One of the attorneys where I work is Black and a father of three children; his oldest son is 11. My colleague and his wife take care to limit their children’s exposure to social media and TV, including the news, so that they can be the ones controlling the narrative within their household.
I feel for him and his wife, with the enormity of the task of deciding how much of the world’s sadness, sickness and cruelty should be invited into their family room. I feel for them weighing at what point it is appropriate to stop sheltering their children from the pain of the world, because it’s time for them to learn more about its reality.
I remember when our own children were young and the news was on, and something especially heinous would come on and I’d rush for the remote, to hit mute, to power off, before my children could see or hear about some horror of the human condition that maybe I could delay their knowledge of, if only for a few more days, weeks, months.
So, when my colleague’s 11-year-old son saw his first “Black Lives Matter” sign this summer, he did not have a context for what he was seeing. He did not yet know that police had recently killed George Floyd or Breonna Taylor; he had not yet heard of police brutality; his young imagination could not fathom the ways we can hurt each other. His parents carefully curated his exposure to information unveiling our nation’s sinful history of racism, and I’m not sure how much he had learned of it in the primary grades at school.
When my friend’s son saw the “Black Lives Matter” sign for the first time, he read it out loud to his dad, incredulously. “Black Lives Matter?” the child said. “Why would you make a sign that says that? That’s like making a sign that says ‘Air Matters.’ You don’t need a sign to tell you something like that.”
And this little boy’s wise words have stayed with me. We are so far from racial equity in the United States that we actually need to put up signs that are so obvious that an 11-year-old doesn’t even understand why they need to be posted in the first place. My colleague never said how he answered his son. My heart breaks in what the truth of the answer is. We do need the signs, little child, because to some people, it isn’t obvious at all that Black Lives Matter.
I want to tell my friend’s son: You will learn all too soon the terrifying truth that for most of our country’s history, Black lives have not mattered and were not protected. At points in our history, Black people were not considered fully human, allowing them to be bought and sold and lynched and red-lined with impunity. Black lives were blocked from certain neighborhoods and schools; Black people were excluded from hospitals, sports teams and clubs.
I want to tell my friend’s son that, even now, there are many people who want to deny the devastatingly traumatic results of 400 years of oppression, and pretend that the playing field is level, and has been level for quite awhile. They pretend not to understand why “Black Lives Matter” cannot be written “All Lives Matter,” because they are intent in their commitment to their dangerous fable that there is no difference between the treatment of races in the U.S. And it is to help these very people – to push them to think, to care, to learn and understand – that we put up the signs “Black Lives Matter.”
The Catholic version of the expression “Black Lives Matter” is “Black Lives are Sacred.”
The Catholic belief in the dignity and sanctity of all human life has propelled a group of Milwaukee Catholics, in conjunction with others, from different faith traditions, to organize each Thursday a public witness on a busy street corner in Milwaukee or a suburb. The purpose is to stand for racial justice, with “Black Lives are Sacred” as the unifying message. On Thursday, Nov. 5, this witness will begin at 5:15 p.m. in front of Dominican High School, in Whitefish Bay, led by Dominican’s student Social Justice Committee. The committee welcomes all in the community to come and stand with them; pray with them; kneel in remembrance with them. They will be holding signs to remind us all of some obvious facts: Human life has dignity and is sacrosanct. Black lives are sacred. Air matters. Come join us.