When Lives Matter, Listening Matters, By E. S. Gray



esgrayWhen Lives Matter, Listening Matters

By E. S. Gray

Racial justice is a strange construct. On the surface, it is sometimes easy to distinguish between extremes in traits—the degree of melanin, the shape of certain facial features, even fundamental differences in the way cow’s milk is digested. It would seem we are truly different; then, layer upon those physical markers the cultural variations in our language, the way we express emotion and concern, and the way we laugh at ourselves. All these things can be observed in a community, and yet at the same time we find that intentionally or not, we influence each other, by mixing not just our DNA, but our musical styles, philosophical outlooks, jokes, and rhythms.  We constantly connect with each other.  In fact I do not know if there was a single instance in human history where two differing communities met and did not leave having shared something.

In this very basic sense of human recognition, racial justice is a paradox. On the one hand we want to reconcile real differences, and how those differences have been historically exploited or redefined to fit a cruel agenda. On the other hand, “all lives matter” echoes back, as if to say those differences are all relative. There have been many conversations lately that pit the two truths against each other, so that “black lives matter” or “all lives matter” are offenses and attacks, rather than statements of empowerment or solidarity. Semantics seems to be the trickster in this story—the modern day manifestation of “Eshu” who walks between communities, manipulating perspectives to create conflict among gullible people.

Race is not a skin color, or a static culture captured in photographs or “traditional” styles of music. Race is a shared story, and like the grand epics of India, every generation adds a new chapter or verse to this unfathomably long adventure. We each have stories to share; some include sad, long struggles, and feelings of oppression or fear. Some are happy, involve a sense of family, security, and tradition. They shift and change with each person, which makes one single narrative (or single racial history) difficult to crystalize into a blanket statement or fact.

Even within the refrain “black lives matter”, there are layers and layers of differing understandings. Go to Ferguson and ask what this means to a person, and go to Cincinnati and ask what this means, and there will be some similarities, but many differences.

Which means that in order to understand one another, semantics is not just a trickster, it is a tool that we need to use to communicate and do what is so natural to us—leave the conversation having shared and exchanged something. If we cannot leave a mark on each other, something positive that we can value and use to remember our coming together, we will have failed.

Photo: Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

Photo: Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

It is important to honor our stories, and sing them to the skies for all to hear and appreciate, but it is just as important to listen. If a mass of people march through the streets crying with tears and blood that they have something to share, we risk destroying their humanity by ignoring their voices. Even if the message seems unsavory, perhaps it is our own insecurities, our own sense of separation that generates a fear of confrontation.

And it goes both ways. For reasons that are perfectly reasonable, mistrust exists between (seemingly) separate communities in our country. An action of persecution towards a person has repercussions generations down the line. Why? Because that story is told, in words, in DNA and hormones, in avoidance and interactions, to each person in that family or community.  It is not that Angels keep vigorous records of our lives, it is us. From father and mother to child and grandchild. As keenly as we remember a nursery rhyme passed down hundreds of years, we can remember, vividly, the harm that was inflicted on our peoples.

The history cannot be altered. The memory cannot be erased; but the interpretation of its meaning to us can always transform. How? By adding a chapter that sheds new light on something. Do not all stories contain within them “revelations” and opportunities for change?

The imagination can create infinite variety in how our country will move forward with racial and social justice. However, we can recognize that at this point in history, we have the chance to move the story in whatever direction we want. In this sense, we could choose to celebrate this opportunity to communicate and add something to our narratives that was not quite there before. In every investigation of truth, a story is to be told, so let us ask, listen, and add a verse that marks that exchange with new understanding- with something genuinely shared.


Manuel Gray (E.S. Gray) was born and raised in Cincinnati, experiencing in his formative years the nightly curfews following the 2001 Cincinnati riots over the police killing of black teenager Timothy Thomas. Growing up he has been very mindful of the racial tension that exists in his city and cities around the country. Coming from a mixed family with members of varying understandings of race in development, policy, and enforcement, he remains motivated to find innovative ways of promoting communication and empowerment among diverse folks.


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