By Kaleem Caire
I was pleased to see that Princeton University’s Board of Trustees recently voted to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from their School of Public and International Affairs.
I cannot tell you how disheartening it has been all of my life to walk by statues and buildings that celebrate the names of individuals who intentionally held my people back, who enslaved or slaughtered us, or who supported those who did, and feel like I have to pretend to want to celebrate their names and achievements. I was taught from kindergarten through college, by teacher after teacher, to respect and revere men (and women) who enslaved, murdered, raped, pillaged and burdened my ancestors and their offspring with a legacy of oppression, pain and loss that many of us still live with today. This includes my African and Native roots.
For my friends who don’t get it, I cannot help you. All I can say is, I am relieved and overjoyed that this day of reckoning with America’s racist past and contemporary treachery towards Black Americans is here. It is long overdue and I hope it never goes away. In fact, I hope it spreads across the country like a sun rising in the morning that never sets.
I hope every school, college and parent in America start learning and teaching the true history of my people and our tremendous contributions to this country. I hope the burdens of my people and our ancestors show bright like Las Vegas lights in the middle of the night, and for years to come. We should not have to hide our suffering, ignore our pain, or pretend to celebrate heroes that are not ours, for White America’s benefit. For my White friends who are truly my friends, it is not fair for you to expect this of me. I should not have to celebrate your heroes who hurt me and my people; and you should not judge me poorly for my decision either.
I also hope Americans learn important lessons from this moment we are in, especially our Black children. They should know they come from a strong and mighty people, whose bloodlines have nourished this country and lined America’s pocketbooks with money runneth over. The United States of America would not be a strong nation if it were not for us, and most of America’s “old money” families would not be wealthy if it were not for the free and cheap labor forced upon our ancestors.
Given our enormous contributions to this country, and the rivers of our blood that have carried America’s flag for four centuries, there is no way 90 percent of Black children today should be reading below grade level in schools across this nation;
…no way that our men and boys should be filling up jails and prisons across the United States;
…no way that Black men and women should be pulling apart from each other and not uplifting their families together;
…no way that so many Black fathers are not involved in their children’s lives;
…no way that we should aim low when the legacy of our ancestors’ experiences in this country have prepared us to aim high;
…no way that we should ever bow our heads to make others feel strong while we feel weak, and;
…absolutely no way that we should ever think we have to treat people with the same disregard that they have treated us during our time in this country, to rectify, justify or ameliorate our suffering.
No, that’s not what Children of the Light do. We are better than that.
“Black Child,” as my grandmother would say, “Hold your head up and stop underachieving to your God-given abilities and potential.” Don’t look at your struggles as ones you can’t endure and overcome. Your people have risen above worse. Black people in America have survived some of the greatest horrors, atrocities, dislocations, disappointments and challenges known to humankind. We’ve been living some version of this life for 401 years, but we are still here.
So Black Child, step up, raise your head and let the sunshine on your brow.
And when you look into the eyes of your mother and father, see them for the strengths and gifts that they have, not the pain and weaknesses they might show you. Sometimes this is hard to do, but when you look for the light in others, you can more easily see your light, too.
We all get down sometimes, but don’t stay down. Instead, live your life with purpose, perseverance and determination, and with compassion, kindness, love, humility and charity towards others. By doing so, you will leave a great legacy with your family, friends and future children. You don’t see it now, and it will take a long time for your impact to become clear to you. But stay the course. Yours will be a legacy so grand and so important, that the imprints you leave in this life will ensure your seat at the table among your most notable ancestors when you close your eyes for one final time.
Brothers and Sisters, it is time for us to step up and utilize the tremendous gifts and talents we were given at birth, to create a better version of America than the one we are experiencing today. It is time for us to build America 5.0, a nation where the opportunity to pursue and live a good life is truly available to all of us. America has never been more diverse than it is now. Instead of seeing the threat in this, we should celebrate the beauty of it.
Also, let’s not mimic the greed, selfishness, fearmongering and division we see in our leaders today, or be confused by the hateful and ignorant things we may have heard from the mouths of our parents and grandparents when we were children. Instead, let’s be the people who stand up and shine a light, and point the way to a better future so others who are more disillusioned or unprepared can follow. Let’s also be the people who reach back to help others, regardless of what their skin color looks like, what their surnames are, where they were born, how they identify themselves, or what zip codes they live in. Great leaders and great people don’t roll like that.
And for those who disagree with how I feel, I have two questions for you: Why should I be expected to celebrate people who brought irreparable harm to my ancestors in the past, and whose legacy of promoting or supporting our disenfranchisement continues to harm or haunt my people today? Why should I be made to celebrate other people’s version of America’s glorious history that did not exist for my people and that still largely ignores our contributions to this country, and that we were victimized by?
You might be struggling with the racial reckoning that is going on right now but consider this: most of the protestors you see are not people who hate America. Conversely, they are people who want it to finally live up to its creed, that all of us are created equal, “endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
And, what you are also witnessing are the grandsons and granddaughters of the slave, honoring our ancestors by pursuing justice for the hurt, pain, loss and grievances they had but were unable to pursue or attain themselves, and that many of us still feel today. To truly move forward, reconciliation and justice are required. We cannot heal our country, or be a truly great nation, until we do.
Caire is founder and chief operating officer of One City Schools in Madison. He is a member of the board of directors of the Wisconsin Technology Council.