Went to Harrisburg again yesterday. Again meaning, I again put on my same red T-shirt and again went on the bus full of chatty kids and sleepy elders and eloquent preachers, to again pack the steps of the grand rotunda full with our cries for Full Funding for Public Education because, again, the State Assembly is voting on a budget.
I am not a policy wonk, much to the dismay of my ever-so-wishful father. I am more of a feeler, breather, decipherer of a fuller humanistic/political context.
So, while I can’t rattle off the numbers for pension holding givebacks, I can tell you that the purpose of the Pennsylvania State House is to hold onto the power of having power. And the purpose of our ritual visits is to try to evoke pity from those men in suits who are comfortable enough to never have to look our kids in the eye.
That’s what I felt stuffed onto that marble stairway, shouting “400 million! 400 million!” as student after student of color got on the mic to detail the deplorable conditions of their schools and the sub-standard quality of their hands-off educations.
As our voices echoed up into the ornate dome, in the halls of state power, white men in suits bustled about about with self-importance, tanned smiles and unnatural comb-overs, all shaking hands and congratulating each other on a swifter budget process than last year. But not listening.
And no amount of a collared preacher pointing down at the babies, detailing these kids’ survival through the traumas of poverty, with incarcerated parents and food scarcity and crumbling schools, will change those men’s fiscal maneuvers. Those appeals, meant to somehow soften the hardened heart of some Alleghany County Republican off wheeling deals to cut corporate taxes and take home a little pork for his home district, those appeals won’t be listened to or cared about.
|photo: Carolyn Kaster|
Returning back to Philly, I don’t question the intent, commitment or love of our gathering. I question our strategy:
What is the place of going to Harrisburg to tell these stories of neglect and disrepair?
Should our target really be in the hearts of those who have been the cause of our neglect? Or should the target be, not their hearts, but their soft, insulated, safe lifestyles? Disruption of their business as usual.
How do we force those who would prefer, instead, to relax on their sectional sofas to pay attention to the suffering taking place down the interstate from their own decisions. How do we force their hand, their vote, their giving up of something?
Yesterday, each and every young person who got on the mic on that marble stairway said, “At my school, there is not clean drinking water.”
And that is it. That is everything.
We have failed.
When children say to us that they don’t have water to drink, then, bottom line, we have failed as a society. And I refer to something bigger than just the failure of our so-called leaders to pass a budget. We have actually failed as humans. And we need to, each one of us, myself included, recognize this failure sooner rather than later, so that we can be led by something greater than electoral strategy or partisan pettiness, and actually do something about it.
We need to listen. Really listen to these young people’s testimony of their lived realities. And then zero in on how our stomachs feel. The pounding of the blood in our ears. The dryness in our throats and the uneasy itch over our palms. This is the feeling that we have a responsibility to one another that we, as a collective body, have neglected to fulfill. That feeling tells us that we have a deeper embodied knowledge of how neighbors treat neighbors.
And we need to act from that knowledge instead of allowing for the political charade we call the State Assembly of Pennsylvania, where white men are paid to scurry by, not listening to 8 year-old boys deliver the clear, searing words that spell out these politicians’ criminal neglect.
To quote cultural critic Hoyt Fuller, back in 1971: “The facts of Negro life accuse white people. In order to look at Negro life unflinchingly, the white viewer [legislator] either must relegate it to the realm of the subhuman, thereby justifying an attitude of indifference, or else the white viewer [legislator] must confront the imputation of guilt against him. And no man who considers himself humane wishes to admit complicity in crimes against the human spirit.”
So I suppose that is why most of those white men in suits don’t come into the rotunda while we’re there. Are, in fact, nowhere to be found. Refuse to take in the words that spell their own moral void, deep complicity, and profound guilt.
The facts of these young people’s lives and schooling should accuse white people. And from that accusation, each and every one of us/them needs to decide, in the words of the Dream Defenders and the Movement for Black Lives: Which side of history are you on? Either move toward the responsibility of meeting our collective needs, of repairing historical harm of decades of disinvestment and structural racism, or get the f**k out the way and sink yourself and your lineage further into spiritual depravity.
There are actual leaders prepared to do the work that needs to be done.
State Congressman, enough is enough. It’s time to cough up the keys to the castle – on this, specifically, vis-à-vis the appropriations committee – and deliver what is rightly owed to these Black and Brown children living in Philadelphia.
And for the rest of us, we need to be moved by our deeper understanding that a more humane, people-oriented society is possible, is on its way, and we need to put our individual and collective energies into the hard work, along whatever front we are oriented, toward that transformation.
That is what this moment asks of us. It is urgent and necessary to step into a shifted strategy. Anything less is a continued failure of our shared humanity.
Fuller, Hoyt. “Towards a Black Aesthetic.” S.O.S. – Calling All Black People: A Black
Arts Movement Reader. Ed. John Bracey, Sonia Sanchez, James Smethurst.University of Massachusetts Press. 2014. 179-84. Print.