Thursday, October 20, 2016

Why Sing the National Anthem When We’re Still Chanting

“I Am a Man” . . . “Fight the Power” . . . “No Justice, No Peace” . . . “I Have a Dream” . . . “We Shall Overcome” . . . “Can’t We All Just Get Along” . . . “I am Trayvon” . . . “I Can’t Breathe” . . . “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” . . . “Black Lives Matter”.

They're all slogans sparked by injustices. From the 1968 “I Am a Man” slogan protesting the neglect and abuse of black Memphis sanitation workers to the 2013 “Black Lives Matter” slogan protesting the abuse and killings of blacks by public officials and private citizens. Sadly, people-of-color have been chanting these and similar slogans for decades; fighting injustices for well over a century.

Now, generations after “I Am a Man,” people-of-color are now chanting “Black Lives Matter” and saying “No” to the National Anthem. Why? It’s a question with its answers deeply imbedded in the bowels of American history. Answers, America either refuses to acknowledge (or perhaps wishes to forget) or have willfully turned a blind eye to. Unfortunately, my family, like so many others, are a part of that history (shameful as it is) and choose not to forget. That shameful Pandora box reopened—for all the misery and evils to be uncovered—when I went back to a place from my childhood (Metter, Georgia) and reacquainted myself with relatives I hadn’t seen in twenty years.

Black Lives Matter Protesters/iStock by Getty Images
A visit prompted by my need to find out more about a story—theft by deception, white supremacy, racism, murder, revenge, family flight, loss of wealth—passed down from one generation to the next. Its gravity sinking in when the Black Lives Matter and National Anthem debate came into question: “Why Black Lives Matter?” people asked. “It should be All Lives Matter!” they shouted. “I dare Kaepernick not show his patriotism by not standing for the National Anthem.” Responses leaving many dumbfounded since, in all of America’s history, one can easily argue that it has seldom, if ever, been about All Lives Matter; hence the many slogans, chants, and protests from black Americans from one generation to the next.

Former mayor of Atlanta, Andrew Young, in his foreword within Walter White’s autobiography “A Man Called White: The Autobiography of Walter White” noted that there was a time in US history where law enforcement was in synergy in the murder-by-lynching of people-of-color.[i] They ignored, enabled, and encouraged murder directed against blacks, and anyone (whites included) who supported Black civil rights.[ii] Today, those who quietly, or actively support “Black Lives Matter” like Kaepernick, have not forgotten this; nor the Negrophobia, Negro laws, or the treatment of Blacks before, during, and since this time.

And with each black and brown death prompting protests and outrage, the question of “Why Black Lives Matter” was broken down into its purest form when I sat down with my 80-year-old cousin (a retired Georgia teacher) who reminded me that, “. . . back then, our [black] lives really didn’t matter much.” She shook her head and looked me dead in the eyes and started to tell the story of the lynching of my great, great uncle Claxton Dekle (pronounced Dee-cul).

The year was 1917. Woodrow Wilson was president and Nathaniel Harris, a confederate army veteran, was the Governor of Georgia. Fifty-four years had passed since slaves were emancipated but blacks lived in trying, if not, disparaging times. People of color faced obstacles from all directions; from the federal to state and local governments; from within all branches of the judicial system; in public transportation, accommodations, education, housing, and employment; as well as navigating all forms of bigotry and hate from their very own countrymen—white, US citizens. “It was an awful time,” she told me.

During this time, President Wilson (pledging allegiance to the “Negro” cause during his presidential campaign) alienated the very black voters that supported his presidency by following the South’s practice of race segregation in the federal government; all while promoting democratic liberties and human rights abroad. Many blacks were demoted, denied employment, or lost their jobs as a result. The 18-million-dollar block-buster movie of the era “Birth of a Nation,” with its incendiary and racist propaganda, vilified blacks and glorified the Ku Klux Klan; prompting the Klan’s resurgence and legitimizing their existence (keeping blacks in their place); setting the tone for the terrorizing of blacks for decades to come. Race riots were common; and the East St. Louis, Missouri Race Riot, on July 2nd, was one of the bloodiest race riots of the year. Black men, women, and children were beaten, shot to death, and lynched as their businesses and homes were burned by a mob of white citizens. Six-thousand blacks fled the city and policemen and the national guard were cited for either turning their heads or participating in the attacks.[iii] Black men and boys (females as well), for financial gain, were constantly targeted and charged with petty or trumped-up charges by local and state law enforcement to supply businesses and private citizens with cheap labor. Often aided by the courts, they were sentenced to work as convict laborers or laborers in the debt peonage system. Black newspapers and magazines reported the laborers’ plight, grievances, as well as the emotional and physical pain and suffering endured while trapped within the two systems; such as the case of four black minors, all under the age of fifteen, reportedly made Alabama state prisoners for allegedly stealing a bicycle.[iv] Black women and girls were criminally assaulted by white men, with little recourse; their voices and rights muted as their attackers were seldom prosecuted. Black men, women and children were murdered-by-lynching for the smallest infractions; including frightening a white person just by their presence as in the reported case of a Starksville, Mississippi man lynched because a white woman was frightened by seeing him approach her.[v]

Despite the horrific circumstances and seemingly unsurmountable challenges of the time, my family had amassed a sizeable amount of land in Emanuel (now Candler) County Georgia. The family had obtained the American dream of the time: 40 acres and a mule.

Mule Plowing Team/Brian Swartz/iStock by Getty Images
However, another mule was exactly what was needed to help plow the growing acreage and great, great-granddaddy Henry Dekle (uncle Claxton’s father) told Uncle Clax to buy one from a local white farmer. Uncle Clax went into Metter, Georgia and bought the mule, however, upon returning home, it was discovered that the mule was blind. He was told to go back and either get another mule or get the family’s money back. When Uncle Clax returned the mule, the farmer would neither take the mule back or return the money; although knowing that the mule was blind when he sold it. As a result, an argument ensued and it’s reported that the farmer hurled “nigger” insults and attacked uncle Clax; in turn, uncle Clax defended himself in a time where it was death to insult or question the word of a white man; let alone cause one physical harm. When Uncle Clax (according to the Atlanta Constitution—not the most kind or unbiased newspaper towards people of color) was getting the better of the farmer, two white bystanders came to the farmer’s aid.[vi]  

I asked my cousin what happened afterwards as all we see in the lynching annals is that Uncle Clax was lynched for murder on December 15. She told me, “From my understanding Clax killed that man—might a killed two or three others—he got away and went home.” When uncle Clax returned to the farm and told what had happened, a mob had formed. They took him and lynched him (with no rights to a trial) as that was the typical punishment for killing a white person (justified or not) during the day. As he hung, the enraged mob riddled his body with bullets. I asked my cousin what happened afterwards and she clasped her hands and held her head down, “They told me they drug him through Metter [for all to see]. . . . After they drug him for so long, it was one white man that told them [the mob] if they didn’t untie that man from that [buggy] and give him back to his people—because he was already dead—that he would start shooting. So they finally untied him and gave him to his people. . . . While they were having the funeral, those white people went to the grave and they meant to kill the whole family. They were hidden in the woods. And this other white man that made them untie [Clax] went to the church and told [the family], ‘Don’t y’all go to the cemetery because they plan to kill all of y’all.’”

The family took heed to the warning and took the necessary precautions; scouting the area and waiting until the following morning to bury uncle Clax. To save the family from further harm, granddaddy Henry and his brother, uncle Benjamin Dekle, changed the family’s name to uncle Benjamin’s wife’s maiden name and left the area (as so many blacks did when their lives were in jeopardy) as there was no protection from the local authorities as they were often known to be, as Mayor Young indicated, in synergy in the murder-by-lynching of blacks. And although tax-paying citizens, and above all else, US citizens, they were afforded no protection or rights from the local authorities or government, and had little-to-no recourse at the state and federal levels; they were on their own. A once hard-working and proud family forced to leave decades of hard work and prosperity behind because their lives were not as important as the man’s whose skin tone lacked pigmentation. I listened to my cousin talk about the hard life the family endured afterwards and the bitterness that evolved as a result, and I understood, in its purest form, why the ‘Black Lives Mater” movement exists: For far too long black lives have been dispensable to white America. And although great strides have been made in the lives of blacks since the lynching of uncle Clax, one must recognize that although the evils, ills, biases and prejudices of yesteryears have been abated in some areas, they still run deep and rampant in others.

Black Lives Matter Protesters/iStock by Getty Images
So when I hear people (Caucasians, Latinos, Asians, even African Americans) say that All Lives Matter in response to Black Lives Matter, I hear the many slogans and chants from previous and present generations tell a different story. I hear America’s history tell a different story. I hear my family’s history tell a different story. The words “All Lives Matter” undoubtedly expressed by those who haven’t had a loved one hung, burned alive, riddled with bullets, weighted down and drowned, dragged behind a car, incarcerated for profit, raped and or sodomized, disenfranchised, experimented upon, tortured, terrorized, denied justice and basic constitutional rights, and forced to live in constant dread and fear with, more-often-than-not, no one to be held accountable. But for those who do remember, the “All Lives Matter” diatribe (although theoretically correct in a perfect world) are just words; words far from being the truth in the imperfect world we live in.

Author, R.L. Byrd

Part of the Project H.U.S.H initiative. To find out more, visit HUSH


[i] White, Walter. "Foreword by Andrew Young." Foreword. A Man Called White, the Autobiography of Walter White. Athens, GA: U of Georgia, 1995. ix-x. Print.
[ii] Ibid, ix
[iii] Wang, Tabitah C. "East St. Louis Race Riot: July 2, 1917 | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed." East St. Louis Race Riot: July 2, 1917 | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed., n.d. Web. 01 Sept. 2016.
[iv] DuBois, W.E. Burghardt, ed. "Crime." The Crisis Jan. 1913: 118. The Crisis. Google Books. Web. 8 Aug. 2016.
[v] DuBois, W.E. Burghardt, ed. "Courts." The Crisis May 1912: 11. The Crisis. Google Books. Web.   8 Aug. 2016.
[vi] "Lynching Comes Close on Killing in Metter: Negro Who Shot Three White Men Riddled with Bullets by Mob." The Atlanta Constitution, n.d. Web. 08 Sept. 2016. 16 Dec 1917, Page 7 - The Atlanta Constitution at

Monday, March 14, 2016

Overcoming Racism When Working While Black

When I read the article, “Working While Black: From Engineer, to Executive, David Price Fought Racism and Won,” it reminded me of a recent Boys2Men visit, when at the end of my visit—briefcase in hand feet pointed towards the door—a young man entered the Executive Director’s office (quite emotional) shouting that he had just quit his job.

The Director’s response: Oh my god! Why?! Do you have another job lined up? Because if you don’t, that’s crazy!

His answer: No. No job lined up. I’ll get another job, though. I’m not worried about that. . . . I just can’t continue to be treated the way I’m being treated—disrespected and devalued.

I didn’t even need to ask how he was being disrespected and devalued, because as a black male, I already knew. I knew from my grandfather and father’s experiences. I knew from my fraternity brothers, coworkers’ and friends’ experiences. I knew from the many forgotten stories told within our annals of history; like that of John Abraham Davis, one of many lives destroyed by the bias and racist rhetoric of the day. I knew from my own experiences working in corporate America.

Noticeably upset by his answer, the Director started shaking her head and raising her voice (out of love and concern) and before jumping in, I stood there and listened as he poured all of his frustrations out; throwing justification, after justification, against all of the Director's reasoning. 

“So, let me ask you something,” I told him. “How much were you making before you quit?” He told me. Then I asked, “Now how much are you making now; now that you’ve quit?”

“Nothing,” he answered.

“You shouldn’t have quit your job,” I told him. “They broke you down and won; now you have nothing to show for it . . . only your pride. And last I checked, pride won’t put food on the table or pay your bills.” And as quickly as I uttered the last word—bills—a heatwave shot all through my body; spreading from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet. How hypocritical of you, I told myself because, not too long before, I was having the same melt-down: Another black man tired of the bias and racist shenanigans within the workplace. I too was about to quit a job (with no backup) because I felt trapped, disrespected and devalued. And just like him, I was looking for answers, or at least some type of confirmation to walk away.

Before making a decision I could very well regret, I took an extended weekend to assess my situation and found myself recounting different, yet similar, situations throughout my career, like: The manager who asked the lone black intern architect, how do you design for black people (like we’re any different from anyone else); or the staff and vendors who don't won't to deal with you because of the color of your skin (just like in the article); or my favorite, the "he scares me" diatribe from the older white workers that have never met or talked to you—they just only know you by your race; or the senior executive director, during a meeting, questioning the lone black staff member why he should even be working among them and tells him that he doesn’t know why he was hired (they were doing just fine without him); or the many other incredible racist and biased comments (and actions) endured working as a person of color, many too egregious to share here. So yes, without even knowing his situation, I understood his discontent and plight. And unlike the article in which Price attributed his success to his company's "championing" his plight in a sales environment with shortcomings, many of us don't have that "champion" that will champion our cause in light of the hardships we face as "working while black": For us, we'll work through the hardships, without raising issue, and our journey will go with us to the grave; like that of John Abraham Davis.

And don't get me wrong, working in America for anyone (male or female, journeyman or U.S. president) can have its challenges. But, working in America as a person of color, especially a black male, carries additional weight. You have to be conviction free (those with legal convictions have a harder journey), twice as sharp, and exhibit exceptional qualities and character to excel in positions others (white males) would excel in with mediocre skills, and in some cases, legal blemishes. And sadly, I had to come to the realization that wherever you're "working while black," each workplace, although the culture and business dynamics may differ, will have the same type of people who hold similar ism's and biases because of your skin tone. One can only hope that where there is a lacking of sensitivity or diversity, compensation will come in the form of a strong system (and commitment) to combat active and passive racism and biases. 

Now, meltdown free, I have a greater understanding (and admiration) for what my elders had to go through. They stuck with the job (no matter how menial or degrading) and their work ethics, drive, and commitment, despite their circumstances, speaks volumes to who they were—strong black men weathering adversarial storms beyond their control. They, and the many men before them, paved the way for me to be who and where I am today. So, despite my challenges, I didn't quit. I had to continue in their footsteps; add my mile to the road we seemingly must travel. 

As for the young man, turns out that he hadn’t truly quit; he was testing the waters and looking for confirmation for quitting. He just needed a little guidance, well, more like a swift kick in the right direction. Unfortunately for him, he's just one of many that will travel down this road. I’m just glad he had somewhere to go (talk it through) as so many of us don’t have that “champion" to help, guide, and fight the shortcomings we face "working while black."

Author, R.L. Byrd

Part of the Project H.U.S.H initiative. To find out more, visit HUSH