Broken Wings, Open Heart

I look at the protest signs tossed on the foyer table after our first march, and I feel ashamed that I carried mine for 3 hours. My children — 12, 9, and 6 years old — easily adopted Black Lives Matter messages, writing in orange crayon, pink highlighter, and smeared pencil “End Police Brutality,” “Silence is Violence,” and “Justice for Breonna Taylor.” But I wanted to say something that felt like it came from me.

“We Are All One Human Family” got rejected by my daughters Virginia, 16, and Sofia, 18, who attend a diverse D.C. public high school. “It’s cliché,” they said, and would be interpreted as wishing away the problem. 

“What about “Compassion”? Condescending, they said, because it sounds like you can do something that others can’t.

“If You’re Not With Us, You’re Against Us,” Virginia suggested, or “To Be Silent is to Be Complicit.” But for me to hold these words up high would be like accusing other White people of the same crimes I have committed my whole life.

The night before the march, I type in my Google search bar, “black lives matters signs for white people.”

The phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ simply refers to the notion that there’s a specific vulnerability for African Americans that needs to be addressed. It’s not meant to suggest that other lives don’t matter. It’s to suggest that other folks aren’t experiencing this particular vulnerability.

President Barack Obama

When Sofia and Virginia were 13 and 15 years old, they went to the Women’s March and the People’s Climate March in 2017, making elaborate posters and dressing in countercultural outfits, make-up, and hairstyles. There were so many marches in D.C. that year that people started saying that protest was the new brunch. But I stayed home, using my responsibilities to the family to shield my disengagement. 

I was afraid if I opened up to massive global problems and terrible pain that I would be swallowed up by emotions and burdens that I couldn’t handle. But I have since learned that it doesn’t work this way — when I open myself up to the suffering of others, it opens a place in me too, a source of strength and wisdom that is both of me and not of me, that can handle big things, that can feel both grief and joy.

In the garage I find a box that had once carried 50 long-stemmed red roses from my husband, and begin dividing it up. “Diana, can you run and get some newspapers?” I ask, shaking up a half-empty can of white spray paint.

Everyone wants a chance with the spray can and then the brush, and we finish painting the cardboard panels 2 hours after the 7pm curfew imposed by the mayor after protests took violent turns on Sunday and Monday. After I get the children in bed, I lean the boards up against the porch columns to dry.

We had talked as a family around the dinner table about George Floyd and the history of racism and agreed to make weekly donations to support good causes. The kids made Black Lives Matter signs and taped them to telephone poles around the neighborhood. But I know that if I let my support stop here, it would feel like a betrayal.

A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.

Malcolm x

We put on our fabric masks and squeeze into a mixed crowd of mostly young people in the plaza before Bloomingdales, below Neiman Marcus, both of which are boarded up, glass bits still sprinkled on the ground. This is the first time in nearly 3 months that we have been with anyone outside of our family. 

Young Black women make speeches about how their great-grandmothers were slaves and sharecroppers, how their parents worry they will get arrested for being out after dark, how people devalue and degrade them every day, and how tired and fed up and frustrated they are. But they are also happy, grateful to see us here, hopeful that maybe something will change this time.

The painted corrugated cardboard didn’t accept markers or Sharpies, so I had colored in my lettering with crayons and pencils. “Racism is making us sick,” is what I had finally settled on for one side of my sign, a rephrasing of the iconic, “Racism is the true pandemic.” On the other side, “Racism is infecting our society.”

Without realizing what was happening, that part of myself that needs to feel propped up started thinking things like, “Maybe I’ve written something so clever people will stop and think, maybe they’ll take photos, maybe one will end up in the media.” But I don’t catch this voice in time, and it weasels its way in and out of my experience of the march.

The crowd spills into the street, and sirens and blue police escort lights flash. Someone way ahead calls, “No Justice!” and a chorus erupts shouting, “No Peace!” As the front of the protest stretches out far from us and becomes a faint rumble, a marcher closer to us screams, “Say his name!” and people yell in response, “George Floyd!” We join in too, and I hold Diana’s hand so we won’t get separated, and I see Mark and Luke holding their signs, looking ahead, walking and yelling, “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!”

Employees from stores and restaurants along the way, some that were looted only days before, are handing out bottles of water from coolers. People come out from their workplaces in scrubs and aprons, taking pictures and watching, and sometimes I can’t yell because my throat gets swollen and scratchy and I don’t know why but I feel sad and happy and lost and found all at once.

Black Lives Matter March, June 4, 2020, National Cathedral

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

There is a heart-opening pose in yoga called broken wing. You bend one arm up behind your back and then you lie on top of it with your chest toward the sky.

I always thought that I was supposed to fly — to be strong, proud, high above. I tried to build myself up so I felt big and nothing too upsetting could enter. But I didn’t realize that closing my heart to the world also closed it to my deepest self, which is part of the world and therefore in contact with all that is truly wise, creative, and powerful.

If I am to remain in touch with my deep self and my strength, I now know that I must keep sorrow in my left hand. Feeling where my wing has been broken opens my heart to myself and others. We are meant to be compassionate. This is our true and most powerful nature.

Live to the point of tears.

Albert Camus

“But I saw mostly white people,” Diana says, as we begin the 2-mile walk back home. Black people were leading the protest and occasionally among the crowd, but this was a march purposely organized in a White affluent neighborhood because it’s those “who benefit from systemic oppression,” as it said on the announcement, that need the message the most. 

I want to be the young women and men of color saying eloquent and courageous things, talking truth loudly, being heard and seen. How does this make sense when everything they are saying is about how hard it is to grow up Black in America, how humiliating and demeaning and discouraging?

But they are shining through now with their strength, their truth, their vulnerability. I feel guilty and soft. What have I overcome? My life has been one of comfort and privilege, made difficult only by how I have sabotaged myself.

We have vowed to do more than this 2-hour march, these chants, these 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence for George Floyd’s killing, but I know it will be hard to do what they are asking: talk to other White people, have difficult conversations, be pro-active, be vocal.

Will people not want to be around me if I do? Focusing on the suffering of people of color invariably leads me back to how I have been complicit and the shame about how I have paid for my peace. But this thinking brings the question to me and my small self again. Allowing my fear of exclusion to shape my behavior is precisely what makes it possible for some people to avoid exclusion and others to endure it.

A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.

Brené Brown

Back home with empty smoothie cups and aching feet, we toss our signs on the foyer table. On top of the earnest, unquestioning signs of my children is mine: I wish I could erase it. Why did I have to feel so unique?

My sign had became another way of crafting an image of myself. And from a position of simply looking out through my eyes, I had swerved around like a movie camera, trying to imagine how other people would see me. 

And for a night, I think I have done the protest wrong. 

But I don’t want this to be my last protest because I have collapsed into self-recrimination. What if I really am needed here? What good are my rigid standards then if they prevent me from helping, however imperfectly?

People always talk about how not failing means you’re not trying hard enough. But how can you welcome failure when you’ve equated success with acceptance, and failure with banishment?

Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.

Nelson Mandela

Two days later, on Saturday, I go to another protest, this time with Virginia at the Lincoln Memorial, and I make a new sign. On one side, a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. — “A Riot is the Language of the Unheard” — and the other, “Black Lives Matter.” 

I feel a little less self-conscious, a little more part of it, a little more sobered about how difficult this work is going to be. 

My biases are so ingrained. I will have to dismantle over and over again my assumptions about people of color. I will have to retrain my mind. I will need to devote time to learning, listening, reading, following new voices, and acting.

Racism is like a virus and it has infected our society. As babies we are born into a world where it is already running rampant. It is not our fault, but as we grow and open our eyes, it will be harder and harder to allow some wings to be broken and others to be left alone to fly.