The Hard Conversations

"Your silence will not protect you ... for we have been socialized to respect fear
more than our needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for
that final language of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us." 
--Audre Lorde
Don't rock the boat. That is a euphemism that I started hearing (not always in those terms) when I first got interested in politics. When I was 14, Dr. King was killed. He had been in Houston a few months before, coming with Joan Baez and Aretha Frankin, and was told by the Black community, no less, that we (meaning Black Houstonians) did not need him and his ilk rocking the boat. So, when I got to school that Tuesday morning, April 5th, I noticed that every Black student was sitting in the cafeteria. Some were crying.
   "What's going on," I asked a friend.
   "Don't you know? They killed Dr. King."
   I hadn't heard. I usually left school earlier than my parents, walking the mile and half by myself. I loved to get to the library and get some studying in and then I would work in the office, a reward for those students who did well in school.
    "But why are you sitting out here?" I inquired, shocked by the news. And I was told that they would continue to sit there in the cafeteria until the principal lowered the flag to half-mast. They were told by the secretary that if they were not in class by the time the bell rang, they would all be expelled. They were ready to be expelled. I sat with them, asking if anyone had talked directly to the principal. No one had, so I thought that I would try. I liked the principal. He liked me. I went immediately to his office, no problem from the secretary. She liked me, too.
    Principal Herring was, I considered, a pretty fair man. However, I didn't consider every teacher at Madison fair and some of the parents were out and out racist, not wanting black people in their neighborhoods or schools--it was a time of white flight. I remember that my math teacher would offer me no assistance in class because your people don't have an aptitude for math. It wasn't until my father, a math professor at Texas Southern University, came and had a talk with him, that the myth was dispelled or maybe not dispelled. I was often seen as the exception to the rule I realized. But, I digress--admittedly, very easy to do.
    So, I told the principal that I had just come from the cafeteria and asked him if he knew that Dr. King was killed the evening before. He did, but didn't know what that had to do with him. I said that Lyndon B. Johnson, a Native Texan and President of the United States, had decreed it and that it would honor the work of Dr. King who meant so much to all of us. He listened. I really thought he listened. And then he asked, "Can you get your friends to go to class?" The bell had rung. I said that I could. He stood up and ushered me outside. His parting words were, "I will handle it."
    I ran back to my classmates and told them that he would lower the flag. We went to the first class, but when we came outside to see the flag, it was gone. No flag at half-mast. No flag at all. Everyone turned to me. Go back and tell him this is unacceptable. Don't just stand there, do something. Not knowing what to do, I did nothing. I said nothing. My friends walked away from me. I thought you were so important. Told you that they don't care about us. I called my mother and asked to be picked up. For two days I stayed away from school. Too ill, too upset, to understand. I finished my 10th grade year at Madison, but never went back after that. My political life, however, began.
     I want to know why. I will never understand all of the whys of Herring's decision. Interestingly, I told this story to a white friend, and she said, "Maybe it was the only thing he could do." It is a statement I did not accept, but today, maybe I should try and understand. We were less than 2% of the school population. Who was the principal going to listen to? It certainly wasn't us. It became the beginning of my political aspirations, to understand and to yes, gain some power. I started asking questions I never asked before. I didn't sit on the sideline any longer of the civil rights movement. I became a participant. History became very important to me--not just to pass a test, but to analyze and understand.
     Although I could not vote, I attended every after election and civic club meeting in my neighborhood. I went to a predominantly black high school and I was involved. My first real campaign came when students at Prairie View A&M University, an historical black college were not allowed to vote even after verifying residency. I spoke at the Texas Democratic Convention while only 16, but my voice was clear and my purpose sure.
    But I learned some hard lessons; that the don't rock the boat philosophy didn't just come from the supposed opposition. Sometimes it came from within our ranks. Those individuals whose purpose was my own, were often the voice of the be quiet and not yet. Sometimes it was men pushing the women to step back. It certainly happened to the younger people and after I got the right to vote and could become a delegate, I was often seen and not heard. I realized that don't rock the boat is used mostly by those in power or authority as a way to quell what might be more than righteous indignation. To quell the voices of those who might have a legitimate gripe--no, not gripe, truly suffering from injustices and it has never set well with me.
     Don't worry about the poor. They will always be among us.
     Health care? We'll end up paying for illegal immigrants.
     You can't possibly understand the Middle East conflict. Trust us.
     Let's put the discussion off until next month. Oh, has it been a year already?
     There will be peace in areas of conflict--but who get to define it? 
Politics became defined as concessions and often the people making the concessions were the ones least able to afford them. Someone always knew better and the trust me bellowing of politicians became an irritation. By the time I was 30 or so, I pretty much decided that politics was not for me. Instead, I would become an activist, seeking ways to strengthen the areas of society where I could, technically, rock the boat. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
     But I learned. Or am learning. Politics are everywhere in every structure throughout the world. After a while the strategists and the manipulators become one-in-the-same and what was ethical and what wasn't blurred. As I sit on board after board, as a citizen with one vote, and as friend and mentor to those who are being told don't rock the boat, I have an obligation to do just that. Those rules of safe boat navigation require someone at the helm and rocking the boat of injustice means capsizing it, disabling it. But, there is a next step. The next step is called righting. We cannot allow injustice to sail unabated. It will take due diligence on our part to acknowledge that is time to rock the boat and to do it so that Freedom rings. Rhetoric this is not. This is a challenge. I challenge you to analyze your commitment to a better world. I ask you to question your commitment to real peacemaking, standing up for what is right and just--in every segment of society, for every cause. Always.
     Peace? Rock the boat.


Popular Posts