Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Christian Cooper.
These are some of the recent names in the news making headlines. But they are more than just names. They are more than hashtags. They are human beings! They are sons! They are daughters! They are brothers! They are sisters! They are family! And they matter!!
When will it end? When will Black lives matter? When will Black people be seen for who and what we are – i.e., humanity created in the image of God?
I know how it feels to be unseen. To feel invisible. To feel marginalized. To feel ignored. As a shy, quiet, introverted woman, feeling unseen has characterized much of my life.
But I also know how it feels to be seen. And to feel like I matter. One such day was January 25, 2018.
I attended a women’s breakfast in downtown Atlanta. The keynote speaker was the Honorable Judge Penny Brown Reynolds. I went alone – unaccompanied by a friend or sister – and so I was just one attendee among strangers, yet within a sisterhood.
I arrived in the lobby of the Coca-Cola building and approached the security desk, as all attendees had to be escorted through the building. I informed a security guard that I was there to attend the women’s breakfast. The guard half-heartedly looked in my direction and told me to just stand there and wait for an escort. Nothing more. I complied and I waited.
A few moments later, a well-dressed young woman emerged from the elevator and approached the same security desk. There seemed to be an air of excitement at her arrival, and one of the personnel in the lobby identified the woman to the security guard. “Good morning, Judge!” the guard said with exuberance. “Welcome! We will get someone to escort you in just a minute!” Or something to that effect.
Now, quite honestly, I had no idea who this well-polished woman was, but I clearly heard them call her “Judge,” so I knew she was someone important. As we both waited to be escorted, we nodded at one another and acknowledged each other’s presence. I mentioned that I, too, was attending the breakfast (as I had heard the security guard mention that the Judge needed to be escorted to the breakfast). Judge Brown Reynolds said, “Oh, so I guess we are going to the same place!” We introduced ourselves by name and shook hands.
An escort quickly arrived and greeted Judge Penny Brown Reynolds. But only Judge Brown Reynolds. She asked the Judge to follow her, as she would be her escort. As they started to walk away, I quickly turned to the security guard and asked, “Am I to follow them?” Again, looking past me with an appearance of indifference, she said, “Yes, you can follow them.”
I ran to catch up to the pair, letting them know that I would walk with them. I tried to disregard the fact that I was feeling rather ignored. I was glad to be attending the breakfast, so I just kept smiling.
But then Judge Penny (as she is affectionately known) did something that I will never forget. While the escort was chattering away, Judge Penny interrupted her, grabbed my arm and pulled me closer. Judge Penny introduced me to the escort and said, “This young woman is attending the breakfast also.” In my estimation, Judge Penny noticed that I had not been “seen” and she made sure the escort acknowledged me! The escort politely nodded and greeted me. As we continued to walk to the breakfast venue, Judge Penny and the escort remained in their chatter while I mesmerizingly admired the beauty of my surroundings!
It wasn’t until the keynote address that I began to realize who Judge Penny Brown Reynolds is. She was introduced with all the accolades of a noted celebrity! She is a minister (a public theologian according to her bio), a jurist, a TV personality, a social justice advocate, and a motivational speaker! In other words, she mattered because of her noted accomplishments! Being seen is a regularity in her life.
But to the contrary, my life’s experience is to live in the shadows. To live shyly. To live introvertedly. To live in obscurity. But because of Judge Brown Reynold’s small, but significant gesture, this day was slightly different. I felt seen! For a brief moment in the lobby of the Coca-Cola building, I felt like I mattered!
The next day, I wrote Judge Brown Reynolds a letter. A real letter. Not an email, but a U.S. Postal Service letter. It mattered to me to put my words on paper rather than in cyberspace.
In the letter, I reminded the Judge who I was and tried in my best words to express how her gesture made me feel. I tried not to over-articulate. I wanted her to know that I was writing out of gratitude for how she made me feel, and not because I was enamored with her celebrity status. The purpose for writing the letter was simply that she saw me. And in the letter, I stated just that: “You treated me like I mattered.”
That was the day I felt seen. That was the day I mattered.
Why do I recount this story here? It is what comes to mind when I see Mr. George Floyd being asphyxiated in a 10-minute video — a video that I can no longer watch. It is my response to how my people – Black people – are being mistreated. Why don’t my people matter? Why are we not seen for who and Whose we are?
Within the totality of today’s headlines, my encounter with Judge Penny Brown Reynolds may seem insignificant. Granted, it does not begin to compare to the more compelling issues of life and death occurring in the Black community. But, in my opinion, it does speak to a more profound issue of being seen! It speaks to the issue of who matters and who does not.
Black people have for too long lived within the status quo of a racist American society. People in the Black community have collective experiences of being unseen. We do not seem to matter. Our lives are easily expendable. But one simple gesture can change that. One simple gesture can allow us to be seen for who we are – i.e., members of God’s humanity who live and breathe and have our being! A simple gesture can turn the tide of racism and help us all feel that we truly matter!
Collectively, we are one humanity. I will not (and cannot) matter unless all of humanity matters. Therefore, the day I matter will be the day that all Black lives matter! The day I matter will be the day that Black people will not have to die at the hands of police! The day I matter will be the day that White women will no longer see a peaceful Black man as a threat. The day I matter will be the day that every human being – Black, Red, Yellow, or White – matters!
Today, I challenge you to treat a Black person like (s)he matters. In your daily comings and goings, make an effort to see a Black person. Realize that Black lives are valuable. Black lives matter! When you see a Black man out for a jog, know that his life matters! When you enter into a Black woman’s home, realize that she matters. When you handcuff a Black man, then put your knee on his neck, understand that his cry for breath matters! When you encounter a peaceful Black man in your local park – stop and see that Black man for who he is, and know that he matters!
Every day for the rest of your life, consider that Black people matter and treat us as such. I guarantee it will change your life – and protect ours!!
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