On the morning of January 31, 1969, I was about to give birth to my first child. I was 20 years old. Whether the child was a boy or girl, I knew what the baby’s name would be. I hadn’t thought much beyond that—except that I knew I wanted to raise a child who was not afraid to say “no.”
I was born 3 years after the second World War and television brought that recent history into my home. We watched programs on the Holocaust with pictures of the dead men, women, and children killed in concentration camps. Some of those images live in my mind today: the face of a young boy with his mouth frozen in a scream, his body having been tossed like an empty box on a heap of other bodies. Flies crawling on the faces of the dead. The walking cadavers allied troops encountered as they liberated Auschwitz. And I remember thinking that Adolf Hitler and his gang were just a handful of men. What if most of the other people had said, “no”? No, to herding their neighbors and friends into cattle cars, and torturing them in terror camps. No, to working people to death. No, to making people dig their own graves and shooting them at point-blank range to fall without reverence in these burial troughs. No, to silently enduring or going along with all of it. No!
My consciousness of mass brutality in the United States began in the 1960s with the TV pictures and sounds of what were the current events of my childhood. White men in uniform beating, fire-hosing, and loosing attack dogs on people who looked like me. Uniformed officers herding black children into police vans. White women standing on the lawns and at the doors of school houses shouting epithets at children who looked like me. White men dressed in civilian clothes beating and cursing grown-ups who looked like my mama and daddy. Children my age and older holding signs reading, “We don’t want to go to school with them.” The children who looked like me. Throngs of white people standing on the sidelines—jeering, watching, cheering the abuse of people who looked like me.
I was raised in the example of people who said, “No.” My maternal and paternal grandparents—children of parents born into the brutality of American chattel slavery—were among a cooperative of black Catholics who bought land in the early 20th century, and built their own churches in Washington DC so that they could sit in the sanctuary. My resolute, determined father publicly advocated for a local union of hotel and restaurant service workers back when trying to organize a union could cost you your life—whatever your skin color—and when many unions barred blacks from membership. I heard stories of my much-older siblings’ defying ‘legal” segregation on the public buses and streetcars. My notorious mother habitually confronted, demanded, and obtained just ends from white authorities in the private, Catholic schools my older siblings attended, and from the all-white local police enforcers of discriminatory racial codes. “Stand up,” was the theme of our family story. “Speak up even if you are the only one speaking!”
I wanted to raise children who would say, “No.” A moral “no” of courage and resolution. A lonely “no,” if necessary.
These days, I often stand in the public square with strangers who I suppose are like-minded and with members of my own Unitarian Universalist faith community, wondering what call we are answering. I wonder about the names some of us call our opposition—imbeciles, idiots, assholes—and I wonder how we justice warriors of faith reconcile such feel-good behavior with affirming and promoting the worth and dignity of every individual. Are we in the streets, or writing letters, or making calls out of determination to create Beloved Community; or to vent anger, to shame, and “win” against the people whose ideas we oppose? If we “win,” will we otherize, marginalize, and punish the people who do not see the world as we do? Or will we do the arduous, wrenching heart-work of recognizing them as constituents of a human family where there are no “others” or “outsiders”—even as we vigorously resist and repudiate the pernicious and divisive ideologies we believe they stand for? Will we say “no” to the tar-and-feathering of people who disagree with us?
I have been in forums where my white brothers and sisters speak—as I believe they should—of trying to humanize or understand white acquaintances, friends, and relatives who have bestowed the mantles of authority and power on Donald Trump, and men and women like him. And I wonder if my white family members have tried equally to understand the terror and suffering of those black and brown humans outside white churches and white communities who are adversely affected by the ideas and practices of Trumpism. Will privileged white justice warriors say “no” to categorizing as political the immoral dehumanization of the marginalized?
We are of a culture that discounts human beings the farther they are from the markers of white, heterosexual, male, well-off, and professed Christian. When I stand and march at social justice events with members of my human family who are not like me—especially those at the highest pinnacles of preference—I find myself wondering, if the “legal” authorities come for me, for my children, for my grandchildren; if they come for non-white people who cannot make themselves safe by remaining silent; if they come for the marginalized who choose to out themselves as non-hetero or gender non-conforming, or Jews, or Muslim, or some other category of non-preferement—who will be with us then? Who will shout, “No!”?