I grew up in a small southern town in Central Florida. By no means was it perfect when it came to interracial interaction, but there was plenty of it. A sizable percentage of my classmates were black, and I enjoyed their friendship. I still do.
But there were lines of separation. Some invisible. Some not.
There’s a street in our town called Lincoln Avenue. Pretty much anyone from my town of Lake Wales knows the road. Sadly, it was – and still is – one of those not-invisible-lines of separation. It was the street that all whites knew was “dangerous.” We – the white people – weren’t supposed to go there.
A few years ago, I traveled back home to Lake Wales, from Indiana, for my 25th high school reunion. On a Saturday morning, after we toured the high school, several of us stood around discussing where to eat lunch. A few of our black friends said they were going to “Lincoln Avenue Café,” the best restaurant in town, they claimed. These black men told us white women, “You should come with us.” Said with a wink, some laughs, and an unspoken assumption that we wouldn’t go.
To their surprise, we said we would. Of course, you and I both know that that us white women would never have decided to venture down Lincoln Avenue on our own. “It’s not safe for white people,” is what we’ve been told.
But their words reassured us. They told us, “We’ve got your back.”
So we went. I felt safe with them. I knew them and I trusted them.
I think I allow interactions like that to make me feel good about myself right now: “Look! I have black friends. I’m not racist. I even went out to eat with them on Lincoln Avenue.”
But as the stories have been coming out and I’ve been hearing the cry of so many in the black community who have shared what it is like to grow up black in this country, I realize how blind I’ve been. Blind to the racism going on around me.
I had one street to be fearful of. My black friends are telling us that they have every street to be fearful of.
Every street is Lincoln Avenue to them. I never knew that. And I’m embarrassed by that. How could I live among you and not realize this? It’s because I wasn’t truly listening. And for that, I am so sorry.
And even more humbling . . . my black friends knew that Lincoln Avenue could be dangerous for us. They understood. They didn’t try to defend it. They acknowledged it by saying they would be with us. They would protect us. They had our back.
That’s empathy. That’s solidarity. That’s love.
And that’s what they are asking of us. To know. To understand. To not defend our unloving actions. To acknowledge their reality. They just want us to protect them. For us to let them know we have their backs.
They want empathy. They want solidarity. They want love.
I keep thinking about the phrase in the bible: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” I looked up this story in Genesis – the story about Cain killing his brother Abel – to remind myself of the context. I knew God had asked Cain where his brother was (God, of course, knew what Cain had done) and that Cain had responded with “Am I my brother’s keeper?” As if caring for his brother was not his responsibility.
It was another verse that stood out to me, though, that I had never really noticed before. God said to Cain: “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:10)
Wow. Right now, in this moment in history, our brothers’ blood is crying out from the ground: George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Lives taken by the hands of their white “brothers.”
God hears their blood crying out. And now, so do we. They are not the first . . . we all know that. But their blood is the blood crying out to us today. Their blood is beginning to open many of our eyes in new ways: reminding us of the hundreds of years of mistreatment, racism, and brutal deaths and showing us that racism still exists today.
I have an image of the blood of George, Breonna, and Ahmaud rising up from the ground, together with the blood of all the countless black men and women who have been wrongly killed in this country by the hands of white people. A gruesome, yet powerful, image. Their blood is crying out.
I know God hears them. Do we?
We are our brother’s keeper. We must be our brother’s keeper. That is what our black brothers and sisters are asking us to do.
Are we listening?
Every street is “Lincoln Avenue” for men and women of color. Emmanuel Acho, former NFL linebacker said, “As a black man, I have to calculate every move I make the second I walk outside my house.” He also explained that white privilege is, among other things, “. . . the ability to live life unconsciously.”
I don’t want to live life unconsciously anymore. And I don’t want others to have to calculate every move they make, just because of the color of their skin.
I want to be to others what my old high school classmates were to me, back there on that line of separation called Lincoln Avenue. I want to be my brothers’ keeper. I want us all to be our brothers’ keepers. Lord, please show me how. Please show us how.
” . . . love one another.”
I John 3:11