If You Don’t Know Me by Now…
E. Ethelbert Miller | Summer 2020
Too many metaphors are missing these days. In their absence, we desperately search for a way of explaining the sudden upheaval in our society. We uproot the past looking for historical clarity. Unfortunately, the future often wears a mask. We are no longer protesting like this is the ’60s. The motion of history has taken us somewhere else. “Where are we?” is as difficult to utter as “Once upon a time.” As writers, our own words and narratives (if we are not careful) can turn against us, and even become suffocating.
In 2020, our profession urges us to place our shoulder against the soft back of Democracy and push. Thanks to Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors, the Black Lives Matter movement was created in 2013 with a hashtag in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin. It was a movement that demanded protection of black lives as well as space and equality for women, queer, and trans people. By 2014, the death of Mike Brown, an eighteen-year-old black man killed by the police in Ferguson, Missouri, brought more attention to the blue climate warming of brutality against the black community. People did not feel safe when they left their homes. They were also afraid when they decided to return. Is it different this time, or more of a changing same? The poet Sterling A. Brown wrote about police and mob violence during the 1930s and 1940s. His words of caution still echo what every black mother fears.
“They got the judges
They got the lawyers
They got the jury-rolls
They got the law
They don’t come by ones
They got the sheriffs
They got the deputies
They don’t come by twos
They got the shotguns
They got the rope
We git the justice
In the end
And they come by tens.”1
What is sad is how one plays tag with language. When we touch or try to use it, we bend it into the shape of our shadows. The language follows us around, hiding its true meaning inside its own darkness. To see a shadow is as important as losing one. When the term “Black Lives Matter” found its Marco Polo moment, everyone was struck by the discovery of the spice of blackness. This came with a much-needed demand for a dialogue around race issues. A dialogue, however, is not the sound of one hand clapping. It is built around listening and sharing. It calls for mutual respect and eventually compassion. Over the last few years, it appears a new generation discovered the works of James Baldwin. The essence of Baldwin’s work always revolved around love and the freedom to love. If we connect his writings to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermons, then the task is to find the strength to love. How often do we need to be reminded that this black and white affair is a lover’s struggle? How do we make this relationship work? Listen to Patti LaBelle singing “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” and you realize that America is at the point where someone has their bags packed. After all the conversations about race we may never, never, never know each other at all. Is this the price of the ticket or simply the fire next time?
This brings us back to that last book by King, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? For King, it was always the Beloved Community. His vision of the World House was a place of justice and equal opportunity, a place where one embraced their fellow human being and no one was discriminated against. If we look around and don’t see the Beloved Community, then our work must be to build one and bring it into existence. We must do this without metaphors. We cannot continue to comfort ourselves with storytelling and remembering the past. Our survival is dependent on discovering the shape and forms of things unknown. We must find the faith to love. The faith to give birth to a future bright and spilling glitter into our hands.
If there is one thing the Black Lives Matter movement has done, it has forced white people to examine not just their history but also their myths. As writers we know how difficult this can be. We know too often the work we do perpetuates certain myths while distorting the truth. Racial identity at times has an adhesive backing connecting it to myths of superiority. Tear it off too quickly and blood spills from an open wound. Knocking down Confederate statues will always come with a price if there are no explanations. The Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 has been a wake-up call for America. We either move towards a New Reconstruction or we face another Civil War. As writers, we will need to define and create beauty not just for ourselves but for every living thing that has a desire for air. We cannot tell each other what to write or how to live, but we must show one another how to love. I want to call my neighbor – Beloved.
E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist and author of two memoirs and several poetry collections. He was awarded the 2016 AWP George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature. Miller’s latest book If God Invented Baseball (City Point Press) was awarded the 2019 Literary Award for poetry by the American Library Association’s Black Caucus.
- “Old Lem” by Sterling A. Brown, from The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, ed. Michael S. Harper, Harper & Row, 1980.
- E. Etherlbert Miller Papers at the GW Libraries Archives: https://searcharchives.library.gwu.edu/repositories/2/resources/367