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Steve Williams column: Critical mass

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Steve Williams

I guess it’s safe for me to write about racial injustice in my column this week. Every since the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Lloyd, this subject has gripped the news cycle.

You may or may not have noticed that most of the other columnists in this newspaper seldom write about politics or race, and I think I know why – it’s a disunifying subject. In our deeply polarized society, the moment a writer writes about race or politics, like an army of ants preparing for a winter, people split into political and racial bunkers to fortify their entrenchment.

Some believe my skin pigmentation gives me a license to broach racial subjects without facing the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but nothing can be further from the truth. Every time I’ve ventured into the topic of race in my columns, several readers on social media have accused me of “always fanning the flames of racism.” Recently, one suggested, “that’s all I write about.”

His comments reminded me of an old quote from Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail.’ “Seldom do I pause to answer criticisms of my work,” said Dr. King. If I did, my secretary nor I would have time to do anything else. But since I believe you are men of genuine goodwill, and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I should like to answer them.”

Well I do not have a secretary, I’m no Dr. King, and I don’t believe my critics are men of goodwill; nevertheless, I recently reviewed the subject matter of the articles I’ve written over the last six years. It turns out that out of the 80 articles I’ve written, only 15 dealt directly with the topic of race. I guess the logic behind this particular critic is – I’m black; therefore, I must be consumed with issues of race.

I’ve written articles about the environment, labor, education, religion, business, entertainment, medicine, history, and personal triumphs. Some of these topics involve people of color, but my forte is writing inspirational stories of unsung heroes in my community.

I still get goosebumps when I think about Anthony Buttone, who was born with cerebral palsy in1954 at a time when disabled people were largely characterized as “sick” or “disturbed” and segregated from the rest of society; a time when doctors routinely recommended that mothers of disabled children place their loved ones in “asylums.” Instead of putting him away, they home-schooled Anthony, and today he’s a proud and valuable member of McDonald’s in Georgetown.

I get chills when I think about little Kaleya Ervin, who was born with a very rare eye disease allowing her to see only shadows. As if this wasn’t enough, her mother physically abused her, and Kaleya was bounced around in foster care. At three years old, her fate changed when her relatives rescued her from the foster care system providing her with the loving and nurturing home she’d always wanted. Since then, she’s mastered the piano and violin and performes with gospel great John P Kee.

I was delighted to cover the story of Julius Britton Jr., who never got the credit for a job well done. In1976, when a 200-year-old vessel was discovered lodged in the bottom of the Black River in Brown’s Ferry, it was said to be “the most important single nautical discovery in the United States to date.” The 50-foot vessel had to be carefully positioned on a flatbed truck and driven to Columbia. It was no accident that they chose Julius. “Of all the drivers, they picked my husband,” said his widow, Celia Britton, “they knew he was the only one who could maneuver that big truck into those muddy waters and pull the precious boat out safely.” Celia Britton passed away three weeks ago, but she told me how grateful she was about the story I wrote about her unsung husband.

I’m deeply inspired when I think of the triumphant recovery of Evelyn Drayton, whose SUV was hit head-on by a pickup truck. Evelyn was penned in her vehicle for 30 min. while equipment was used to free her mangled body from her car. She was taken to the hospital suffering from bleeding on the brain, a broken back, broken pelvis, badly bruised lungs, lacerated liver, fractured ribs, and pneumonia. One wrong move and she could’ve been paralyzed or dead, but her unshakable faith in God has her walking, talking, and looking like the queen she’s always been. In that same article entitled ‘From Tragedy to Triumph,’ I told the story of Jeneane Canteen, whose body was burned in a fire, and for ten weeks she remained at a burn center fighting for her life, receiving dozens of skin graphs and surgeries. Today she’s healthy and beautiful as ever. If writing these stories is “fanning racial flames,” then I’m terribly guilty.

Writers of color aren’t the only ones constantly criticized for raising issues of race. Social activists like Malcolm X, Al Sharpton, Jackie Robinson, and even Martin Luther King have all been accused of “stirring up trouble” between the races.

When asked his views on JFK’s assassination, Malcolm X replied it was a case of the “chickens coming home to roost.” Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years fighting against apartheid.

Often those speaking out against injustice deliver their message with sharp conviction. Others like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Bishop Tutu, Maya Angelo, and Barack Obama couch their comments in poetic eloquence.

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Comedians often insert their views on race in their jokes, thereby making it more palatable for white America. Richard Pryor’s joke about the courts and justice system is an excellent example of this, “You go down there looking for justice, and that is what you will find — just us.” On his TV show, Dave Chappelle brilliantly embodied his views on race via his satirical skits. Likewise, D.L. Hughley remains one of America’s wittiest racial commentators.

While Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Maya Angelou, may have used metaphors and imagery to address racial injustice, James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, and Gil-Scott Heron gave us their viewpoints straight with no chaser.

Socially conscience songs remains an effective forum for getting subject matter to audiences. Fearing it would affect their bottom line, Barry Gordy, the CEO of Motown, did not allow his artists to sing about social issues for decades. Then in the early 1970s, Marvin Gaye broke this rule with his epic album, ‘What’s Going On,’ where he sang about trigger-happy policemen. Marvin’s album was followed by Stevie Wonder’s “Music of my Mind” with lyrics — “a boy is born in hard-time Mississippi living just enough for the city.”

A decade earlier, Nina Simone was so troubled by racial injustice she recorded a song called “Mississippi goddamn.”

In the 60s, most professional athletes stayed away from commenting on racial issues, but not all. When asked to go fight in Vietnam, Muhammad Ali said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me n-gg-r.” Others like Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos (who in 1968 Olympics raised their fist during the playing of the National Anthem) also made their voices heard. Today, athletes like Colin Kaepernick and Lebron James have chosen consciousness over commerce in speaking out against racial injustice.

History is a fickle friend. Celebrities vilified for speaking truth-to-power early in their careers, often died years later as iconic heroes like Muhammad Ali.

But whether it’s Ali’s mouth, Sharpton’s tongue, Kaepernick’s knee, John and Tommie’s fists, Martin’s dream, Malcolm’s wisdom, Nelson’s character, Richard’s jokes, Nina’s wrath, Stevie’s lyrics, D. L.’s wit, or Dave’s skits, nothing has ever moved the needle on race relationships in America more than what has happened over the last three weeks.

So what has changed? America has reached its critical mass. Webster defines critical mass as “the minimum amount of something required to start or maintain any venture,” and Victor Hugo would say, “nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

Today in Georgetown, I marched in a unity rally with 1000 people (a third of them white) shouting slogans of “no justice — no peace!,” “I can’t breathe!” or “say their names!

Around the world, millions of people of all races are marching for racial justice. I believe the horrific killing of George Floyd has bypassed their skin and pierced their souls. Seeing George lying face down on the ground pleading for air and begging for mercy, not because he’s a black, but because he’s human, was transformative.

Though she was no longer with him in the flesh, he cried out for the one person who loved him unconditionally – his mama. If you listen carefully, you can almost hear her saying, “come to me, son.” You can hear his father, who’s “Our father which art in heaven,” saying “I will pour out my spirit upon the hearts of the inhabitants of earth.” And they will rise in unity and declare — now is the time to stop the killing of unarmed black men.

Steve Williams is an award winning journalist who lives in Georgetown. His columns are published regularly in the Georgetown Times and South Strand News.

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