Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

“We Must Not Be Afraid to Really Look at Ourselves and Stop Stoning the Messengers Who Speak the Truth to Us About Us.”

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So many of us for so long have been taught to be ashamed of who we are because we do not fit the predominant image and standard profile of acceptable persons. We have been taught to look at ourselves through lenses that are not able to see clearly our true beauty and essence as citizens in society, as people of God and as children of the greater universe. When we look at ourselves we must try as best we can to see everything that’s there, but this is sometimes hard to do without a real desire to take a hard look and to see what’s really there; to view ourselves clearly, squarely and freely. The beauty and goodness of what we see sometimes gives way to the not so beautiful things that we see, say and do and we must cast aside all fear in taking that honest look if we are to grow into a greater awareness of who we really are and what we can ultimately become as genuine persons of promise and value.

So each day that we rise to meet the morning, we must look at ourselves in the mirror and proceed to make the necessary physical makeovers that will present us “flawless” to the outside world. Sometimes we undervalue what we see because of what we have been taught to look for and how we have been taught to look at it. But the truth is we must come to terms with the person that we see in the mirror each morning. We must acknowledge what we see through our own eyes.

So we spend enormous time in the mirror each morning, combing, padding, fixing, changing, renewing and re-styling our face and our hair sometimes with the hope of even changing our complete physical presence and being. We do this without second thoughts because we are conditioned to refashion ourselves each day, to start all over so as to lessen the probabilities of scorn, rejection and ultimate disapproval by those whose approval we seek.

One day as a young adult, and this may seem to be a frivolous example,  I went to work without looking in the mirror and fully coming my hair. Numerous tiny lent balls which had clustered together into one solemn mass occupied the side of my head that had been mashed to the pillow from the previous hard nights sleep. I heard about the lent balls from several co-workers the next day, and was a bit ticked when the committee of three females brought it to my attention. Each day until the end of that internship people walked by my cubicle subtly surveying the situation to see if I had combed my hair.  I thought the criticism was harsh and unfair, but I soon got over it.  I was glad that coworkers had the nerve to call it out.  In fact my “going away present” was a large Afro-pick and many former co-workers until this day, including myself, still laugh out loud at the experience. Do you get my point? Hence it is good that we are in the habit of looking in the mirror each morning and making adjustments to make ourselves physically presentable to the outside world because as the grandmotherly receptionist at that same work place whom I came to know and love dearly said, “Ain’t nothing like a young, up and coming intern with a three-piece suit on and lent balls in his Afro trying to be grand.”

We must therefore look squarely at ourselves each morning and not be afraid to see what crept there from the previous night. I did not start out my sleep with lent balls in my hair. They migrated to my hair from an old comforter that was torn at the seams and whose small cotton balls made their way to my head.

In other areas of our lives, however, it is not so easy as getting up in the morning to take the routine physical inventory of what’s there. When it comes to really looking on the inside at ourselves personally, relationally, spiritually and examining our various other ways, we sometimes have difficulty. It is painful and much harder to take stock of our relationships such as how we have treated others; how they have treated us; what we have taught our children and the ultimate impact our actions and behaviors have had on those that we love dearly or have come to know plainly. It is hard to take a serious look at our value systems or to think about how we think or to see if what we are talking is how we are walking each day. We are very sensitive about personal criticism flung at us and sometimes can get very defensive about it for many different reasons that even go as far back as childhood. Sometimes in unearthing our flaws, we exacerbate years of deep seated pain that has never been resolved. Criticism that might ordinarily feel like a “pin prick” can easily feel like a gun shot wound depending on our state of mind. The problem is that many are in enough pain already and to hear criticism only deepens our agony and sense of failure. Instead of feeling empowered to change our condition when we are criticized, we plunge deeper into helpless despair.

When community leaders criticize our negative and destructive behaviors and habits, it can also be painful, but is something that we must eventually face as individuals and collectively as a people. Some of the greatest push back and outcry is heard when black leaders criticize their own people for various bad habits that really hurt our communities and help instigate our problems and set us back for many generations and years. Frederick C. Harris is correct in observing “No other group in American politics gets lectured about personal responsibility as much as black Americans.”

Some years ago when Bill Cosby made statements about how we are raising our children and contributing to our own problems, a firestorm of protest broke out. When Juan Williams published his book “Enough,” which deals with the many problems facing the black community and how black leaders sometimes contribute to or ignore the very problems that they critique black people for , he became a target for his candor. Now that CNN anchor Don Lemon has come out and made similar comments about how we can improve our communities and stop being part of our problems, he too has become a public pinata and is excoriated for his views. What these persons have said are true. We need to look in the mirror at ourselves and face these facts and own up to them.

We must learn to not be afraid to look at ourselves completely-inside and outside- to see what’s really there. Just as we must remove the eye crud and the lint balls and the other “debris” that have accumulated on our faces and persons from the previous nights sleep, we must take inventory of the unwanted “crud” that has festered in our hearts, minds, souls which translate into noxious behaviors that ultimately do us harm and can eventually destroy us. We must remove those blemishes, blots and other things that prevent us from putting on our best “faces “and using our best minds”each day.

It is true that African-Americans have experienced years of discrimination, racism and oppression, and these social realities have precipitated a part of the African-American community’s social dysfunction. It is true that these criticisms often become an Achilles Heel for us because they open the door to detractors, the  “see I told you so crowd,” that diminishes and devalues our self-worth and achievements as a people. Some of the same people who have helped to created these debilitating conditions now have the audacity to criticize us for them and this hurts. We are squeamish about airing our dirty laundry to the outside world because it makes us more vulnerable to the rebuke and indignation of those who have made a vocation of demeaning and devaluing us. We live in this perpetual tension of seeking a good that is seldom good enough. For no matter what we do to help ourselves or others, for some people it will never be enough.

The present challenges of President Obama are a case in point. No matter how well he performs as President, he will always be blamed for the problems of America. Never mind that these same criticizers who have the power to do something good will do nothing to help America as long as he is in office. They are willing to see the entire nation suffer and go down just so that Obama fails and never gets credit. Could it be that they have helped to create these problems and will not lift a hand to resolve them because the President is a black man? Despite these difficulties, the President cannot use this as an excuse for not facing this reality or giving his best. No matter how strong and vehement the opposition, he can never use this as a pretext for not getting the job done; for not rising higher and going farther and doing better to make America greater.

In the final analysis,“Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” At some point we all must face reality. We must tell it like it is and let the truth be told. If we are ever to be free people, we must be bold enough to publically and privately face ourselves with all of its beauty and ugliness and do what we can to make ourselves, our families, communities and the world a better place. We must also be mindful that our problems do not represent the great majority of  black folks in America. But what concerns the few of us should concern all of us. We must be careful to address our problems as a people, but be mindful to not amplify or exaggerate them beyond their true magnitude and importance and enshrine them as permanent irrevocable failures of the entire African-American community.

At some point, we must look squarely at ourselves, face the cold hard facts of how we are contributing to our own problems, and work to transform our existing malaise into positive forces for change and renewal.  There is no magic formula. Just as there is no single causal factor for these problems, the solutions will require a multilayered approach on a variety of levels from a wide assortment of people over a long period of time.

In the Holy Bible there is a text that I have used often in ministry to address this concern.  In looking at scripture we discover how various people did not receive true redemption and transformation until they looked squarely at themselves and admitted their sins and errors. Jacob is perhaps the most famous case in point. It was not until he met God at Jabbock and wrestled all night long and came to terms with his sins against his brother and father, that he was transformed into a new man. Previously he strode with indifference to his errors through denial and ran away from his problems all those years, but after that experience at the river, he walked with a limp but had a new identity. The limp signifies his deep awareness of his own faults and weaknesses but his stride although broken was now better than ever. We must not be afraid to really look at ourselves to see what’s really there so we can improve our stride to arrive at our God appointed destination.

The facts remain that most black children are born into families where the fathers are not present. The problems of unemployment, crime, drug addiction and other social maladies are hitting us harder than most other communities. We do have problems which can be attributed in part to the history of racial discrimination and inequality in America. No one is denying these facts, but we as a community must face them squarely, and talk honestly and openly about them if we are ever to rectify and eradicate them. We must also acknowledge how we intentionally and unwittingly help to create them for ourselves. We don’t need to get uptight every time one of us makes a critical comment about the problems we face or offer solutions to forthrightly address them. Must be careful in calling attention to our problems and their multiple causes, but be mindful of not permanently adopting a victim’s mindset about them. For as long as we define ourselves as victims, we will be powerless to transform our condition unless the persons who victimize us also change. The power of permanent and lasting change lies within us, and we must never forget this.

Don Lemon says, “Pull up your pants. Stop using the “N” word. Respect where you live. Get a good education and finish school. Stop having unplanned babies and fathers start being present and taking care of your children.” Plain and simple. Thank God some of our leaders have the courage to say this. These are the facts. We must stop stoning the messengers who speak the truth to us and stop placating and deluding ourselves into believing that such behaviors which are killing us softly in regular daily installments, should no longer be spoken or no longer exist!

Don Lemon, as previous other public persons, has spoken truth to us. We need to stop getting angry every time someone candidly recommends how to positively change ourselves and our communities. But we cannot achieve this without looking in the mirror and evaluating the errors of our ways. We can get better, and we will do better. This is the simple message which is a truth spoken in love for the concern and well-being of all African-Americans and all other Americans in our beloved country. In the words of my mother, ” The world will get better when you get better,” and Jim Hightower whose father said, “When everybody does better, everybody does better.” Let us not be afraid to really look at ourselves. Let us stop stoning the messengers who speak truths that will eventually set us all free, make us all well and whole and enable us all to become the people and nation that God still calls us to be.

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