Ponder: Lamenting “Guilty”

I can’t celebrate. I can’t find peace in Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict because I am never happy to see anyone go to prison. Prison is a horrible place. Yes, Chauvin must pay for his horrific crime, but his conviction only reminds me of the men and women—especially those I know—tortured in our prison system.

Derek Chauvin is about to face great hardship. Prisons in the United States are not designed to rehabilitate but to punish, and they offer only a handful of outcomes. It might well be that, for his own safety, Derek will need to remain in coffin-like isolation for years. Or guards will turn their backs as other inmates inhumanely punish him. Or a hate group will suck him in, never allowing him to deal with the pain he caused. Or Derek will commit suicide. How is this something to celebrate?

These grim consequences of imprisonment have been Black people’s reality for centuries, yet most of us refuse to see our nation’s prison system for the dangerous and evil establishment that it is. There is no justice in America’s prisons—only punishment, revenge, and death.

The system that funneled George Floyd into a life of poverty and drug use is the same one that shaped Derek Chauvin into an authority abusing his power—killing another human being—while fellow officers stood by. Why do we evade responsibility for this calamity? It is our system too.

Punishing Derek Chauvin is not the only answer to the loss of George Floyd’s life. While it’s easy for us to point the finger at him and cathartic to watch his conviction, we can never forget that there are thousands of Derek’s patrolling our streets every day. There are myriad George Floyds about to suffer and die by their hands. Until we address the issues that collided on May 23, 2020, we will never truly achieve a more just justice system.

George Floyd’s death opened our eyes to the racial injustices in our country; our penal system’s violence and inhumanity should do the same. Many of the recent cases in the limelight have involved Black and Latino men logically fleeing and resisting arrest. They know that law enforcement could destroy their lives in an instant, without a fair trial. George Floyd and Daunte Wright were rightly afraid.

I wish I did not care what happens to Derek Chauvin in prison, but I do. I wish I could say he deserves what’s coming to him, but I can’t. Derek and his family will never know what George Floyd experienced before and during his arrest, but they are about to get an up-close and personal look at why people of color fear imprisonment. We who uphold the penal system must not close our eyes. We have a moral obligation to consider Derek and his family and the pain they endure.

I’ve experienced trauma with the penal system that makes me lament anyone being sent to prison. Whenever I learn of a crime, my heart and mind shift to the perpetrator because I know that our punitive response will harm or even destroy that person. We are no better than the criminal when we feed our need to punish. Why don’t we focus on enabling Derek to recognize that he made a big mistake, confess, and demonstrate that he is truly sorry? Our system doesn’t allow for this. Instead, accused individuals must minimize what they have done to protect themselves from laws, policies, and practices focused on harmful retribution. 

We must transform our way of dealing with crime to shift our focus from retribution to redemptive and restorative justice. I pray for the day when I’ll be able to celebrate a guilty verdict because of good reason to believe it will lead to shalom.

Celebrate: Women

It’s women’s history month, and the Discovery Channel is featuring a series called Genius Aretha, about the phenomenal Aretha Franklin. The story shows not only her genius but the extraordinary hurdles she overcame and the family that helped her clear them. It’s a beautiful testament to the Black family and our complicating challenges.

I talk often about growing up in a Black community where the men often caused the women more harm than good. As a child, I struggled to love my father and many other men in my life because of their blatant disrespect for women. I didn’t understand why so many women remained in torturous relationships. I vowed never to let any man have that kind of power over me. By this stage in my life, my mother had rejected my father’s philandering and was raising us children alone. She was a militant Black woman akin to Angela Davis. She spoke truth to power and strived to empower her daughters to reach high and far. I am thankful for that today.

The Aretha story reminds me of the many hills and valleys women go through in the course of one life. Though the elder women in my life struggled under many chains of oppression, they pushed the next generation to break those chains before being constrained by them too. So, when one of the younger generations stumbled, our elders felt a tremendous blow to their legacy.

I remember when I told my mother I was pregnant at 16. Disappointed and concerned, she sighed deeply and simply said, “Cyneatha.” I was the one with potential, the one who would get out from under the dark cloud of our circumstances. I was the one the family knew was going to make something of herself. Then, so close to the finish line, I got pregnant. After the initial shock, my family rallied around me, as Aretha’s family did for her, and prepared for a baby. I now see how blessed I was through it all, but my choices led to a decade of valleys.

CeCe Winans song “Alabaster Box” is my anthem. It reminds me of what I have been through and how giving all to Jesus is my only means of survival. You should listen to this powerful song about Mary and her costly jar of perfume poured out on Jesus’ head. My jar, too, is extremely expensive. It has been poured out far more times than I care to admit.

What price have you paid to be a woman, daughter, wife, mother, teacher, lover, friend? In the dark days, have you stumbled your way to Jesus? Read Mark 14:3-9 and notice how Mary forged on to Jesus despite much criticism. That is what it means to be a woman: pushing forward no matter what.

To all the women I admire—from the great Aretha Franklin, Shirley Chisolm, Angela Davis, and Mother Teresa to my close and most adored friends including Pat Plude, Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, Jenny Moffett, and my big sister Vicky Scott—I am grateful for knowing even a small part of who God has created you to be. Your light and your dark places too guide me. As women, we grow stronger in the powerful cloud of sisters around us.

Affirm: Asian American Solidarity

Recent videos of people harming elderly Asian Americans break my heart. I try to make sense of them and feel ashamed as an African American. While I know that not only African Americans have been targeting Asian Americans, seeing people with my skin color harming anyone—especially senior citizens—is soul-crushing. I sense gravity in this moment that I don’t yet fully understand.

I remember being told months ago of the hate being directed at Asian Americans. I stated how sad it was to hear, said a quick prayer for the Asian community, imagined appropriate governmental responses, and then moved on. I didn’t give the issue space in my heart, soul, and mind.

My response was wrong. I did exactly what many people do when they hear about horrors being committed against African Americans: say a quick prayer and follow up with excuses to blame someone else for the problem.

The recent violence against Asian American senior citizens shows me how I too have fallen into my culture’s typical response to right and wrong. Instead of standing up for the vulnerable, I have followed our society’s pattern of viewing the issue as someone else’s problem; worrying about how it might affect me personally; and then trying not to get involved.

When I speak out about issues facing African Americans and this nation, I am quick to tell White Americans they must act; they cannot sit comfortably on the sidelines. I recognize that this holds true for me as well. Whether it’s a hate crime against Asian Americans or any other group, I am called to voice the wrong—better said, the many wrongs—that these incidents against bring to light. It is shameful that individuals are being victimized for their racial identity. It is shameful that elderly persons’ physical vulnerability is being exploited. It is shameful that so many in our society have deemed the elderly unworthy of our attention.

I, like many, want to figure out why these crimes are happening. In particular, why are African Americans targeting Asian Americans? Is it the loss of family values, poverty, hunger, unemployment, poor education, or the new coronavirus?

Any of these systemic problems may be contributing to the recent aggressions against Asian Americans, but before we continue to investigate and look for explanations, we must first and foremost condemn the wrongs committed and find ways to protect those being victimized. When George Floyd was murdered in May 2020, our nation in its great diversity stood in solidarity against the wrong. That same collective response must be seen now when another group is being victimized. All of us need to stand alongside neighbors when their trials come, advocating for justice and lending a helping hand.

Today I purchased Encyclopedia of Minorities in American Politics: Volume 1, African Americans and Asian Americans (American Political Landscape Series) by Jeffrey D. Schultz. It’s my first honest step in trying to understand the plight and history of Asian Americans. If you have suggestions on books or movies I should read or watch, please email them to me.

To the Asian American community: We see your beauty and your strength. We stand against all hate and racism toward you.  

Ponder: Positive

My test results came back positive. Bummer.

The results came six days after the onset of symptoms. By then I had chest pain, fever, body ache, and what seems like a head cold.

The positive test added anxiety to my symptoms. It also meant spending a half-day being interviewed by the health department and calling my contacts. Our family had been gathering in a bubble—so when my husband, daughter-in-law, infant grandson, and I all tested positive within a week, it burst our bubble in a bad way.

We’re all worried about those of us who tested positive because everyone in our family hasn’t survived. We have already lost three family members to Covid-19, along with five others who have died this year for reasons unrelated to the pandemic. Many of our family members and friends have managed to beat the virus, but they continue to suffer lingering health problems and financial hardship caused by their illness.

With four of us Covid-positive at the same time, we’ve seen how differently this virus affects different people. We’ve each had different symptoms, and we’ve each responded to our symptoms differently. This has added up to a lot of family angst! We are nearing the end of our two-week quarantine, but none of us, besides the baby, feels as if the virus is gone. Many of our initial symptoms are still present, and new ones seem to be showing up. For me, it’s depression.

I have been remembering other positive test results that brought our family profound sadness. My husband and sister tested positive for cancer. I am happy to say that both of them survived. Another family member tested positive for HIV and is living with that diagnosis. And now four of us tested positive for Covid-19.

Right now, I just want to go on a long walk. Breathe in the cool winter air. I want to look at the trees and houses decorated for Christmas and see healthy children playing in the yard. I want to hold my grandson. I want to comb my granddaughter’s hair.

I want my life back, but I am not sure that I can walk to the end of my yard and make it back without searching for air.

I keep thinking about what our world will look like a decade or so from now. How will the virus change us? Our nation has always been known for its individualism, but my hope—and thank God I still have hope—is that this experience will help us to prioritize being with one another. That we will no longer wait until holidays and funerals to gather with extended family. That we will get back to weekly meals and games with friends. That we will stop storing up money for the end of our life. Because this virus has shown us that life can change with one word: positive.

To all the frontline workers, thank you. We would not have made it this far without you.