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July 4, 2020

My Turn, Larry Efird: Working to understand Black Lives Matter movement

“English is weird. It can be understood through tough, thorough, thought though.” 

By Larry Efird

As a teacher, I naturally see the humor and the significance of the quote above. I first saw it on a T-shirt that only an English teacher would buy. However, rather than pay $19.95 to buy another unneeded T-shirt, I wrote it down for use at a later time with my students when they think reading Shakespeare is just plain weird, and that they can’t possibly understand it.

But it also spoke to me about the Black Lives Matter movement. For most non-Black people, and especially those who grew up during segregation as I did, it can only be “understood through tough, thorough thought.” 

If a person doesn’t have Black friends and is only involved with people of other races on a casual basis, BLM might be easy to misinterpret — or ignore. But, for a white teacher in a public school who has many Black colleagues and students, trying to understand this life-changing movement at this crucial time in our nation’s history is not something I choose to ignore. But even so, fully understanding it is difficult because I am not a Black American, and I cannot possibly empathize with their pain and their frustration first-hand — but I can at least try. 

The needs of Black people have been secondary to those of whites in North America for the past four centuries. And as one who experienced segregated schools until I was in the eighth grade, I remember trying to figure out the Civil Rights movement and why it was necessary due to my cultural insulation. I do remember the national anxiety well, and I’ve told my students that I haven’t seen this much racial strife in America in over 50 years. (Fortunately, when I drop the age bomb on them, they usually believe me.) 

Because Martin Luther King, Jr., was viewed with suspicion by whites when I was in elementary school, we never read his writings. Not until I was in my early 30s while living in Mississippi, fittingly, did I encounter his “I Have a Dream Speech.” Once I finally got around to reading it, I immediately thought, “So, what were all the white people so scared of back then?” 

The teacher in me felt that writing an acrostic of “B-l-a-c-k L-i-v-e-s M-a-t-t-e-r” might help clarify the central tenets that lie behind the movement for non-Black people who are genuinely and humbly trying to understand it. I am not attempting to speak for Black people; therefore, this list is obviously not exhaustive, and my apologies if some of the statements are incorrect. As I’ve tried to listen and understand what “Black Lives Matter” means, this is a synopsis of the ideas I’ve heard and felt coming from the Black community:

• B: Black people experience the weight of 400 years of racism in this nation.

• L: Life has been more challenging for Black people than white people because of racism.

• A: Anti-Blackness harms the health and well-being of Black people.

• C: Colorblindness minimizes the lived-experiences of people who are Black in America.

• K: Kindness is important, but kindness without action won’t change unjust systems.

 

• L: Life in America has been unjust for Black people in social, economic, and educational realms.

• I: Implicit bias and white privilege are not acknowledged by most white people.

• V: Valuing Black lives doesn’t mean that other lives aren’t also valuable.

• E Every day a Black person must think about the color of their skin, unlike white people.

• S: Systemic racism is not a political term, it is a reality.

 

• M: Men who are Black are disproportionately targeted and punished more harshly.

• A: America cannot continue to regard Black people as “less than.”

• T: Taking to the streets to protest comes after diplomacy has failed.

• T: Together, we can create a more just and equitable America.

• E: Every human being is worthy of love, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

• R: Recognizing the humanity of Black Americans is no longer a request; it is a demand.

I want my students to know that understanding often comes only “through tough, thorough thought.” Understanding the Black Lives Matter movement needs to be understood, and though it may be tough for some to understand, it does matter.  

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.

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