our sexual beliefs and values; we cannot do it fighting each other over who is upper class and who is not; we cannot do it by denying those who are without food, housing and healthcare. It can only be achieved if we work together.
Skin color has been surfaced as the foundational liability for being at risk in the community. Like race and racism, skin tone and experiences of colorism -- an often overlooked form of discrimination that privileges lighter skinned over darker skinned individuals -- although not uniformly, may also result in traumatic stress.(1)
This issue can bring us to the table to work to resolve how we might live a better life together.
The greater issue and challenge for all of us, however, is where do we go and what do we do from here; how can we move everyone toward God’s Kingdom. With desire, commitment and the grace of God, we can accomplish this through love; for love crosses all colors, all genders, all sexual orientations, all views, circumstances and conditions. We must have faith that love can and does so; we must not lose hope. We are all called to hold on to this belief, this hope, for it is through this, the fulfillment of God’s will on earth, that all things will be accomplished. Amen.
(1)Skin-Tone Trauma: Historical and Contemporary Influences on the Health and Interpersonal Outcomes of African Americans—Antoinette M. Landor and Sharde McNeil Smith, August 14, 2019