Ways of Seeing: Joanna Colwell, Dedicating ourselves to freedom

Dedicating Ourselves to Freedom
Last month my husband, daughter and I joined the million or so other people thronging the streets of the nation’s capitol. We walked along the wide avenues, in a sea of pink knitted hats, declaring our love for humanity, and our determination that even with the previous day’s inauguration of He Who Shall Not Be Named, our bodies are our own.
The signs were amazing. From the humorous (You’re So Vain, You Probably Think This March Is About You) to the heartbreaking (Three young women wearing jackets on the backs of which were stitched: 1. “To all the little girls who are watching this 2. Never doubt that you are valuable and powerful 3. and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world”), we never tired of reading the incredible, creative, powerful signs.
But my favorite sign of all was one I saw online, upon returning home from the March. It read, “I’ll see all you nice white ladies at the next Black Lives Matter march, right?” I take this sign as a personal challenge, to do a better job of showing up for marginalized communities. The way I see it, People of Color have been crying out, for generations, about their mistreatment at the hands of those with power in this country.
First a cry against slavery, and all the kidnapping, rape, brutality and terror it wrought on innocent people. After the all too brief period of Reconstruction, immediately after the Civil War, a cry to end Jim Crow. Because that cry was unheeded, nearly six million people fled the Deep South between 1915 and 1970, refugees in search of safety and a better life.
While the Civil Rights Movement yielded important victories like the Voting Rights Act, our country’s racist history, from its very founding, has continued to rear its bigoted head. Because white people have never really faced the tremendous cruelty of slavery and Jim Crow, we seem doomed to keep implementing policies that harm Black people. In Ava DuVernay’s film “The Thirteenth,” we learn that slavery didn’t exactly end, it was shifted from the “Peculiar Institution” that created much of the nation’s wealth, to a hidden way for those with money and power to coerce those without into servitude.
The Thirteenth amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” Do you see? If someone is incarcerated, it is constitutional for the state to force them to work.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, I noticed something different about how many white liberal people seemed shocked by the outcome, compared to People of Color, who seemed deeply disappointed, but not nearly as surprised. This was illustrated by a Saturday Night Live skit, in which the Black people watching the news on election night were like, “America elected a racist to the highest office in the land? We were kind of expecting this.”
This draws me to the conclusion that the extent to which we educated liberal people are surprised by the election results is the extent to which we have FAILED to listen to the lived realities of People of Color. How many of us were out in the streets demonstrating when time after time, Congress passed laws mandating longer prison sentences for nonviolent crimes? How many of us protested when we learned that white people use drugs about as often as nonwhite people, yet People of Color are much more likely to be arrested and serve sentences for drug possession?
As stated by The Drug Policy Alliance, “The consequences of any drug conviction are life-long and severe, and are not experienced equally. Despite comparable drug use and selling rates across racial groups, African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately punished for drug law violations. Drug violations are an easy solution for police officers pressed for high arrest quotas, resulting in thousands of wrongful arrests that overwhelmingly victimize communities of color.”
As a group, white people have done a pretty lousy job of taking these grievances seriously. We haven’t shown up when communities of color cry out against police brutality, unfair sentencing laws that rip families apart, or generational economic injustice. I believe if we as a nation had listened more closely, and linked arms with people whose backgrounds may be quite different from our own, we would not be in the mess we’re in now.
So if you ever hear anyone say, “Black History Month? Why don’t we have White History Month?” I hope you will take this person by the hand, sit them down on the couch, and show them Ava DuVernay’s film “The Thirteenth,” or her other amazing film, “Selma.” If you hear anyone say, “Black Lives Matter? How about All Lives Matter?” Tell them it’s for the same reason if you go to the doctor with a broken arm, your doctor doesn’t say, “All Bones Matter!”
The area that is injured needs to be attended to. Your doctor knows that, which is why she will set your bone so you can heal. To help our country heal, we all need to be clear eyed and open hearted. We need to seek out the perspectives of those who have been harmed, listen to their voices and insist that our institutions treat people fairly. For all the injustices of the past, let us make amends. Let us dedicate ourselves to liberty and justice for all, absolutely all of us.
Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury’s Marble Works. Joanna lives with her family in East Middlebury. When not practicing or teaching yoga, Joanna enjoys taking walks, cooking, serving on the board of WomenSafe and working with the Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Feedback welcome at: [email protected].

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