This blog has been inspired by Rep. Jamie Raskin’s opening statements to the Senate on 10 February 2021. Specifically, his direct quote, drawn from a conversation with one Capitol Hill officer as the officer retold it to Rep. Raskin on 6 January 2021. The officer recounted a conversation he had had with a friend and fellow officer on the same day, as the chaos and riots unfolded:
"I got called an N-word 15 times today. . . . I sat down with one of my buddies, another [B]lack guy, and tears just started streaming down my face. And I said, ‘What the F, man? Is this America?'"
The “gate” of hard conversations begins at the moment we become parents. Regardless of political position, as parents our children must come first and foremost. Our children must believe that when all else around them is, as the old Negro hymn says, “all around is sinking sand,” that the one sure place to which they can look for honest, frank, often challenging and hard explorative conversation and truth will come from their parents.
As American parents with American children, some conversations by their very nature and import must transcend proscribed boundaries, boundaries that we as adults have formed because of culture, social and political influence, gender, age, religion, education, economic environments, and race and ethnicity. There indeed have been moments in the history of the United States of America that demanded all citizens take a position for the good of all people: American Revolution, Civil War, World War I, World War II, the ensuing wars after, the Civil Rights Movement, 9/11, #MeToo, LGBTQ, #GeorgeFloyd, and, now, 6 January.
More than any other generation of children, this generation, Generation Z, has often given parents frustration and angst because they go against type for kids: they push back, they question, they claim ownership to their voices, their identity — essentially because they are Americans, living in a country where they feel and believe they can — regardless of their differences. And yet, they are also keenly aware of the verbal and situational ironies those beliefs can create. So much around them—so much they have seen and experienced shows them that all is not as clearly defined or undeniable as they believed.
The Capitol Hill officers’ conversation, concluding with the rhetorical and personal question, “Is this America?” must be explored with children. Not with only with teachers, not clergy, not politicians, not activists, no -- with parents. And, as parents, we, too, will have to look deeply within ourselves and ask ourselves the question, this same disturbing question. Such deeply profound and internal examination and conversations must go where some of us would rather not—looking deeply into ourselves—peering clearly and fearlessly into our own cultural and social and economic stereotypes and our fears, frustrations, dreams, and aspirations. As parents, we must do this not for ourselves but for our children—for their survival in their own New World—their future.
“Is this America?” The conversation Rep. Raskin recounts is a moment in American history, first-person narrative dialogue, primary source—these are terms children hear, read, and learn from elementary through high school and college/career.
As I listened to Rep. Raskin and then read the transcript, images and names came to my mind from American history and personal history: Sojourner Truth, Ann Plato, Henry “Box” Brown, William Still, Elizabeth Keckley, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, David Ruggles, Samuel Cornish and John Brown Russwurm, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Anna Julia Cooper to cite a precious few. Some of them sought freedom out of enslavement. Others listed here represent a very few who were born free and who helped the enslaved escape to freedom. These names are from American history; they may not be familiar, but they did exist. They deeply believed that there was an America in which they, too, could exist and thrive.
Personal history: my Father and all of his brothers — grandchildren of slavery and freedom and, ultimately, landowners in East Texas. My Father and his brothers, like those listed above and like the two Capitol Hill officers, fought for their America — their place and existence in America — and those men were most assuredly not the exception: Latinos, African Americans, Asians, Native Americans, immigrants, and women—all have protected and continue to protect America and its Constitution.
So, here is the crux of this blog: Now, right now and without any further hesitancy, parents must have the conversation, “Is this America?” with the today’s children. In preparation, take another look at the guiding images from our history right through to 6 January. Are our children to be afraid of adults and people around them who are different in many ways? Or, is America a place where the Constitution with its Amendments yet seeks to save and extend freedom, voice, inclusion, and conversation?
In the earlier list are John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish: they published the very first African-American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, in the United States in 1827–why did they do it?
We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly . . . for though there are many in society who exercise towards us benevolent feelings, . . . there are others who make it their business to enlarge upon the least trifle, which tends top discredit any person or colour. . .
The civil rights of a people being of the greatest value, it shall be our daily duty to vindicate our brethren , when oppressed, and to lay the case before the publick. . . . (“To Our Patrons,” Freedom’s Journal 16 Mar 1827. Vol1.1).
These fundamental beliefs have been echoed for almost two centuries by those who have believed in the very singular belief that they, too, had/have a voice, an identity, and a Constitutional right to exist in their America—America of the people, for the people, by the people.
Now is the time to have what may at first appear as a simple conversation about the bloodied Capitol officer’s query to his friend and fellow officer: “Is this America? But, we all know, regardless of any side or position, we must have this very deep, very serious, and even challenging conversation with our children today who are very different from previous generations. Hard-yes. Challenging, most definitely. Necessary — unquestionably.
And don’t forget to listen.
We, too, can still learn a thing or two from our children:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them. (Isa.11:5-13)