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The Lorraine Motel balcony where MLK Jr. was assassinated.

 

No.

It’s my favorite sentence.

Before you grammarians out there launch a flame war in the comments box for saying this, rest assured that I’m on your team. I know that the word “No” doesn’t technically qualify as a sentence, so put the pitchforks down, please. I’ve taught ESL for the past 11 years. I’m with you. The butchering of the English language as seen in YouTube comments and Craigslist entries give me nightmares too.

Grammatical rules teach us that a complete sentence in English has at least a subject and a predicate including the main verb and starts with a capital letter and ends with a period. For example, here’s an excerpt from the late great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose legacy we’re honoring today on his birthday:

“We know this to be true.”

Subject: We

Predicate: know this to be true

Verb: know

The old adage about art is that you have to know the rules in order to break the rules. Thusly, “No.” is my favorite sentence. I’m breaking the rules.

MLK Jr.’s birthday is a perfect day to talk about rule breaking, boundaries, and doing both of these is necessary for change, clarity, and for the freedom of those around you.

In April 2017, I had the opportunity to visit the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. I stood at the site where MLK Jr. was standing when he was shot and killed. I also stood in the place where the man who shot him, James Earl Ray, stood when he fired the shot that killed MLK Jr. from a boarding house window across the street from the motel.

 

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View from the Boarding House window where James Earl Ray shot and killed MLK Jr.

 

Visiting this site where one of the great leaders of social change in the 20th century was murdered was a solemn and heavy experience to say the very least. The museum itself was full of historical perspective and scenes that every citizen in the USA should see.

The scenes that stood out for me the most were a multimedia art exhibit on Rodney King whose brutal beatings were captured on video and sparked the LA riots in 1991. I saw photos of effigies of black voters in the 1939 that were hung, threatening black people that they would be killed if they voted because of the color of their skin. I heard and saw video footage from sit-in protests at lunch counters and watched non-violent protesters endure racial slurs and be forcibly dragged off of their seats in a crowd of violence and chaos.

These things are our history. They are also, unfortunately, our present.

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It’s my belief that every person who can afford the time and money to make the trip to the National Civil Rights Museum should go. We have big problems with race inequity in this country. Violence against People of Color in the United has continued to happen well after our federal laws against racial discrimination came into effect. Maya Angelou said it best: “When we know better, we do better”. When people who say racist things or do racist actions are confronted by their peers and family, they will get the message: “No. That’s not acceptable.”

If a trip to Memphis to see the National Civil Rights Museum isn’t possible for you right now, there are other effective actions you can take that are free and don’t cost any money and are highly beneficial to you and to the people around you and advance the movement of racial equity in the USA and in the world.

#1: Say “No.”

The beauty of this simple and powerful sentence is in both it’s linguistic features and how it can be manifested in action. You can speak that sentence when (not if, but when) you witness or experience racial inequity happening to yourself or someone else. White people: when you witness a person of color being discriminated against, in action or with words, it is your duty to use your racial privilege and speak up as a member of the racial majority in the USA. Tell someone. Speak up about what you see or hear. Do not remain silent. Silence in the case of inequity is complicity. You might not be treating someone unfairly because of the color of their skin, but if you witness it happen and do nothing, you are contributing to the violence. So speak up. Say “No.”

MLK Jr. wrote about the violence of the White Moderate (white people who didn’t take a position of support in the fight for racial equity) in his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963: “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. The Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not… the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than justice. Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

 

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Image by DJ Rarela

There’s a lot about our political climate that’s polarized these days. The work forward in making progress is often nuanced and sometimes it is effective to not claim allegiance to one side or another. But in the case of racial equity and the equal rights of all citizens, this is an issue to take a side with: the side that stands for justice and fairness for all.

MLK Jr.’s, brilliant words on the damage of the white moderate saying nothing lead me to the second effective action you can take:

#2: Have uncomfortable conversations

If the topic in question makes you squirm, tense up, freeze, and/or and want to disappear, take that as a sign that it’s an essential conversation to have. The only way we can understand more about topics that make us uncomfortable is to actually engage in them. Ask questions. Listen. Speak up. Do so and know that you’ll likely slip up. You unknowingly or unintentionally might say something offensive. Own it, apologize for it, and keep going. Stay in that uncomfortable space and learn. Keep your heart wide open to the perspectives of others. Own your perspective and understand that it might be limited. If you are white, recognize the privilege that you have of being white and allow that perspective to stay with you when you share your beliefs on the topic of race equity in the USA.

The importance of having hard conversations came up for me when I visited the National Civil Rights Museum and learned a lot about the Rodney King beatings. MLK Jr. was alive before my time, but I remember the Rodney King beatings and all of the news about the LA riots that happened in response to the police brutality that he endured. In one of the multimedia exhibits, clips from a newsreel of mostly white reporters were playing. The coverage was all about the property damage that was happening in LA. The news coverage focused on black people stealing TVs and the property and theft crimes being committed and what a shame it was that such violence was erupting and criticizing the protesters for demonstrating in this way. I remember my own educated, middle-class white family summarizing this situation from this perspective too. From this experience, I learned from a young and impressionable age to judge people’s right to protest and demonstrate racial inequality rather than understand and empathize where they were coming from. When I saw this other perspective 17 years after the fact, I felt angry and stupid for having such a perspective. But Maya Angelou always comes back and reminds me: “When we know better, we do better.” And doing better, in this case, means having hard conversations, with adults and children, about racial inequity when (again, not if, but when) it occurs in the world.

There will, unfortunately, be plenty more opportunities to discuss racial inequity. Please do everything you can to use these unjust events in the world to have uncomfortable conversations with those who might say: “Yeah, but don’t all lives matter?” Yes, they do. But black people are hurt and killed in record numbers far more than white people. Let’s talk about why. And there’s no need to get into a shouting match about this, nor do I think it would be useful for furthering the conversation about racial equity effectively. You can keep your cool and say: “No.”

The alternative of not having these uncomfortable conversations is that the silence will perpetuate the lack of understanding that we already have too much of in our social climate. We need to start talking about race so that we can solve the issues of racial inequity. The time has always been now.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope that you will choose to say “No” and have hard conversations when the opportunities arise. And they will come up.

Two of my favorite books that I read for Black History Month last year and really opened my eyes to the importance of saying “No” and having hard conversations are:

Waking Up White: Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

If you have other books on the exploration of racial equality that you loved, please share them in the comments.

Joy and patience to you, friends.

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