If only all lives really DID matter…

These past weeks I have been processing my grief over the state of the world, and especially the state of my motherland. If I see one more ‘All Lives Matter’ meme on social media my patience will snap like the taut and frayed rubber band it is some days. Because evidence is very clear that all lives do NOT matter. Ask people of colour. Ask people who are disabled. Ask the single mum juggling multiple jobs and is constantly in debt. Ask any nurse anywhere in the world who is STILL low paid and risking his or her life everyday in our COVID19 world with inadequate PPE. Heck, if you even want to look at the privileged end of the spectrum, ask the female news co-anchor who earns less than her male counterpart!

Everyday we see evidence that ALL lives do not matter. It is not just a divided world, but a deeply unequal world because the operating system is that all lives do NOT matter. There is plenty of evidence that some lives are credited to be worth more. Often they have higher bank balances.

To say ‘All Lives Matter’ to people who have first hand experience that this is not true is to rub salt in a raw wound. It has the same ring of truth to it as “Arbeit Macht Frei”, the slogan over the gates of Auschwitz. Work did not make anyone free there. It was a slogan to pacify. It was propaganda.

Aside from the fact that the phrase has become a dog whistle for white supremacy, what some literalists really are saying is that All Lives SHOULD Matter. That is not the same thing at all. The majority can probably (hopefully) unite behind that qualifying ‘should’ in that phrase. But unity is not exactly part of our operating system either. One would have hoped that a deadly virus disrupting the planet might have had some tonic effect. Sadly, it has not.

Hence, some days I am in deep grief. I am beyond the denial stage. I have experienced the pain and guilt. I have spikes of anger. I have days of depression, crushed by the weight of the wickedness that many deny. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice (or righteousness in some translations) for they shall be satisfied.”

Of course, we will not have that hunger and thirst satisfied until we all start behaving as if all lives actually do matter. That we will have to love the perceived enemy and turn the other cheek just as the late Representative John Lewis did, he who forgave the Klansman that beat him senseless, he who accepted that man’s repentence and apology. That is the true meaning of grace.

Our hearts will have to open up a larger and larger space for that to happen. There will need to be less of the ‘I’ and more of the ‘we, ALL the people,’ not just the person who looks like one’s self, or acts the same, or holds the identical beliefs and opinions. We will need to accept our guilt and repent and then get to that final stage of grief where we find new motivation, become inspired and rediscover hope.

I am waiting to be satisfied. I’ve been feeling mighty hungry and thirsty for a long time. I want to be hopeful. Consider this poem I wrote back in 2016, my longing then for a change in the collective heart, for a world where we find that mislaid moral compass and act with magnanimity. It has been a long time coming. I pray for that collective state of grace every morning.

What Really Matters

It’s been that kind of week
where I have wandered stunned,
blinking my eyes furiously,
weary, wordless.

It’s been heavy weather.
It’s hot somewhere. Somewhere
someone is getting shot
and it’s not so random

who gets to be the duck
in the shooting gallery.
I am weary and tearful, wondering
how it feels

to go through life knowing
you have a target
on your back
for someone to bait and hate?

How does it feel to be
the mother of some son,
permanently on alert,
trying to hide that

big, round bull’s-eye on her
sweet child’s back
just because he is
brown or gay or black?

I want to weep
but there has just been
too much hate this week.
We need so much more

than a safety pin trying
to hold the centre
together.  Risk all for love!
the poet wrote. He was Muslim.

It might start with standing up
to bullies on a tram.
It might end by being
on that same firing line

with the guy who has had
a target on his back
all his life
but this time

he won’t be alone.
It’s not right that it
might matter more
to some

the one who would not let
that guy with the bull’s-eye
on his back go out
into that dark goodnight

on his own. But
it does matter that he
did not go alone.
It matters

that the world
not have a heart
the size
of a pickled walnut.

That someone take a hand
out of their pocket, grab hold
of that marked man,
that they duck and dive

together
trying to stay alive,
getting home to hug
their mothers and their lovers.

Now that would be a good night.
That would be a better day.
There might still be
a few tears,

but Love
would not have taken
yet another
fatal hit.

© Bee Smith 2016


As I see Moms in yellow t-shirts and Dads with leafblowers in Portland, I see people extending the hand that repents, apologises, that wants to get a son and daughter home safe tonight.

The featured image is an official portrait of the late Rep. John Lewis from Wikipedia.

What Everyone Knows Matters

I was scratching around for a jump start for the Sunday Weekly poem this morning. Having had a good week of manuscript re-writes it just felt like the gears were grinding to get back to writing the first drafts that get published here. It has been an unsettling week out in the world beyond my townland. Bucolic does not mean completely disconnected or uncaring. In the end, I pulled the poetry anthology Tell Me the Truth About Life off the bookshelf. The page fell open to W. B. Yeat’s poem The Second Coming, very apt since yesterday was auld Will’s birthday. It is also a poem that speaks to the condition of our times. “The centre cannot hold…” What is truer of our polarised world?

Then I read the lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s poem “Everybody Knows”. Here are some lines from the first verse.

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded

Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed

…..

Everybody knows the fight was fixed

The poor stay poor, the rich get rich

June 19th will mark the 103rd birthday of my mother. June 19th is also known as Juneteenth, the celebration by many African Americans of the emancipation from slavery. The tradition began in Texas where, on June 19th 1865, a Union officer read the declaration to Texans that slaves were freed. The Confederacy had lost the civil war, but the struggle for full civil rights had only just begun. We know that the granting of full civil rights to African Americans has been an uphill struggle ever since then. I grew up as bit by bit schools were desegregated. When I arrived in Washington, DC in 1974 you could still see block upon devastated block of ‘riot corridor’ in the aftermath of so many civil rights set backs and Dr. Martin Luther King’s assasination. Equality for all has been a very long work in progress.

My mother taught me that discrimination matters, that it is unfair and it was wrong to harm in word or deed anyone who was not the same religion, social class, or race as us. She was particularly clear that racism is wrong. Now this might seem a bit unlikely for a woman who spent her childhood years in Jim Crow North Carolina. (Jim Crow was the codified segregation and oppression of African Americans post- Emancipation Proclamation.) In part, an unlikely alliance and friendship that bloomed in a school library between 1929 and 1932 may have been responsible for her stance.

My mother was a shy woman. In 1929 she and her sisters were living in New Jersey. Their parents had separated. Academically gifted, my mother had skipped two grades and was was placed in high school along with both her elder sisters where she graduated aged 15. Sparing the full details, let us just say that, for my mother, the years between 1929 and 1932 were fit for a novel by Charles Dickens without any silver linings. In her High School Yearbook the year she graduated the song assigned to her was “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” It was a mean spirited, but probably fair, assessment. For barring her sisters, it probably felt that way to my mother.

My mother only ever spoke of one friend from her high school years – Nellie Gator. Nellie was the sole African American in her high school class. At a time when her world was chaotic, frightening, and insecure, that connection was important to her. Nellie must have been very kind to Mom because she seemed to have been paying it forward from that day on.

This Juneteenth my birthday present to my mother is a donation to Black Lives Matter. Because they do. Nellie Gator mattered a great deal to my mother.

What our mothers teach us matters. We need to be more like Nellie and Elma.

What Everyone Knows

We like to say to ourselves that
all lives matter, but
everyone knows that some 
are worth more than those
who rattle loose change in their pockets
and others who are down to their last dime.
We look down our noses
if you aren't somehow known,
haven't got the bluest eyes
or are someone else's fair-haired fellow.

What everyone knows is plain to see.
It's in our turns of speech, but mostly
we are too yellow to face up to facts
(the kind that must have plagued old Job)
that most everyone knows
we don't treat equally our kind,
that everything has fallen apart,
we've lost our minds, mislaid our hearts.

What everyone knows when lying awake
in the dark at 4am, is that it is time
to matter, one by one by one.
The alarm has rung. Ask anyone
what everyone knows. 

Copyright © Bee Smith, 2020. All rights reserved.

Elma Russell Smith 1917-2011