by Matt Halvorson
An extraordinary event called “Black Men Uniting to Change the Narrative” was scheduled for mid-September at South Seattle’s John Muir Elementary to publicly declare that Black Lives Matter, only to be “cancelled” after the school and the district received at least one threatening phone call.
More than 100 Black men were going to line the walkways in front of the school, greeting students with high-fives and cheers, much as they had last spring at SouthShore K-8, another South End public school.
Teachers and staff were also going to wear custom-designed Black Lives Matter shirts, and curiously this specific detail seems to have ignited much of the backlash and controversy. It was enough to catch the attention of Fox News and the Daily Caller, sparking what the school’s PTA president described as a wave of “national hatred.”
It’s Cool to Care
I asked my biracial 8-year-old son, Julian, what he would think if teachers at his public elementary school wore Black Lives Matter t-shirts. Would it be a good thing? A bad thing? Doesn’t matter?
“Good,” he said. “It would just be cool to see that they would actually care, and we could know that.”
Jason McGillie lives with his wife and two boys in South Seattle, and his oldest son, Fenix, was a second-grader at SouthShore last year before starting this fall at John Muir. Jason dropped his boys off during SouthShore’s “Changing the Narrative” event last year. (For context, Jason is white, and his wife, Reese, is black.)
“I was walking on air for the next five hours just from the positive energy and from having gotten to see it happen,” he said. “Just being able to drop the kids off and see the looks on their faces, it was really, really cool.”
When he saw a flyer for this year’s event at John Muir, he posted a photo of it on Facebook and started spreading the word about this amazing thing that was about to happen again. And then he found out it was canceled. He said the kicker was a surprisingly emotional automated message that went out to the school’s parents.
“You could tell that [the principal] was just barely keeping it together. She was obviously distraught, just emotionally distraught,” McGillie said. “It was intense. If you had no heart or soul at all and didn’t care about it one way or another, you would still be like, ‘She’s going through something. That is awful.’”
When Reese and Fenix pulled up to the school Friday morning, they found a large group of black men at the school anyway, in spite of the “cancellation.” Most of the teachers in the school still wore their Black Lives Matter t-shirts as well. It became an act of courage as well as a celebration of community.
Lead by Example
Like Jason, I’m a White parent to biracial kids. It’s hard sometimes knowing that my kids and I will always know a different racial identity, that there will be a huge part of their everyday experience in this country that will always be unavailable to me, for better or worse.
It’s especially strange to think that one of the ways I can’t be there for my boys is that I can’t reflect back to them a face that looks like theirs. I mean, on the one hand, we look alike. Zeke is pretty clearly my son, and you need only talk with Julian for a few seconds to know we’re so connected. But this same phenomenon is only deepened with Julian, who isn’t my biological son, even if we’ve been together since before his second birthday.
There’s power in my sons knowing strong, proud black men, and there’s power in my sons seeing men who look like them in ways I don’t, doing something bold like this. It’s a power they need to experience and that I can’t directly provide them.
There’s similar power in all the students regardless of their race having that experience at John Muir and at SouthShore, seeing black men in a positive, non-stereotyped, momentarily non-racist light, to see them celebrated and celebrating.
As Jason described it, “this is informing [Fenix’s] worldview in a way that is not the norm and is certainly not the narrative,” even if Fenix himself can’t articulate or necessarily even notice the powerful effect.
But instead of celebrating the beauty of a school as intentionally inclusive as this, we have another example of a fear-driven response to a proclamation that Black Lives Matter. That should not be a controversial statement, and it isn’t the opposite or antithesis of anything good. It is just a true statement.
My sons’ lives matter. My partner’s life matters. My father- and brother-in-law’s lives matter.
The lives of the men who showed up at John Muir Elementary on Friday matter, and their presence in the lives of those kids, that matters, too. I can’t applaud long or loudly enough the courage they showed in being at John Muir last week in spite of it all, and the same goes for the teachers and staff who still wore the shirts.
The phrase — the very idea that Black Lives Matter — is one filled with love and compassion. The response is too often grounded in fear and shows up as a quick retreat to less controversial ground that doesn’t risk the safety and comfort of white folks.
Maybe more shows of bravery and solidarity like this can start to change that narrative, too.
Matt Halvorson lives with his family in Rainier Beach. He can be found on Twitter @HalvyHalvorson and blogs at RiseUpForStudents.org
Featured photo: CC licensed image via niXerKg/Flickr