For 401 years, African Americans in our country have been forced to wear masks — first by the colonizers, then by the slave owners, then Jim Crow laws — and now by an unjust criminal justice system, endemic racism, and cultural biases. This mask, like the COVID-19 mask, does not protect the wearer, but it protects others from contracting a virus. This perceived virus unfortunately cannot be eliminated by a vaccine or by washing your hands. This virus, as seen by some, is simply the blackness of one’s skin. And sadly, the mask cannot be removed. And we can’t breathe.
We all know to some degree the paralyzing feeling deep in our chest — like we can’t breathe. We feel like the air has been stripped from our bodies. Our attempted breaths are fast and shallow, our heart races. We’ll mutter, “I can’t breathe.” Finally, we manage to take deep, long breaths, and eventually our heart rate returns to normal and our breathing evens out. The moment of panic is gone and our bodies return to a state of shalom (peace). We can breathe again.
Many have watched the horrific video of George Floyd. It’s too horrible to recount in detail the 8 minutes and 46 seconds he laid with a knee pressing into his neck as he declared he couldn’t breathe. He wasn’t allowed to return to normal. There was no shalom for George Floyd. As I heard his last words — begging for help, begging for relief, begging for peace — I’m sure that wasn’t a one-time plea. He, like so many in our community, hadn’t been able to breathe for years due to the “masks” they’ve been forced to wear by a country that is threatened by their very existence.
There seems to always be a knee on our necks and masks on our faces. It’s the way the system was built. It’s been ingrained in the fabric of our nation. It affects all aspects of our community, including our schools and our children.
We are failing our Black students: In a 2018 article in Memphis Business Journal, we saw the average ACT score for a school in East Memphis was 23.7 while it was 17.2 in North Memphis. In some cases, schools have been given to well-meaning charter operators, but according to a 2019 study by Tennessee Education Research Alliance, many “haven’t produced significant gains in student achievement in any academic subject.”
As a former Memphis teacher and lifelong educator, I’ve seen firsthand the disparities in schools right here in the Bluff City. For example, the cafeteria in Collierville looks like a buffet, while students in other ZIP codes are eating pre-packaged lunches. And if you think food and school lunches aren’t significant, according to the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition, even for people at a healthy weight, a poor diet is associated with major health risks that can cause illness and even death. Food choice and the lack of healthy eating options have a huge impact on emotional, social, and mental wellness. Our kids can’t breathe.
The mask on African-American communities in this country will be hard to remove and is often unseen, due to years of both physical oppression and societal inequities. We have to do better as a community and as a country to continue to fight for fairness, equity, justice, and leveling the playing field completely. Right now, there are young people who are ready to continue the fight by running for local office to innovate systems and break down these barriers. We need to give them a chance, because at this rate we’ll continue to suffocate for another 400 years.
We can’t breathe and enter a state of shalom until the mask and burden of inequity is fully removed. Then we’ll be able to breathe as freely as we were created and designed to do.
Kristen Smith is a native Memphian passionate about education and food.