On June 10, 2016, I woke up feeling hopeful.
I stumbled through the streets of Louisville, KY to celebrate the passing of a personal hero. Muhammad Ali meant so much to the world. But for those who grew up in the town he called home, he meant just a little more.
I stood next to my uncle and talked about our experiences growing up (an entire generation apart) in the same neighborhood as the G.O.A.T., noting the similarities and exploring the differences. We watched the police walk the scene in one of the most dangerous parts of our city. I applauded their sincerity and kindness. I snapped photos of them playing with kids, talking with adults and holding babies.
We talked about what needed to change. I noted we needed to reinforce trusting law enforcement again. My uncle noted the trust of the community had to be earned back after years of negative experiences. It’s hard to wipe a slate clean when it’s stained with bad blood.
My uncle recounted a run-in with a racist cop from his younger days with the kind of detail reserved for memories that hold a special place in your mind. I was appalled. But not surprised. I had my own stories. They haunted me the same way. Yet neither of us was filled with hate. We only discussed peace.
I listened to my uncle ― a black Vietnam veteran -- and a white Korean veteran discuss Ali in such glowing terms that the commentary and criticism about Ali being a draft dodger and a coward instantly shifted from asinine to disrespectful. If those two men who served our country could consider him a hero, then I felt justified in my decision to view him the same way.
Later, my uncle and I sat together and watched Ali’s memorial services -- a multi-faith celebration of his life and ideals. We talked at length about history. Of our family, of our race, of our city, of our country. He was impressed by my knowledge. I was intrigued by his insight. Two black men bonded by blood, sharing a moment in time during which the entire world was united by a black Islamic man. It was a moment in time I will never forget.
That night, I read a message my uncle posted about the day.
“If your shoulders aren’t just a little broader and your chest is not sticking out a little further, today probably just wasn’t meant for you. Some lil boy or girl got it, though. Some struggling parent or unemployed person also got it. Someone listening in some destitute place on God’s earth is feeling just a little more hopeful today.”
I went to bed a dreamer.
I woke up on June 12, 2016 on a high. The unity from Ali’s funeral still filled my heart.
Then Orlando happened.
I watched the coverage. I listened to the rhetoric. I sifted through the social media posts, the bickering, the name-calling, the blame. I watched the focus shift from the deaths of innocent people to debates about gun control and whether or not our sitting president was calling the perpetrator by the right label. On a day when dozens of people died, there was energy and time being wasted on pressuring the Commander-in-Chief to categorize someone as an islamic terrorist. For some reason, that was supposed to matter.
Still, in the midst of all of the infighting, was a certain sense of solidarity. People stepped up to offer whatever they had to assist those impacted. Even if that meant waiting hours in line to give blood in sweltering heat. It was an uncanny encapsulation of the best and worst of humanity.
I went to bed feeling anxious.
I woke up on July 7, 2016 feeling indifferent.
I stumbled across the shooting of Alton Sterling via social media. I was horrified. A few hours later, I came across the shooting of Philando Castile the same way. More horror. Why were these things happening?
My horror shifted to frustration as I watched social media fill with “experts” on both sides of the issue. I’d long accepted that I had no understanding of what it was like to be a cop or the pressures that come with the job. I’d listened to enough cops within my circle of friends to reach that point. So I stopped speaking on what should and shouldn’t have been done and instead relied on asking questions to help me understand why people were dead in situations that, from my admittedly uneducated perspective, seemed avoidable. I’d become less about accusations and more about answers.
While I struggled with that, I found myself subjected to a wealth of individuals who, despite not being minorities, spoke as if they had an in-depth understanding of what it was like to be a black man in this country on a daily basis. Even as more and more people of color shared stories of unfair treatment, their accounts were disregarded and labeled as the complaints of whiners seeking special treatment. It was infuriating.
My fury subsided as I sat with a white coworker and the topic of Philando Castile’s shooting became part of our conversation. She talked about viewing the footage with her husband ― a white man ― and how they both openly wept over the loss of a father’s life while a child watched. No discussion of blame or quarterbacking about who deserved what or how things should have been handled. Just an expression of three concepts that seem to be lacking in the wake of these tragedies: empathy, understanding and humanity. She restored my faith in each during those five minutes.
That night, I sat in a hotel room and watched the reports about the shooting in Dallas. I shook my head in disbelief that a peaceful protest was transformed into a hunting ground for police doing their job. It was sickening. I felt the same sadness for those officers I felt for the men I mourned earlier that day.
Empathy, understanding and humanity.
I turned to social media with trepidation. I knew what was coming. I read every ugly comment I came across just as I read the outpouring of sympathy. I read the assumptions and the blame and the fear mongering. It weighed heavy on my mind and heart. Still, I refused to turn away in those moments in the same way I refused to turn away as I watched every single second of the recordings released earlier that day. I refused to turn away just as I did when video of the shootings in Istanbul were released.
I can’t and won’t blind myself to the fray just because I have the luxury of living slightly above it.
I went to bed feeling drained.
I woke up on July 8, 2016 feeling broken.
I spent my morning watching people turn the phrase “Black Lives Matter” into a slur while never taking the time to explore the meaning long enough to realize it was never about exclusion. It was an exclamation. The dismissive way in which the deaths of minorities were discussed in media and even casual conversations was damaging and dangerous. It should matter when anyone dies. But I kept hearing the way those deaths were discussed. They didn’t receive equal billing.
Empathy, understanding and humanity.
I found that troubling and depressing. From what I observed, the mission of BLM was never about asking for special recognition. It was asking for recognition. Period. There was no reason that couldn’t happen without being at anyone else’s expense. I probably explained this a dozen times in less than four hours. It drained me. But to avoid these discussions was to allow more room for misinformation and divisiveness.
Empathy, understanding and humanity.
That night, I sat with a group of friends and acquaintances as we delved into the topics of race and discrimination. I exposed myself and my thoughts in a way I never felt comfortable doing in that setting. It was unapologetic and honest. Maybe too raw at times. But it was real. It was me.
I walked back to my car, wondering if that shared moment was a step forward for the way these topics can be discussed in an environment shared by people of varying races and backgrounds or just an exercise in yelling into the abyss. I wasn’t certain.
Still, I went to bed feeling heard.
On July 11, 2016, I woke up in need of direction.
I listened to the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. on a playlist for eight hours straight.
I pored over his words as I watched so many of them cited in an effort to condemn the same kinds of protests he would have applauded. He was adamant in his stance against violence, noting we should always meet physical force with soul force. He was vehement when he spoke of not distrusting our white brothers and sisters because many of them were allies who marched for our rights. He stood against division and destruction. But he was never above dissent.
“... those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
He knew being an agent of change meant being more than just a voice. There needed to be action. There need to be consequences. He was never above disruption. Every real movement comes with a level of discomfort for those in the majority. This is what happens when you challenge the status quo. This is the price of change.
“Freedom always demands sacrifice.”
No movement is perfect. Anyone can see there have been missteps during BLM. But despite the attempts to state otherwise, the mission is not far removed from what MLK pursued. Yes, there is a lack of meticulosity and consistency that needs to be filled to improve effectiveness. That much is true. Still, the purpose and intent is there. And it’s valid and meaningful.
I thought long and hard about leadership, accountability and what I could offer to the cause as someone in a position to potentially contribute to change. By happenstance, I was contacted by a friend seeking the same kind of outlet and offering a potential avenue. She had motivation, ideas and likeminded individuals with a desire to be involved. The seeds were planted.
Activist/Suffragist Alice Paul employed the phrase “Deeds Not Words” to indicate action is critical in instigating improvement. Rhetoric nurtures discussion but action generates results. Results are what matter most at this point. Those words are at my desk. In bright bold colors. In plain view. They serve as a reminder everyday of my own responsibility to act. They never felt more pertinent than in that moment.
With the words of warriors ringing in my ears, I went to bed feeling inspired.
I woke up on July 13, 2016 still filled with a sense of purpose.
It was a day like any other until I sat in front of my TV and watched four black men, four athletes, four nearly-lifelong friends deliver a message to the world and, more importantly, their peers about taking accountability and making an effort to improve conditions in black communities. I know I’ll never have the resources, platform or influence commanded by LeBron, Dwyane, Carmelo or Chris, but their message (and hopefully the subsequent actions of the sports community) give me reason to believe my aspirations to contribute can be part of a larger effort to implement real and meaningful change.
There can never be another Muhammad Ali. The world has become too big for one person to capture its conscience in the same way. But a joint effort, sparked by those who wield capital and clout and supported by those of us at the ground level who possess compassion and perspective, can fill the void. I’m certain of it.
I went to bed feeling hopeful. For the first time in a long time.