I recognize the origination of Labor Day in many ways has nothing to do with race in America. And in other ways, it has everything to do with it.
Almost one year ago, I was at a WeTransfer event hosted by its remarkable co-founder Damian Bradfield and the board director who convinced the Dutch company to move to LA, investor and friend Troy Carter. We were there to honor the creative company’s first year anniversary since making America their second home!
There were two books distributed to the guests that night. One of which I was told was Troy’s favorite: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an award winning writer for the Atlantic covering African American cultural issues.
It’s a coincidence I finished the last page today on Labor Day. A meaningful coincidence I am grateful for.
The book is a letter from Ta-Nehisi’s eyes to his 15 year old son about what it means to grow up in America as a black man.
Remember, Ta-Nehisi is a student and teacher of the way race operates in America.
As a white man reading it, it’s quite uncomfortable. Because I don’t want to recognize it’s true…
I want to believe that any person can walk on a city street with the same temperament… But that’s not how it is.
I don’t have to typically be aware of my surroundings in public for fear of my body.
I don’t have to wonder whether the person I am speaking to thinks lesser of me because of the color of my skin.
But Ta-Nehisi shows what being black is really like in America… How our country has evolved from the slavery era to his childhood growing up in Baltimore to now. And how in many ways, it remains the same.
When Ta-Nehisi visits a Civil War battlefield site with his son, the guides are still honoring the confederacy and talking about the weapons used, instead of teaching the importance of the war in the first place: to free the people!
When Ta-Nehisi visits Europe for the first time, he is shocked by a new reality: the lack of race’s role in daily life… For the first time, he feels a freedom to just be. He interacts with strangers without the inherent fear living in his heart as his true self in America.
My fiancé Rachel is from the UK and always comments on the fundamental difference between segregation in the US. And she’s right, in theory, it doesn’t many any sense. We watch documentaries like 13th or series like OJ: Made in America together which shed some light… But to really get to the bottom of it you have to go to the beginning – the founding of America.
African American bodies were used to build our country as we know it. Slaves fueled the cotton industry which gave our country its wealth. There is no way around that. It’s history.
But just because slaves were freed doesn’t mean the minds of white people were free from their beliefs about black people… Free from the dream, as Ta-Nehisi refers to it, of being “greater than”.
This dream has no basis in reality, but has been preached to and ingrained in generations of Americans.
In fact, many of us have a great grandparent, grandparent, or even a parent who still – over 150 years after the Civil War – regularly exhibits racist behavior. However, Ta-Nehisi goes beyond the behavior into the underlying subconscious paradigm of white vs. black in our country.
It’s like this:
A couple years ago, one of my white team members was with one of our black recording artists. They were walking on a busy street and were having trouble finding where they were going, so my white team member asked a police officer on the corner for help. The policeman gave them the answers they needed and wished them well on their way. Our artist was appalled our team member would voluntarily ask a police officer for directions, whereas our white team member of course didn’t think twice about it.
I don’t know how you make equality… Is life designed to be equal? If it was, would we as humans still have purpose? I’m not sure, but I do believe strongly in equal opportunity for people of all sexes, races, religions, etc.
In order to fully appreciate “the strength, prosperity, laws, and well-being of the country” (Wiki’s description of Labor Day), it’s imperative we are the country we’ve preached being in our Constitution since 1776 instead of the country living in the dream or in fear.
But unfortunately, the idea of viewing people equally is nothing short of its own pipe dream of the way America looks today.
I finish meditating and scroll to the left on my iPhone to see a news article proclaiming Trump normalized racism. It’s impossible for ONE person to normalize anything in a country of our size… It’s the people who voted him into office and continue to support him who continue to normalize racism.
Even more unfortunately is the fact Ta-Nehisi describes racism as foundational to who America is… And therefore a part of us as its inhabitants, regardless if we are black or white.
He believes the same way African Americans were incapable of freeing themselves from slavery, they may be incapable of ridding the people of our country from the inherent racism living within.
Similar to electing Trump to office, it’s not the job of one person. Ta-Nehisi doesn’t set a plan of action through his letter to his son. He doesn’t preach the Constitution or fight the dream, instead, he creates space for awareness through the stories of the black bodies that have been and continue to be destroyed by the ignorance of our brothers and sisters.
When there is a seemingly unsolvable problem, awareness seems to be the only place to start.
What can you do about the “racist violence that has been woven into American culture”? Ta-Nehisi’s own words and he believes African Americans will always struggle with it, so they may as well learn how to swim with the country’s current.
“And I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” -Ta-Nehisi Coates
As we honor labor in all its various forms today, and its contributions to building our great nation, let’s take this federal holiday as a chance to appreciate our differences in order to form empathy that brings us one step closer to proving Ta-Nehisi’s thesis wrong… And even if it may be true, let’s move toward action and progress together.