By Karsonya Wise Whitehead

For 400 years, we have tried to appeal to White America’s humanity. We preached love and practiced non-violence even in the face of hatred and terror. We worked within their system, played by their rules, colored within their lines while desperately trying to prove our worth and convince them that we belonged here. We stood by and screamed, sometimes in silence and sometimes out loud, as they enslaved us, abused us, raped us, tortured us, and sold us. We have spent many years swallowing the lies that they have fed us and the injustice that they have meted out toward us. We were in the room when they legislated slavery, when they decided that we were three-fifths of a human, and when they chose to secede from the Union rather than set us free. The history of this country was written with our blood. We were the reason why America became America. We tilled the soil, raised the crops, tamed the underbrush, but, we were not supposed to survive. Yet, we did not die. We are the descendants of men and women who chose survival as an act of rebellion. 

Frederick Douglass, in 1851, argued that after 230 years of being chained and lashed, hunted with bloodhounds and surrounded with utter insecurity, we had learned how to live on and how to smile under it all. We learned how to sing through our pain and laugh through our tears. And even when we thought we made it over, we were reminded time and time again that America—the land of the free and the home of the brave, the place that opens its arms to the poor huddled masses yearning to be free, the country that guarantees life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—had never been America to us. 

Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead (Courtesy Photo)

The reality is that for 400 years, we have been tormented, enslaved, and killed for the crime of being black in America. We bore witness as they terrorized our neighborhoods, scared our children, violated our sisters, and incarcerated our brothers. We understood, even if we could not articulate it, that the only reason that White America stood tall was that they forced us to kneel down so that they could stand on our backs. It was that way in the beginning, and it is that way today. 

When the first 20 Africans arrived in this country, they showed us that Black lives, our lives, mattered. When our 10.6 million ancestors made it through the Middle Passage, ending up in the American South or in the Caribbean, they showed us that Black lives mattered. They mattered when slavery ended, and Jim Cow started; when the Dred Scott ruling said that we had no rights which the White man was bound to respect, and when the Brown v. Board ruling said that separate was not equal, equal was equal; when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed in Congress while Black men, women and children were being hosed and beaten in their community. They mattered when they killed our leaders, imprisoned our children, and redlined our communities. Our lives mattered. They mattered when Barack Obama was elected, and the full force of whiteness, the one that we had witnessed with the rise of the KKK, was unleashed once more. 

Black lives matter even when they try to tell us or show us that they do not. They matter even when they shoot us while we are on our knees, or while we are marching against oppression, or fighting against injustice. They matter when they lie and accuse our men and boys of rape and then respond by burning down our communities and beating and killing our people. They matter even when we are unarmed, and they shoot us while we are playing in the park or sitting in our own homes. Black lives, our lives matter. Four hundred years later, and we are still trying to prove to White America that our lives matter.

Sit with that for a moment.

And then get angry with me because we built this country. We tilled the soil, raised the crops, and tamed the underbrush. Our blood is mixed with the soil of this land, and until Black lives matter, for Atatiana Jefferson, for Botham Jean, for us all, then America—in all of her shame and glory—will never be America. 

Karsonya Wise Whitehead ([email protected]; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the author of the forthcoming “I speak for the unforgotten: dispatches from baltimore.” She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.

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