I just finished reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. His work is an interrogation of the criminal justice system and American societies’ inhumanity towards those who are poor, weak, of color, with disabilities, who are children, who are powerless, with a marginalized status in a society controlled by those who are White and male, even if not rich, but with power. America has criminalized poverty, mental illness, drug addiction, for a particular population of society enabling the continued “enslavement” of African-American (and Latinx and Native) men and women of color. The rise of an incarcerated society, the rise of executions and the death penalty is inconsistent with a country founded on principles of justice and freedom, yet paradoxically, is consistent with a country founded on freedom, while enslaving African people.
Having worked in the men and women’s prisons, minimum security and maximum security, teaching grammar and literature through American Baptist College, I remember the feeling and sounds of incarceration, of locks, of chains, of doors slamming, of being searched, and the energy of fear, sorrow, and loss. These men and women are human beings who are treated as if they are not human. And…the guards, they often adopt a mindset of imprisonment and inhumanity as they themselves are incarcerated, locked behind mental and emotional bars. Sadly, the prison-industrial complex fuels small towns, fuels economies, and thus, has created a culture that seeks to be fed and fueled, like a greedy monster machine. Could we not support education and schools, instead and fuel an economy of knowledge?
My heart hurts. The quote that stood out most for me is about brokenness (p. 288):
“My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. … You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.
The writer Thomas Merton said: We are bodies of broken bones. I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.
We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.”
I have to ask myself: What does it mean to acknowledge “brokenness”? Brokenness in the context of the trauma caused by witnessing trauma; of the trauma caused by fighting trauma and injustice; of the trauma caused by suffering trauma?
As Black men and women survivors of a legacy of slavery, in which our bodies were literally beaten and often broken; as survivors of a legacy of lynching, in which our bodies were literally broken; as survivors of civil rights movement in which police literally beat our bodies; and as survivors of #BlackLivesMatters in which we are beaten and often broken and killed, what is the cost to not just our bodies, but our minds, our emotions, our spirits, and our souls?
Sadly, there is a cost. It is a cost few of us acknowledge. As such, we actually, as people of color, break other people of color. We break them in our work relationships; we break them in our personal relationships; we break them in church relationships; and we break them in our charitable relationships. In relationships that should help us to embrace one another and work towards healing and compassion, we perpetuate the brokenness.
This generational trauma, embedded in our DNA in many ways, requires extraordinary measures. It reminds me about the importance and power of forgiveness and love. How do we teach it? How do we practice it? How do we embrace it as a way of life?
I think often of the fierce gentleness of my mother, Mildred Pratt (“A Black Woman’s Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor”), a woman who was broken in many ways by the life of a young poor black girl in the 1930s, who through her educational journey, who through her search for God and spiritual foundation, who through the practice of social work, worked to repair the brokenness in society. I’m thankful for a lesson I hope I can continue.
Americans who are poor, with disabilities, of color, vulnerable, deserve justice just as much as those who are rich, without disabilities, and with power.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”