My parents, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, are needed in times like these. They would join the voices of folks like Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, and Alicia Keys to carry on about the resurgence of police killings of unarmed black and brown people; this Strange Fruit refrain. My role as a literary and visual artist and social activist begins at Sankofa.org, the place where dedicated, like-minded people are helping today’s artists use their influence to bring necessary attention to this and other grassroots movements.
My stand as an activist began right next to my parents who fought for peace and justice both as individuals and as a couple. They marched with Martin. They stood by Malcolm. They spoke up for jobs and equal rights, and they spoke out against the death penalty, against war, and against all forms of violence. They showed up and stood up to demand the protection of the United States Constitution for all people.
I was parented into the movement, which at times took place in our home in New Rochelle, New York where my Mom and Dad translated, transposed, and transformed their art into activism not just for “The People,” but also for my sister, brother, and me. That’s where Mom helped us understand why Mamie Till-Mobley placed the body of her young son in an open casket. That’s where Daddy helped us make meaning of the decade of assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, and John F. Kennedy. This house was our training ground, the place where we learned about what we as a people, as a family, and as individuals must do in this continuing fight for justice. We were not the dreamers, they told us. We were the doers.
We grew up knowing that we had a place in the relentless fight for justice just as we knew we had to make our my beds and brush our teeth. While our parents were meeting, planning, speaking, and marching in the streets, we were right there with them. We carried our signs and sang the songs of our charge to “keep on a-walking, keep on a-talking, marching up to freedom’s land.” That’s what we saw our parents doing, and that’s what we learned to do.
As a child, I was not always aware of the history-making that was going on in my midst. As a baby, I was in a stroller when Mom and Juanita Poitier went to the offices of the Chrysler Corporation to demand jobs for black people. I was playing in the next room when Mommy, Aunt Juanita, and others planned the secret summit where prominent black leaders and thinkers met without the press in order to prepare a Declaration of Human Rights for Black Americans to present to the United Nations. At other times throughout my life, when I came in and out of the living room, I was listening to Ralph Abernathy, Dick Gregory, A. Phillip Randolph, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., or Whitney Young talk about what must be done. I was watching them blast holes in the wall of American apartheid - Diahann Carroll, the first black woman in a leading role of a television series; Lorraine Hansberry, the first black playwright to have her work on Broadway; Mom, the first black female actor to perform in the American Shakespeare Theatre.
Our family was always protesting something. After Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were killed in bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, we and other families boycotted shopping for Christmas by making our own gifts. We didn’t eat grapes during the 5-year Delano Grape Strike and Boycott. And on a consistent basis throughout our lives, Mom would protest disrespectful and degrading encounters with ignorant people. If we were not greeted when we entered; if we were referred to inappropriately; not waited on when it was our turn; or if we were seated near the bathroom in a restaurant when we could have been seated closer to front, Mom would dart chastisements through her teeth in her low, slow tone and protest the inequitable treatment right there. If we stayed in the establishment long enough, Mom would leave on the checkout counter the items she had planned to purchase. She would tell the clerk, waitress, or manager why she was leaving and what they should have done to warrant the expenditure of her money. She educated them on behalf of all the people who looked liked us, and she also educated us as we followed quickly behind her.
So when both my sister and my brother were away at college, and I awakened to find a man sleeping in my sister’s bed, another in my brother’s bed, and yet another man in the living room sleeping on the couch, I was proud to learn later that Mom and Dad had hidden a few Black Panthers, one of whom was Huey Newton. When Mom and Dad and one of my children protested the non-indictment of the police officer who killed Amadou Diallo, I was not surprised when they were arrested. When neither Mom nor Dad could attend a rally to demand a fair trial for Mumia Abu Jammal, I understood why they sent me to speak on their behalf. And when last winter I was asked to speak at a Black Lives Matter march and rally in New Rochelle, there was no question that I would do it in their name. I knew that if they had been there, Mom and Dad would have used their platforms as artists to carry on about police brutality in Westchester County and around the country. And I would have been standing there right there with them. This time, though, I stood on my own.
The march and rally was postponed and re-visioned as a Peace and Prayer rally when the killings of New York City police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos became associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. The march was truncated, and the tenor of the day shifted. All the speakers spoke out about racism and injustice in national terms –including me. I did not speak the names of any of the unarmed black and brown men and women who were killed or maimed by the police in Westchester County. Except for the names hand printed on one or two signs, the names of Westchester County victims seemed invisible; their stories muffled amid the mention of the names of those who were killed by police much farther away.
I represented my parents well that day, but I missed an opportunity to keep the pressure on at a pivotal time. I stayed within the lines and fed into “some day” as the timeframe for our call for justice. I couldn’t help thinking that Dad would have found a way to agitate with eloquence, dignity, and grace. Not quite sure of the political and personal consequences, I tempered my tongue and withheld my finger-pointing at our own backyard. After the event, I came to the realization that I needed to determine how far in this movement I was willing to go.
I am my parents’ child. I can march. I can speak. And I can represent. But can I fight on my own? Am I willing to die? Am I literally and figuratively willing to die for this cause no matter what? I think of my children. My husband, my siblings, and our families and I have to say yes. Too many families awakened today without their sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives because they were violently and senselessly killed by police while being black; while being women; while taking out their wallets; while walking in a stairwell; while standing in their homes; while in a subway station; while holding a toy gun; while being homeless; while sleeping; and while being a child. I must jump onto this moving train that is gaining momentum after each new killing. There is no alternative.
People have been showing up and carrying on all over the country. Women, men, and children of all ages are pumping their signs in the air and they are shouting for justice against police brutality, police misconduct, extreme policies, and unjust systems. They have condensed to hashtags and T-shirts the words of the victims and repeat their cries: #OfficersWhyDoYouHaveYourGunsOut; #HandsUpDon’tShoot; #ICan’tBreathe; #Can’tWeAllJustGetAlong as they march, rally, and lay down in the streets. And I have too.
I search for organized acts of civil disobedience, and find them through word of mouth, social media, and Sankofa.org. I participate by showing up, signing petitions, ‘sharing’ information, ‘liking’ posts, attending meetings, and by becoming more informed. I volunteer my time and my skills. I am present and accounted for. But just like other people, I am still searching for my place to stand on the continuum of activism in this renewed struggle for justice. Is it in Ann Arbor, Beavercreek Cleveland, or Houma? What about Milwaukee, Phoenix, or Saratoga Springs? Could it be in St. Louis, Atlanta, Baltimore, or Los Angeles? Madison? North Charleston? New York City? No. Not right now. I find my place to stand in White Plains, New York. Just 9 miles from my parents’ home.
At 89, Mom continued to use her influence as an artist to be an activist in support of justice for Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr., a 68-year-old, ex-Marine, Viet Nam War Veteran, medically disabled man who loved to sing and loved to cook. Mom cried out when there were no indictments of the White Plains police officers who called Mr. Chamberlain, Sr. a nigger before they taunted, tazed, and then shot him in the chest. Three and half years after the killing, the Chamberlain family is still pressuring the Department of Justice to investigate. Along with their attorneys and community based organizations, the family is still demanding the return of funding for crisis intervention teams; exploring the creation of independent oversight structures for the police in Westchester County, and drafting legislation for change and accountability. The case of Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr. was the last cause that had Mom’s attention, and I decided to take it up and carry it on.
A few months ago, I joined Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr. at a 24-hour vigil where the names of victims were read in the lobby of Grand Central Station. Just as Mom had read the names of the Panther 21 on the street in New York City many years ago, a group of people took turns reading the names and telling the stories of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo, Eleanor Bumpers, and others. The names were uniformly printed in white letters on black signs that bobbed up and down as we listened to the names of the victims and their stories, then marched among the commuters. Listened and then marched. Every once in a while, Mr. Chamberlain stopped to embrace the father, sister, cousin, uncle, brother, son, daughter, aunt, or mother of another victim. They talked to him briefly while holding tightly to photos of their loved ones. Persistence and determination emanated from their faces that somehow managed to hold a smile. I was reminded that the families of all these stolen lives have yet to find justice and will never have peace. It was sobering to learn how many names there were, and how many of them I did not know.
We could have shut Grand Central down that day. The police officers who watched and filmed us were prepared to arrest us with the zip ties that dangled from their uniforms. But then what? Had the organizers planned for protestors being detained indefinitely? Tortured? Blacklisted? Killed? Could I have counted on the Constitution to protect me, a Muslim woman carrying on in Grand Central Station? We could have interrupted business as usual that day. Instead, we gradually dispersed and disappeared. Our shouts became invisible echoes that disintegrated into silence. I got on the train and went back to Westchester County. Back to my parents’ home; back to my classroom.
Usually during family meals, Mom and Dad challenged us to find our purpose in life. They encouraged us daily to carry on the important work of the Struggle, and they believed that although it would be difficult and sometimes dangerous, the Struggle would bring meaning to our lives. I am certain that today my parents would ask me what I was going to do for this movement. We would talk about art being the power tool of activism and the ultimate platform for peace. They’d remind me how to navigate speaking truth to power without getting killed, and they’d ask if I needed them to do anything. Make a call. Show up. Keep the peace. Then with expressions of pride and joy, they would kiss me on the cheek and tell me to get up and get to it.
With hindsight from lessons learned and my eyes set beyond the ground already gained, the full expression of myself as an activist is unfolding. My parents’ legacy as activists has been placed in my care and I represent them best by having my own voice; my own stance as a literary and visual artist and activist. That means having my own cache of courage to cross lines no matter who my parents are and no matter what’s at stake. That means really believing and living as if every person down is my child. That means having the fortitude and being prepared for any consequence as I travel the pathway of today’s movement, a trail cleared by my parents and so many others.
I started this journey with the intention of telling the story of Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr.. On the way, I found that the journey is really about who I am and how what my parents instilled in me prepared and compels me to stand up in the face of injustice. Where I stand today is not where I will be standing tomorrow. This struggle is a living, breathing movement. Rooted in my DNA, my assignment is to spread the word, tell the stories, and carry on the Struggle because unfortunately, like the ebb and flow of the tide, Jim Crow terrorism will continue to cloak and uncloak to feed the ignorant, pacify the complacent, and literally take our breath away.
"Struggle is all there is, and we are still committed. And even if, from time-to-time, it finds us slow or absent, we ask the Struggle to accept our children. To give them meaning and purpose just as it did us. We want them to remember something of what it was like to have been black for most of the twentieth century, something of what the Struggle meant to us. We want them to know that black is a dynamic identity. Black people in America have helped give life to the Constitution. We have helped make it a pulsing, living, document. We put justice on the map. We’ve kept the whole question of human rights alive for this country. We want them to glory in their blackness, knowing that we have important work to do for ourselves and for this world. We want them to believe that unimagined miracles are in the wings preparing for an unprecedented entrance onto the main stage of human affairs; and we pray each of them will be in the vanguard."
-Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee
With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together
Hasna Muhammad, Ed.D. is an educator, writer, and photographer. Dr. Muhammad is currently producing Carrying On, a podcast about the activism of Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr. co-produced with her son, Muta’Ali.
photo credit // Bruce Davidson