photo credit: Gino Santa Maria
by Dana K. Harmon, Ph.D., MSW
Let me start by saying that there are countless names that could be mentioned and that definitely need to be recognized and honored.
On August 28, 1955, White men in Money, MS, murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till for allegedly whistling at a White woman. On February 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by George Zimmerman. Zimmerman’s race has been of much debate. However, another Black male’s life was lost. On November 23, 2012, in Florida, Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old, was fatally shot by a White man for playing loud music in his car. On July 17th of that same year, Eric Garner was choked to death by a White New York City police officer. Also in 2014, on November 22nd, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was fatally shot by a White Cleveland police officer within two seconds of the officer approaching Tamir.
It was not until August 9, 2014, when 18-year-old Michael Brown was gunned down in the middle of the street in Ferguson, MO, by a White police officer, that the words “Black Lives Matter” resonated on Twitter, Facebook, other social media sites, and in national and international news. Why did Black lives matter then, when they always have?
As I saw the breaking news about Michael Brown, his body lying uncovered in the middle of the street, and Black people who looked like me standing in the neighborhood as officers came to the scene, I sobbed and became extremely angry - especially when I saw Michael’s mother.
I was engrossed in watching the news media for hours and then thought about how classes at my university would start in a week. How will I feel when I see my students? What will they say to me about what happened? How will we talk about the situation and for how long? Interestingly, I was to teach a cultural diversity and social justice course that semester and had never had a problem engaging my students about social issues in which injustices occur. However, this felt different for me, because when I saw Michael Brown, I saw my brother, father, cousins, friends, and others I care about in the middle of the street. And Lesley McSpadden, Michael’s mother, symbolized every Black woman in America.
It was a typical, warm August day and the first day of classes at this small liberal arts university in Alabama. Yes, the state with many, many years of racial tension. What was I walking into? The week since Michael Brown’s murder and seeing the tears and anger of Ms. McSpadden and Michael Brown, Sr., had definitely taken an emotional toll on me. As always, I was ready and excited to see my students, but being the only Black faculty in my department and part of a handful at what is a predominantly Black university (based on percentages), there was some ambivalence and anxiety. There has always been mutual respect and open dialogue in my classes about vulnerable populations and social justice, but would we be divided by race, just as the country had been?
It was 11:00 a.m., and I was headed to my 11:15 Cultural Diversity and Social Justice class. The students said, “Hi, Dr. Harmon!” I replied, “Hello everyone, it is great to see you!” After the pleasantries, most of the students said they could not wait to see me so that we could talk about what had happened in Ferguson, MO. Oh wait. There were 11 students (four White and seven Black) who were all female. I will share later about the Black male students (only two) that I had in two separate courses.
So, we went over the syllabus and spent about 30 minutes processing. That is what we do in social work, right? They immediately wanted to know my thoughts and feelings, which were what I conveyed earlier in this essay, but I wanted to hear from them. For me, it is about hearing my students, because they teach me something, too. Also, I was curious about what Millennials thought, because I always heard, “I do not see race,” and “Things are not the same as they were many years ago.” The Black students quickly expressed their anger and how they “feel like we are going backwards.” The White students sat quietly and then one said, “I am sad about what happened, because no one should be treated that way for being Black.” She went on to say, “We do not see White men being killed for being White.”
As for the two Black male students I saw later that day, one I knew said, “They do not care about us. They just see us as a threat and not human.” I said, “Who is they?” He replied, “White people.” As the conversation continued, he also included White professors. We talked further about him being in a classroom with White professors in which he already felt marginalized by some. When I met the other Black male student, he expressed after class how glad he was to see me because none of his other professors, who were all White, brought up Ferguson.
Fast forward. The semester was going smoothly, but #BlackLivesMatter was still everywhere - thus, still with my students and me. In all my classes, we continued talking about the importance of advocacy, organizing, and the NASW Code of Ethics. The university was quiet about the protests going on across the country, and my students were frustrated about that, but there was not silence in my classroom. There is a wonderful DVD called If These Halls Could Talk, in which Lee Mun Wah brought together 11 college students to share the frustration and anguish of trying to be understood and acknowledged on campus where the faculty and students are predominantly White. Last semester was a symbol of the halls of the university being quiet. The students wanted to fight for justice, but they voiced not feeling supported to do so.
The Black students were proud to have allies, and both White and Black students communicated how most faculty and administrators were missing out on what solidarity looks like. I recalled the Freedom Riders and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). This new generation of activists for human and civil rights have effectively used 21st-century technology in communicating with each other from across the globe to risk taking a moment to a movement. This emerging movement by White and Black millennial activists has encouraged those who were already passionate about social justice to become leaders and change agents.
As the semester ended, I told my students how proud I was of their resilience and strength. I further told them how their voices are important and need to be heard loud and clear, because I strongly believe they are the catalyst for confronting a system that fractures Black men, which has an impact on all of society.
So, to my and all social work students - think about these few words to Ella’s Song by Ella Baker:
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers' sons
Is as important as the killing of White men, White mothers' sons
Ella's Song - Sweet Honey in the Rock
Dana K. Harmon, Ph.D., MSW, is an Assistant Professor of Social Work in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at the University of West Alabama. Her research interests include African American males’ and family functioning, marriage quality and commitment, spirituality/religiosity among African Americans, and parental loss. Dr. Harmon has published peer-reviewed journal articles on the factors associated with fathers’ involvement with their children, the impact of that involvement on mothers’ parenting stress and children’s behavior, and African American men’s perspective on the intersection of marriage and fatherhood. She received her B.A. in sociology from The University of Alabama, her MSW from Loyola University Chicago, and her Ph.D. in social work from The University of Alabama.