Searching for Ubuntu

Tag: juveniles

Founded in Hate and Fear

by jwdalton

Dear Ryan,

It was wonderful to receive your letter back to me a little over a month ago.  I am afraid I am horribly delinquent in my response to you and I apologize.  Things have been quite busy at work, as I have been trying to wrap up a few assignments before our new little one arrives, and at home for the same reason.  I have finally reached a point of calm though at work, as now only the excitement and anticipation of a new child remain.

Despite my delinquency, I have thought a great deal about your last letter, as George Stinney’s gaze bore a hole in the back of my head while I sat in the office.  One night when I was at home, Callie looked up at the calendar on the wall in our home and looked at those same eyes and said, “That’s sad.”  This wasn’t something we had talked with her about, but she could see it in his expression  — a palpable somber gaze.  It’s truly heartbreaking.

You noted in your letter to me that this execution of a 14 year old occurred only 69 years ago, which is certainly in our collective recent memory, but our practice of allowing juveniles to be sentenced to death extended far beyond that.  Amazingly, it was not until 1988 that the Supreme Court ruled that executing a juvenile 15 and under would be cruel and unusual punishment.  The following year, the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty being imposed on a 16 year old and maintained that position until 2005, when the Court finally held (in a 5-4 decision) that executing anyone under the age of 18 would be cruel and unusual punishment.

Many people were furious with this decision at the time.  Indeed, Justice Parker of the Alabama Supreme Court wrote an op-ed shortly after this decision, criticizing the other members of his court for following this precedent (that they were bound to follow), and arguing that they should have refused to overturn a juvenile’s death sentence in Alabama.  He said if they would have refused to follow this precedent, then maybe the U.S. Supreme Court wouldn’t have overturned them since they have limited cases that they review, and the juvenile “would have been executed as he deserves.”  Needless to say, Justice Parker’s views must not have been too unpopular here in Alabama, as he continues to be elected as a judge on the Alabama Supreme Court.

All of this is to say that, at least in certain parts of the country, we have truly not come very far — and certainly not far enough — in the last 69 years.   Indeed, living here in Montgomery has shown me just how much further we still need to go.  One area that is especially amazing and troubling to me is the school system here in Montgomery.  As I often drive down the road and pass one of the largest private schools in Montgomery, it makes me ill to read their large brick sign out front: Montgomery Academy — Founded 1959.  That may seem harmless to some who pass it.  Some may not realize the story that sign tells.  But that sign speaks volumes about the history of schools in Montgomery.   It might as well read: Montgomery Academy — Founded in Hate and Fear.  A private school was founded in Montgomery in 1959 because in 1954 the United States Supreme Court said what we all know is true: separate is never, ever equal.  A private school was founded in Montgomery in 1959, because the white citizens of Montgomery knew that desegregation was going to be forced on them, so they wanted no part of the public schools anymore.  They wanted to create their own private school that they could keep all-white, that they didn’t have to integrate, that they could send their children to.

Sadly, not much has changed in Montgomery schools in the last fifty years.  While Montgomery Academy now has an official non-discrimination policy, according to Great Schools, the school is still 89% white and only 7% African American.  Meanwhile, the vast majority of the public schools have been all but abandoned by the white population.  Darcy and I live in a predominately white neighborhood, but the school that our children would be zoned to go to is 98% African American and 1% White.  There are four major public (non-magnet) high schools in Montgomery.  Two of them are 99% African American and 0% White (as a note, my children, and the other children in my predominately white neighborhood are zoned to one of these schools).  The third (Jefferson Davis High School, no less) is 94% African American and only 3% White.  Only the fourth (Robert E. Lee High School!) has any semblance of diversity: 75% African American and 21% White.  All of this in a city that is 57% African American and 37% White.  And this is not a problem unique to Montgomery.  It exists throughout this region of Alabama and in Mississippi as well (and likely in other Southern states, though I hesitate to overstate, since I do not know).  In these regions, de facto segregation continues along — like Brown v. Board of Education never happened.  And as you would expect, most of those schools I linked to above (and countless others in this area) are failing schools.  Unsurprisingly, separate is still not equal.

Living in the South, I am often struck by the so-called “Southern hospitality” that is truly present here.  When we had Callie in California, I remember one of my co-workers getting us a gift and I was struck by it because she was the only person who got us one.  It wasn’t that I was surprised no one else did — in fact, it was the opposite, her gift was unexpected and touching.  By contrast, here in Montgomery, my co-workers threw us a lovely “diaper shower,” loading us up with supplies.  In another example of this “Southern hospitality,” one of Darcy’s mom friends set us up a “Meal Train” so that when Tessa comes we will have food prepared for us for days.  It’s an amazingly kind act that will ease so much stress off of us.  As I was thinking of this act the other day, it occurred to me that it is a perfect example of the spirit of Ubuntu living and breathing here in the South.  It is as if people are saying to us, we know it is stressful to raise two children on your own, let us help you — let us ease the load — we are in this together.

In many ways, even with all the problems that exist in this society I now live in, I see so much more Ubuntu here than I saw in California, where people often chose to keep to themselves.  In addition to the examples listed above, there are countless other simple, daily examples.  For instance, we own a ladder and leaf-blower jointly with our neighbors across the street, and we are constantly meeting and talking to complete strangers who want nothing other than to say hello and hear just a piece of your story.  My hope is that we can find a way to tap that spirit of Ubuntu, that under-current that exists in some facets of this society, and get it to apply in more areas.  My hope is that the care that most of the people of the South do actually show for their true neighbor or friend, can be expanded out to the metaphysical neighbor, the unknown friend, the greater society that they are a part of whether or not they realize it or want to be.  Until that happens, people will continue to suffer in this society.

And as I type these last words, I realize my letter has nearly become a prolonged sermon.  My delay in writing you has led me to ramble for some time in my overdue reply.  I hope that all continues to be well for you in Brooklyn.  I would love to hear about your experience in your school or anything else that is on your heart.

Love from Montgomery,

John

Looking Into George Stinney’s Eyes…

by Ryan Dalton

Dear John,

I was delighted to receive your letter. It indeed found me in the most well of well places, thank you; right smack-dab in the middle of Spring Break, well-rested, well-fed, relaxed. Give that sweet little Callie a big squeeze from me. I can’t believe how she is growing! Her birthdays are relentless, with another one coming up this week. Time has surely sped up; when I was in elementary school, an hour seemed to drag on and feel the length of a week, but now a week feels like a minute. Nevertheless…

Though I expected no less, I am thrilled to hear that you are enjoying your work with EJI! I can, however, only imagine how frustrating it must be to daily grapple with, and fight against, the all-too-rife injustices found within our American “justice” system. But as you know, your work is most definitely not in vain.

Speaking of your work, thanks again for the EJI calendar. It hangs on my wall as an, often disturbing yet, important reminder of where we have come from as a nation, alluding to why we find ourselves in many of the circumstances in which we currently live. As hard as some may try, we cannot separate ourselves from that terrible history, though we can battle to ensure that it does not carry on, or repeat itself; it is shocking that some individuals are still so resistant to allow that pertinent battle to ensue. Mama Maya Angelou said it better when she said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again,” though I am not sure we always display the courage and resolve needed to guarantee that it not be lived again.

george stinney cal

This month, for its duration, George Stinney’s unfaltering gaze is watching everything I do. I often make uncomfortable eye contact with him, which, several times, has ended in a blur of tears on my part. Face on, his eyes are brave yet tired, strong yet surrendered, innocent yet tricked, tough yet sad, childlike yet forced to grow too soon…defeated. It is only in the profile shot that his eyes begin to reveal fear, insecurity, anxiety, concern, unease. He was only fourteen-years-old, the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century. I read somewhere that his “confession” was coerced with the bribery of ice cream, that he was innocent of the crime he was forced to accept the guilt of, that he was deeply loved by his family who—before his one-day trial—were run out of town with the threat of them all being lynched, that he was so small they had to stack dictionaries on the seat of the electric chair for him to sit on, in order for his head to reach the head-piece, so he, a small child, could be electrocuted to death—barbaric, tragic, inconceivable, unjust, tormenting. And now, we boast in being so far-removed from atrocities like this, yet it happened only 69 years ago; our grandparents were alive at that time, our parents not far from being born. We boast in advancements, yet, as you mentioned in your letter, we continue to be the only “developed country” that sentences children to life with no parole, a mere small step up from execution; not to mention the systemic racism that continues to contribute to which children are sentenced.

Anyway, our youth, such as Trayvon Martin and Kimani Gray, are still being executed; the venue has merely moved to the streets, and the unfair trials are even shorter and more nonexistent than they were in the past.

I know privilege is blinding, but I do not see how so many people fail to see the connection between the injustices of the past and the injustices that plague our communities today—unless, of course, they are conveniently not making any attempts to see the connection. Dr. King understood that connection on the deepest of levels, and, in the end of the Civil Rights Movement, he immediately transformed his work and energy into fighting the history-created ills of the ghettos of Chicago, for he knew the struggle was far from over when segregation was abolished; that the toughest struggle had only begun. I wish he would have been spared to live, and fight, and die of old age. Having seen the 45th anniversary of his assassination pass by last week, it is fitting, for a number of reasons, that you chose to refer to that particular quote of his:

“[A]ll mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality.”

This inescapable mutuality Dr. King speaks of is the heart and soul of humanity, and the purest definition of Ubuntu. It is astonishing to see how some of us put forth such elaborate efforts in trying to escape that inescapable reality, never actually escaping, but sometimes convincing ourselves we have escaped, if only in the gated communities of our minds. I think you are right that the individualistic nature of our societal constructs poses a threat to mutuality, evolving into other community misfortunes and social ills. Selfishness tears down anything Ubuntu wishes to build up, and as I mentioned in my letter to Chris, we use fear to rationalize and justify our egocentric life choices and stances.

Ubuntu recognizes the I in you, and the you in I—maybe, because we are so focused on our selves, a starting point would be to ask each other to simply look for our individual likenesses in others, hoping our self-awareness is at a level that we would  actually recognize ourself when we see it. I don’t know. I just want the best for us—for us all.

Let me end this letter here. Give all my love to Darcy and Callie. I will certainly pass your greetings to Dayde and Kyle; they are doing well and continue to bring youthfulness, joy, community, and conversation to my life. It seems Spring has finally sprung up here, and I hope it is here to stay. I am enjoying the longer days and the warmth it has already brought. I hope you are too.

Love and warmth from Brooklyn,

Ryan