“Black lives matter”—now both a cultural meme and a growing enterprise–reminds me how the wellbeing of Black persons is too-frequently taken away or tamped down. Systemic racism is named as the cause—rightly so. But another incriminating possibility also comes to mind: That I don’t know the ordinary and extraordinary characteristics of which those lives consist—their matter. I may be ignorant about the admirable qualities of Black lives, Black culture, Black history.
It’s correct to use the word matter to refer to rights, freedoms or agency. In that usage, I should continue to re-assert that Black lives make a difference in the world. But this verb/noun also carries another sense: People of color have substance, heft, power, excellence—tangible, positive qualities that remain strong reasons for me to sit up and take notice about what’s always been there.
From my years as colleague, teacher and congregational leader, I remember people like Yohannes, Clyde, Gwen and Mabel, Titus and Starla, Malik, Kewanee. Their strong personal attributes were admirable. No, more than that—they were instructive. Like most African Americans, they persevered in the face of overt and subtle disregard. They showed grace under pressure, spiritual depth, elemental honesty, fierce loyalties and sharp-witted survival skills in difficult circumstances. They knew life-lessons I had never experienced. At their core, they were leaders.
Because Black lives are substance-filled, I can grasp how best to approach my life. I can take into my soul a necessary humility and repentance about the African-American experience. I can seek from Black neighbors, congregation members, friends and colleagues a depth of wisdom that my perhaps-too-comfortable White identity may not have completely afforded me.
And because Black lives have matter, I see how God’s strong, creative and loving hand is still working!