I have read the book before, but it was a long time ago, so I decided to re-read it and see what new things I notice this time around. And I have noticed a lot of new things. I think there is some wisdom in that book that I needed to get a little older to take on board.
Re-reading this book at this particular time has been very interesting. Angelou's beautiful writing pulls me fully into the story in the book, and often when I'm reading it, I am in that "lost in a book" state that is one of the best things about reading.
It is all too easy for a white reader to come out of that "lost in a book" state and think that the racism and discrimination described in the book is a thing of the past. I like to think I would not do that at any time, but it would have been impossible for me to do it this week, with the ongoing outrage in Ferguson.
My Twitter feed has been full of justified anger and pain. I have never been more grateful that I took the time to diversify my feed (something I continue to work to do), because I am learning a lot about what is and is not better these days. And like many people, I have logged in each evening and watched with worry and horror as another night goes wrong.
I think too often well-intentioned people who are not affected by a particular form of discrimination can see that this discrimination is wrong, and perhaps even support laws and policies against the discrimination, but then want to skip to the end state we all hope for, when all that really matters is the content of our character. Sadly, it just doesn't work that way. While we acknowledge the progress that has been made since the time described in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, we cannot forget to also acknowledge how much more progress needs to be made. We can't wish that progress into happening. We have to make it happen. We can't skip the hard part.
Unfortunately, we in the white community seem to be short on leaders who are willing to tell us this truth. The Pew Research Center did a survey and found that only 37% of white people think that the shooting of Michael Brown raises racial issues. Where are the white politicians with the courage to stand up to that other 63% and tell them the truth? Who will lead them through the thought experiment of imagining what would happen if it had been two white teenagers walking down the middle of the street? Who will ask them to examine their own past and think about all of the times they have jaywalked and not been stopped, let alone shot? Apparently, we don't have any white leaders willing to step up and do that.
We cannot rely on Black leaders to do this work, not because they are not eloquent, but because the people who most need to hear this message just won't listen to them no matter how eloquently they speak.
I understand that it will require courage for a white politician to stand up and tell the truth to that 63%. I understand that politicians tend to look at polls for guidance on how to vote in order to keep their jobs. But they all talk about going into politics out of a desire to help their country. Well, their country needs help on this. I am extremely disappointed that none of my supposed leaders are willing to actually step up and lead. Aren't the Democratic politicians embarrassed that the only white politician to make a statement that really acknowledges that there is a race issue here is Rand Paul? Maybe I have just missed hearing about a white politician telling it like it is, but I suspect that the reason I haven't heard it is that none of them have the courage to say what needs to be said, and that is shameful.
Because you know what else takes courage? Protesting peacefully for your rights while a line of police point guns at you and fire tear gas at you. I am amazed that the protests have remained largely peaceful in the face of provocations that started with police arriving at a peaceful vigil with police dogs. I cannot believe those police did not know the symbolism of what they were doing.
I cannot stop thinking about how hard it must be to be a parent in Ferguson right now, with the nightly disruptions and school canceled. I am moved by the efforts of the Ferguson public library to provide a place of respite, and by the school teachers who are showing up there to teach kids who don't have anywhere else to go this week.
Gloria Pasley & Betsy Anderson outside the public library, willing to take students in #Ferguson pic.twitter.com/doq3vozTqi
— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) August 19, 2014
All sorts of ordinary people in St. Louis are stepping up and showing courage and leadership right now. It is a damn shame that white politicians won't do the same.