That page reminds me of the pain he endured and the power that he passed along. I need it right now, and I know a lot of you do, too. Even when they took Augustus’ journals and his freedom, they couldn’t take his education. It was part of his identity.
Augustus was a slave in southern Maryland, and he filled his journal with letters and words as he learned to read and write.
But eventually, his slavemaster became angry when he learned that Augustus was educating himself. He tossed the journal into a fire. Fortunately, someone rescued the journal before it was completely destroyed. Over the generations, the remains of the journal was passed through my family, and I keep a single page of Augustus’ writing with me today.
His experiences resonate for me in the present. Just this week, I was trying to find a bicycle for my son, who is feeling cooped up during the pandemic like everyone else. I’d finally located a store that had one, and I excitedly showed up to buy it. After I purchased it and walked toward the exit of the store with relief, my excitement quickly deflated. A store worker stopped me, asking me to remove my mask, show identification and produce a receipt.
I knew I couldn’t show disdain or disappointment, though I was boiling on the inside, so with all the strength I could muster, I tried to compose myself to comply. The worker could not see much of my face because of my mask, but he could see my black skin. That was enough for him not to trust me. After I showed him the receipt, I pulled myself together and left the store to show my son his new bike as he waited in my car, as my mask hid my emotions.
I wasn’t physically harmed, but the pain ran deeper. Another nick to an open wound, that in the course of days like these, seems to not have a chance to heal. When your identity is challenged, it hurts. And small moments like my experience buying a bike build on and reflect the institutional racism people of color face every day. I drove home with a mind full of questions and worry. What if that was my son? Why did the kid who didn’t look like him get to ride his scooter out with such free joy, while I walked my bike out with scrutiny?
And a bike is nothing compared to a loss of life. But we shouldn’t have to get that far still to see change.
It’s often said that things don’t change overnight. But how many nights are we going to wait? Thousands of nights have passed since Augustus’ last journal entry and mine. I would love for a different story to be written.
Here’s what I would ask you to do now. Reach out and diversify the network of people you talk to. None of us should have the news be our only exposure to difference. Who do you seek other perspectives from?
Be authentically curious. Ask questions because you want to know the answer, so you can get the information you need to be more aware of your surroundings. Once you’ve learned more, find some kind of bridge you can build. It might not be easy. Sometimes creeks don’t need bridges, and you need to find a lot of stepping stones to get across. But that’s the kind of work we need to be doing.
As health care providers, we ask a lot of questions to understand what kind of care people need, whether there’s a pandemic or not. At this moment, we need to understand the symptoms that are causing the pain.
We can’t look at the killing of George Floyd and the resulting demonstrations in isolation. These single stories draw us in like a movie trailer, letting us know what the bigger picture is all about. But we need to watch the full movie to, in this case, get a better understanding of how racism touches so many parts of our lives.
All of us have to support each other in these difficult times, as we find the courage and the fortitude to keep working to make a difference, even when we need a break.
Now, we are like my ancestor’s journal page. We’ve been tossed into the fire to be tested once again, and it takes courage to reach into the fire – before we’re destroyed. We must endure for the good of the next generation.
We must be that lasting reminder for our friends, families and children that we have a shared responsibility to ensure purpose and power can come out of this pain.