For the past 4 years, my Black Lives Matter shirt has taken its place among the rows of strategically folded tshirts in my drawer. They’re arranged so I can see the image on the front of each shirt. Which is important, because I think of my t-shirt selection as my mood board for the day.
Who doesn’t really?
I wore my Black Lives Matter shirt a lot right after the murders by police in 2016. It felt like daily protest, just me marching about the world in this shirt.
I know that might seem ridiculous now. But it felt radical then. Which, truthfully, is part of the problem. Even the smallest gestures from white people are seen (by ourselves) as meaningful and heroic. When, really, what we need is to burn the whole system to the ground and build something truly based on equity and celebration of diversity over whiteness.
But I digress. We’re supposed to be talking about a t-shirt.
After the first year or so, I started passing over the Black Lives Matter shirt more. Not because black lives mattered less to me. But I started to wonder who the hell I thought I was to proclaim that black lives matter. I mean, wouldn’t black people look at me and think, “Well, no shit. And who are you to tell me I matter?” As if it were a question.
Because Black Lives Matter is such an obvious statement. Yet, for years those words were somehow militant, radical, suspect.
Think about that for a minute.
But, occasionally, I’d see the Black Lives Matter t-shirt in the drawer, dust it off, and wear it.
Here’s what happened every single time:
Some mediocre white guy would give me side-eye.
Some white mother with kids in tow would look at me askance.
And I’d draw smiles from most of the black people I passed. And at least one, often more, would stop whatever they were doing, look me in the eye and say “Thank you.”
Wearing a t-shirt proclaiming the basic human dignity of black folks was enough to make someone stop and thank me.
That has been the state of our country for black folks. That’s how bleak it has been on the human rights front, right here in the United States.
It always made me cry, by the way. The thank you. It was the single most humbling experience I’d ever had (over and over again). But the crying I saved for later (because white tears are a no). Those moments were about folks feeling really seen, even if just for a second.
And now, here’s the part of the story where I connect the t-shirt to something else. (You were wondering if it was going to happen, weren’t you?)
Neighborhood folks have been gathering on the busiest street corner in my little neighborhood to have a Black Lives Matter protest/vigil each evening. They hold signs, wave to folks, and are generally just present.
I knew they were doing this. But I didn’t go.
Because, unlike a march downtown, where the whole group storms up to City Hall or to the Capitol or the Police Headquarters with demanding to be heard by folks in power, what were we going to accomplish standing on a street corner in our neighborhood?
There’s a lot of talk about performative allyship right now. And no one needs one more white person stroking their ego right now and calling it activism. So, I fretted that maybe we’d just all be making ourselves feel good standing out there–to no real avail. I worried it was just performance.
But, finally, I caved. Because I drove by on Tuesday night and folks were all out there holding signs and folks were honking and waving, and it cracked something in my reticence.
So, last night, I gathered up the 9 year old and off we went.
It took 5 minutes standing there on a corner in my own neighborhood to realize what folks smarter than me who’d already been doing this for a week already knew: this wasn’t about me at all. Not about performativity. Not about my ego.
It was about letting people, black people, know that they are seen.
It’s so simple. It shouldn’t need to be said that Black Lives Matter. It should be a given. But it’s not. Not in this country.
Holding a Black Lives Matter sign on the corner of a little intersection somewhere in Atlanta isn’t going to change policy. And there’s so much work to be done on that front that I think we each have to find a way to meaningfully engage in that work if we really believe black lives matter.
But that doesn’t make acts of solitary performative, either.
If a single black person drove by that little cluster of white folks on a street corner and felt an ounce of hope, or felt seen, or just thought “well, no shit. Of course black lives matter” then it wasn’t useless.
It was just (part of) the right thing to do.