What a day!
The United Nations calls March 21 the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
I wish there were more days like it, instead of days that celebrate colonizers, oppressors, murderers, traitors and such.
I wish that these days would turn into weeks, months and years – that this single day could change a life and, perhaps, our shared lifetimes.
I wish that it would change the way we see and what we say about each other.
The strained and mashed fruit of race, the “strange fruit” that Billy Holiday lamented, is continually being served to children before their taste buds have even developed, before they can form their own words with which to describe their experience with others.
But on this day, there is a call that says a mouthful, that names the experience of oppression for persons of African descent.
This year, the point of convergence is the International Decade for People of African Descent.
At the midpoint of its 10-year task, the Human Rights Council in Geneva will review the work and determine what more can and must be done to eliminate the political oppression, economic and social marginalization, hyper-surveillance and criminalization of bodies that already have limited educational and health care options.
It is not a matter of simply saying the right words but of standing by them and in solidarity with those who suffer because of words like race.
These are the words we choose to decide who lives and who dies, who is guilty and innocent, who is deserving of the earth and its resources and who is not.
What race has done is not glossed over but held in tension, and for 10 years, that the people of African descent are the emphasis.
Not a mere talking point to be read and checked off, they want to see and measure change – not merely to ensure a staged photo opportunity and then change the subject.
March 21 is the day of the Sharpeville Massacre, the day when police in South Africa killed 69 peaceful protesters and wounded 180 others after a demonstration against apartheid “pass laws,” where persons were required to carry papers when traveling.
They were protesting about moving freely and were murdered by law enforcement officers. These “internal passports,” as they are called, are not unlike the passes once needed for an enslaved African to move about from farm to farm in the United States during American slavery.
It is painfully familiar because a valid driver’s license is not enough to move freely in many American neighborhoods for persons of African descent, and we have had our share of massacres.
But we don’t get a day for them, or a review of body camera footage, or an oversight committee, or a guilty verdict. No, not without protest, which often leads to more death.
How I yearn for the day when all bodies can move freely.
Thus, this is not a mere holiday marked by nice speeches. It is a call to remember a sad but necessary history and the painful reality of the continued dehumanization, marginalization, exploitation, oppression and domination of persons of African descent throughout the world.
A mouthful that weighs down millions of people, it must be said again and again.
The United Nations is not simply turning the page, or tearing out a page, or refusing to allow the 1619 Project Curriculum in classrooms, or suggesting that critical race theory is evil or that slavery was good.
Rather, they acknowledge their full history, including the bloody days. They have ears to hear the blood crying from the ground.
The United States could take a page from the UN’s book and include the truth about what has been done to persons of African descent, from enslavement to this present moment in the Georgia legislature where they hope to reduce voter turnout among African Americans.
The United States could take a firm stance on race and name it as the lie it has always been – a pseudo-science with no anthropological roots, no biological basis, no theological foundation. It could stop capitalizing on bodies, socially color-coding bodies, and end this cruel caste system.
Of course, it would require that we find out who we really are when whiteness, that all-cultures-consuming deity, doesn’t tell us what to do.
The day could give us what Howard Thurman calls our life’s “working papers.” Not mere notes jotted down in haste, this could be our work.
It would take more than a day. But what a day it would be when we did it!
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series this week for the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (March 21).