“You know better.” The familiar expression communicates that our speech or behavior is beneath what we have been taught. Those three words summarize the expectation that we stop what we’re doing immediately and get our act together.
Their pointed fingers and furrowed brows prove this is not the first time our parents have asked us to reconsider our actions. Their head in their hands to hold the sigh that will follow a call to self-examination and a test of our memory. “You know better” is often followed by the behavioral imperative “so act like it.”
“This is not the way you were raised. This is not the expectation we set in our home.”
“This is not what you saw growing up. This is not what you were taught.”
We associate this knowledge with age. We are old enough to know better, though I’m sure you know a few old fools.
Still, we expect it of the eldest child. Because “you are too old for this.”
There is a cut-off age for foolishness. There is an age of accountability, which usually begins with another child on the way.
Your mother’s belly is getting bigger, and your time is running out. “Put this childishness away. Clean up your act.”
“You know better.” We are convinced their actions are not a reflection of their intellectual capabilities. It is a call to personal responsibility.
It is a reminder that there is a difference between right and wrong; there is no gray area and no blurring of the lines. The phrase asks us to consider what our teachers have taught us. It’s a pop quiz on the lessons we’ve learned at our mother’s knee and on our father’s lap.
Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better; then when you know better, do better.”
We know better. We know an insurrection when we see one, and this is not the first one. Some of us know about the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, which was first called a “race riot” and blamed on African Americans but was fueled by socially colored white supremacists who overthrew a duly elected government.
We know better. So, we weren’t surprised when the insurrectionists shouted, “Hang, Mike Pence!”
Because thousands of African Americans have been the victims of these extrajudicial killings “at the hands of persons unknown.” Michael Donald, the last known victim of lynching, was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan on March 21, 1981—though it is suspected that the barbaric practice continues in Mississippi. While there are Americans who remain in disbelief by this display of mob violence, the survivors know better.
So, we know ethnic cleansing and genocide when we see it being live-streamed from Gaza. We were taught to say, “Never again”—without exception. I, for one, am glad that Bisan (named for an occupied Palestinian city to ensure its memory), Motaz and Wael, who are all journalists, are still alive after more than 100 days of bombing by Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
I am thankful for their survival just as I am glad that African Americans survived the racial terror of socially colored white people. They survived their cities being burned to the ground or flooded, becoming “drown towns.”
Some of us know the history of residents being forced to flee Oscarville, Georgia, Kowaliga (Benson), Alabama, Seneca Village in New York City, Susannah, Alabama and Vanport, Oregon most often due to unfounded criminal accusations. Despite repeated attempts to water down this history, we know better.
Some of us are also aware that the local, state, and national governments will look for a clear shot or look the other way when African and African American leaders speak too loudly. We know better because we know the stories of Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. We know “government agencies” were a part of the conspiracies to assassinate them. We also know all too well the stories of countless other civil rights martyrs.
There’s even a movie, “Mississippi Burning” (1988), loosely based on the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. Still, it doesn’t make it easier to see, though we know these atrocities happened.
The FBI coordinated the deaths of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. So, we knew better when it came to Breonna Taylor, whose senseless death was covered up by police.
We know this kind of violent denial goes back to the Civil War, which was fought to keep African Americans in chattel slavery. We live with the truth that the North American church took sides before the states did, forming the Black and White Church.
So we know that the former South Carolina governor running in the 2024 presidential election, Nimrata Nikki Haley, knows better when she says America “has never been a racist country.”
Some of us know that there was a race massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 10, 1919. We are also old enough to remember the hate-based murder of nine members of the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church by a white supremacist on June 17, 2015, in Charleston, South Carolina. It remains one of the deadliest mass shootings in a place of worship.
Consequently, I would expect us to do better in our conversations about race, racism, racial terrorism, reparations and restorative justice.
As the great American prophet, James Baldwin, said in “No Name in the Street,” “An old world is dying, and a new one, kicking in the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born.”
America is simply too old to be acting like this.