I have been thinking a lot about photographs. The photograph of the girl in Viet Nam, her clothes burned off by napalm, the sheer horror of the image accelerated the end of the war. The shootings at Kent State, the dead student protestors on the ground inspired outrage and action. I’m also thinking about the photos we show over and over again, because they are what we want to see. A confirmation bias made of pixels, our world made safe again.
There’s the photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. leading a march, walking side by side with other civil rights leaders. There’s the photo circulating now of the National Guard, a couple of days ago, in Detroit, kneeling with protestors. It was sent around as a message of hope and unity.
But then there are the photographs after the photographs. The ones where police with batons knock MLK, Jr., to the ground, pushing his head down in submission, not peaceful prayer. There is the photograph after the photograph in Detroit where the National Guardsmen turned on the peaceful protestors, arresting almost 100 of them.
Our brains, our hearts, our souls are still hungry for photo ops that make the world look right, but we see so much now. The revolution IS being televised. Our brains are saturated. It feels impossible to parse the right information from the wrong. We are fed the shard of the story instead of the whole–the part with the hook. But I am tired of eating shards. They are not, in fact, more digestible than the whole, yet I have been trained–we all have been trained–to crave the quick fix.
We are much more likely to make into heroes the men of color who hold down their appropriate rage and talk to us about peace, who make their dehumanization palatable enough for us to listen, maybe to act. I am not trying to say that MLK, Jr.’s ideals about peaceful protest were wrong. I am saying that the way white supremacy works is that white people have shaped his legacy into one we can co-opt as evidence of our own understanding, our own humanity, and that is wrong. We dehumanized him while he was alive, and in his death turned him into a symbol–also dehumanizing–with the sole purpose of validating our own goodness. That holds up the systemic racism we are say we are fighting, when all we really did was polish a shard of truth and wear it around our necks for protection against reality.
For us, as White people, to impose peaceful protest onto Black people is just another way to say, I am comfortable with your Black body taking a hit, again, and again, and again, as long as I feel safe from your rage.
Peace is one of those words we have conveniently never defined, so that we can impose our idea of it on the people we want to silence. We are not allowed to direct how Black people protest.
I am sifting through the shards of what peace is not to try to get to a definition that feels right.
Peace is not saying namaste after a yoga class. Peace is not forcing everyone else to shut up so you can feel unfettered by other peoples’ experiences and emotions. Peace does not mean you allowed yourself and your loved ones to be knocked down by rubber bullets, by fire hoses, blinded by pepper spray and not allowed yourself your human scream, your human rage, your human dignity. Peace is not necessarily quiet, not necessarily serene.
Peace is knowing you fought hard for the right things, for the rights of all human beings. Peace is knowing you have tried to love all human beings, every one, no exceptions. Peace is how it feels to try to hold the whole story, the ugliness, the beauty, the hope, the boredom and the despair altogether. Peace is the ability to hold all of those contradictions for one moment, once in a while, without the struggle. Peace is the possibility of stringing all those one moments together, to weave a life that has room for all of who we are. I don’t mean that in a 1980s, “we are a melting pot, we are a tapestry” kind of way. I mean that peace is a world made up of people who can hold shadows and light, rage, fear, joy and love and *not shut down*.
That’s my definition of peace. And peace is not a resting place, it is a rigorous, daily practice.
I am angry and tired and still, hope pounds in my chest.
Just yesterday, on our walk, my daughter and I saw a white cricket on its back, it’s bulbous body struggling, legs flailing, mouth gaping open and shut like a hungry baby. Never having to feel that level of powerlessness is what we built white supremacy around. We impose that powerlessness on people of color so we don’t have to feel it ourselves.
“I am so afraid right now,” my daughter said, “but we have to help it. I’m afraid it’s gonna hurt me, but we have to help it. If we don’t, nobody will.” We flipped the white cricket over with a leaf and it stood there, it’s gaping mouth still stuck in what looked like a scream. My daughter grabbed my hand. “Why don’t I feel any better?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe because we know how easily it could get flipped over again.”
“Or eaten by a dog,” she said. “Well, I guess I just have to be prepared to flip over all the upside down bugs I see for the rest of my life.”