“Raise your fists in the air.”
Commanded Chuck D of Public Enemy, and a sea of fists rose.
My family had a perfect spot to witness Freedom Sounds, the concert that celebrated the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. We sat on the ground and listened to Living Colour rip through their catalog of music and cover some other popular tunes. Before The Roots took their turn at entertaining and inspiring, Public Enemy arrived on the stage. The crowd was in standing room only position by this point in the evening and my kids struggled to see over everyone’s heads. My wife held our 1-year-old, while our 4-year-old sat next to my feet playing Pokemon Go, oblivious to his surroundings. My 12-year-old stood on the stroller trying his best to see Flavor Flav jumping around from one side of the stage to the other. I hoisted my 10-year-old daughter on my shoulders for the best seat in the family.
Public Enemy came along at a time in my life when I was mad at everything. I searched for music that echoed my rebellious nature. Their music struck a chord with me, even though they spoke from a different experience. As I entered adulthood, I had nothing to rebel against though. I got a job and my white privilege took over. Public Enemy faded into the background – something to listen to when I was feeling nostalgic.
The past few years, I have begun listening again.
A cry went up from the stage and “Raise your fist” echoed throughout the lawn in front of the Washington Monument. I wondered, “Am I allowed to do that?” I questioned if raising a fist is one of those things that only belongs to African Americans, something a white middle class guy like myself has no business doing. I hesitated. I wanted to raise my fist along with the crowd and show that I too am angry at the treatment of African Americans.
I wanted to raise it.
I needed to raise it.
But I questioned if it was insulting to those who had walked far in shoes I have never had to wear.
The reason I wanted to raise my fist was not just because Chuck D told me to, but because I am furious at what faces men and women of color today. In 2016, it seems a new unarmed African American man becomes a trending hashtag each week for being shot by police. It happens even in cities that scream progressiveness. Violence against the black community is not new, but with the advent of cell phone cameras, it’s become much harder to ignore.
It’s not just violence that justifies a raised fist; black men and women make less than their white counterparts. Black men, on average, make 22% less than their white counterparts. Black women make 11.7% less than white women. (And I won’t get into the pay gap between men and women. Different issue for a different post.)
There are many reasons to raise a fist… or take a knee for that matter. Violence, economic injustice, micro-inequities to name a few. But answers are complicated and I sometimes struggle to know how to respond.
While I was contemplating raising my fist, I looked up at my daughter sitting on my shoulders. Her arm was outstretched and her fist tightly clenched. Following my daughter’s lead, my arm rose with a matching fist.
One thing my wife and I have always believed is that if we want to see things change, we have an obligation to educate our children about the legacy of racism in this country. We want them to be partners in the fight for justice. And just like the announcer says on the New York Subway, “If you see something, say something.” I want my kids to see injustice and rise up against it. To be vocal. To be bold. To be strong.
My daughter raised her fist not just because Chuck D and Flavor Flav said so and the crowd complied. She did it because she studied Selma. She did it because she read about the lunch counter sit-ins. She did it because she saw images of Emmitt Till’s body. She did it because she stood where Dr. King fell. She raised her fist because she knows the story of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. She raised a fist because she knows the names Dontre Hamilton, Erik Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Tanisha Anderson, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Jerame Reid, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gay, and Trayvon Martin. She raised her fist because the words “I can’t breathe” mean something. She did it because Black Lives Matter. She did it because she understands that while white privilege may mean one can get away with being silent, it does not mean one should.
Are you mad?
Are you brokenhearted?
Are you tired?
If not, you should be.
And if you are…
Raise your fist