February begins for us Black History Month. This is an important month that highlights not only the challenges that African Americans deal with but also the challenges of the past. Those challenges of the past have left an indelible mark on the conscience of millions of African Americans. The injustices of the past have informed and shaped the African American narrative, where songs, poetry, and stories express deep pain and hurt. But they also tell of triumph, redemption, and the possibilities that lie ahead.
Remember the Song of Miriam? After the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea and after the sea collapsed on the Egyptians and swallowed them up, Miriam, a prophetess and sister of Aaron, took a timbrel. Other women followed her lead with timbrel and dances. Read Exodus 15:19. Miriam sang this triumphant song in praise of God:
Sing to the Lord,
For He has triumphed gloriously!
The horse and its rider
He has thrown into the sea!
Miriam’s song tells of the hand of God that has been present and has made their salvation from the Egyptians possible. In spite of the past injustices that the people of Israel had to deal with, the present moment of triumph - where they could actually taste their freedom and be truly free - seemed like a perfect end to a tragically horrible story.
For me, the possibilities that lie ahead are inviting. The African American reality is that we cannot tell our story in dirges and fail to look towards the future. The future has to be one of triumph, but it wouldn’t be one of the triumphs of systems or looking for systems to change when we, ourselves, don’t change. It will be the triumph of the human will to change, because it is when we, ourselves, change that systems change.
The recent killing of Tyre Nichols by five African American police officers isn’t just a failure of a system, it is the failure of human beings who wouldn’t change.
Leo Tolstoy once made this point: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself (herself).”
Indeed, we do have to change ourselves. We have to be a better version of ourselves, we have to look ourselves in the mirror and not be deluded into thinking that our reflections aren’t what they are, or that there are multiples of us when there’s only one of us. That, in fact, reminds me of a story.
A long time ago there was a great shah. He ordered to build a beautiful palace that had many wonderful things in it. Among other curiosities in the palace was a hall, where all the walls, the sealing, the door, and even the floor were made of mirrors. The mirrors were so clear and smooth that visitors didn’t understand at once that there was a mirror in front of them – so accurately the mirrors would reflect the objects. Moreover, the walls of this hall were made in a way that they created an extraordinarily increased echo.
Once, a dog ran into the hall and froze in surprise in the middle of the hall; a whole pack of dogs surrounded it from all sides, from above and below. Just in case, the dog bared his teeth - and all the reflections responded to it in the same way. Frightened, the dog frantically barked; the echo imitated the bark and increased it many times. The dog barked even harder... and the echo was kept up. The dog tossed from one side to another, biting the air - and his reflections also tossed around, snapping their teeth.
In the morning, the guards found the miserable dog, lifeless and surrounded by a million reflections of lifeless dogs. There was nobody, who would make any harm to the dog. The dog died by fighting with his own reflections.
Evil, whichever way you look at it, is more often than not brought upon a human being by another human being. Slavery was brought upon African Americans by Europeans and others. Jim Crow was brought upon the African American by their fellow citizens. Segregation was brought upon the African American by their fellow citizens. Discrimination is perpetrated on others by none other than fellow citizens.
As we celebrate Black History Month, I am encouraged by the thought that the African American can be truly free and flourish if Whites, African Americans, and people of all races can look in the big mirror, see themselves... and change themselves.