We live in an old, urban neighborhood in Pennsylvania. Each house sits inches from the next, and all are situated quite close to the sidewalk and street. Yards are tiny, which makes for intimate pedestrian traffic. Waves and greetings are common, if not obligatory.
It’s a mostly white area, and we’re white. Or rather, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, we’re among those who believe themselves to be white within America’s manufactured system of dominance and subservience based upon race. We’re actually Jews primarily of Eastern European descent.
While there is one black family on our block, it’s not exactly a diverse area, though being urban, it is more so than one might find in your average American suburb. And it’s amidst this physical backdrop that we decided, a few weeks ago, to place a Black Lives Matter sign in our front yard. The decision came after powerful responses to a piece I’d written on the way Left Bank Books in St. Louis beautifully responded when a customer blasted their own signs.
We purchased several from Left Bank Books and, upon their arrival, I placed one in our front yard, doing so with slight hesitation. After all, neighborly interactions on such a street happen easily, and I feared the inevitable “All Lives Matter” response. Or worse. And so we created a handmade sign to accompany our “Black Lives Matter” declaration, a sign intended as both pedagogic and a preemptive strike:
I hadn’t even finished pressing the signs into the parched earth before a couple of neighbors appeared, both progressive in nature. “Don’t all lives matter?” the first to arrive, Janice, quipped sarcastically, laughing at her own joke. The second to arrive, Brian, looked on with mild apprehension, leaning against his road bike, helmet cocked somewhat to the side. Three white folks congregating around this temporary cathedral under construction.
“What?” I shrugged at Brian, who chalked the sign up to my perceived penchant for making trouble and waved it off.
Janice looked at the homemade one and said, “Some things don’t need to be explained,” suggesting I ditch it and simply make the statement without comment.
But I felt then, and still feel today, that it’s a commentary which is beneficial to make. For too few either understand or are willing to consider that when black Americans and their allies chant “Black Lives Matter,” there is always an implicit “too” attached. It is a statement that is necessary to be made not because other lives do not matter, but because institutional racism in this country and their deadly effects show that black lives do not matter enough.
And so both signs stayed, and have consistently attracted attention―everyone who passes them stops to look―with some people giving a thumbs up or letting me know they support their presence on our block, and some shaking their heads and grumbling while walking past. Last week, while working on the porch after a day of teaching (as I do often), a white man in his 50s who I didn’t recognize saw the signs and came to such an abrupt halt before my house it seemed as though he’d been buffeted by a sudden gust. He read them, looked up to me, then back to the signs before saying, “Why do you have these?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You shouldn’t have these, it’s not right,” he replied before stomping off.
Deciding not to press him, being averse to public confrontations, I let him go, wondering, What exactly could be upsetting him? It would have been too easy to chalk it up to an expression of bigotry, though that’s certainly possible. And so I wondered if it upset him because I’m white. I wondered if perhaps he too was Jewish, and my empathizing with another group of victims scared him amidst our historical traumas. Or if he viewed matters of race openly discussed to be unsettling or inappropriate.
Whatever the reason, what has become clear since putting these signs up, or rather what has been confirmed, is that symbols matter. Words matter. Simple statements of solidarity, such as putting a piece of cardboard in one’s yard, matter. That’s what I felt when, two days ago, three black sanitation workers scurrying to collect the garbage piled up along the sidewalk all stopped, looked at the signs and, with an almost comical synchronicity, raised closed fists into the air.
I waved as one of them yelled, “Thanks,” tapping his chest with a closed fist.
But what I felt in that moment wasn’t pride or happiness. Instead, I felt embarrassed. Embarrassed because here I was, the white dude typing on his porch while the black guys picked up his garbage. Nevermind my relatively lowly economic and social status as a teacher, and nevermind the fact that they were employed and simply carrying out their professional duties. The scene recalled for me images of white dominance and black servitude, and so I cringed inside, a cringe some might call white guilt. But a cringe others might call a recognition of the damage to black bodies, black economies and black societies America still exacts upon black Americans.
And this, too, is why symbols matter. For they have the capacity not only to express solidarity, or to express validation, but to recall histories too often concealed.
One of our friends recently, after dropping something off, rolled down his window and said, “I think those signs are great―everybody should have one.” But I wasn’t so sure, and wondered how the black couple on our block, Teresa and Tristan, felt. Did they appreciate such an expression of solidarity in a world containing too few? Did the signs make them uncomfortable? Did they wonder whether it was my place to have them at all?
Today, while pumping air into our collected family bikes, Tristan stopped to say hi before heading off for a run. It was small talk, just checking in. Seeing how everything was. Work, kids, life. The signs weren’t mentioned, though I did see him glance at them quickly during our conversation.
When he looked back, there was a slight smile on his lips. At least, I want to believe such to be true in a world where so much remains obfuscated by our country’s legacy of oppression, where truths seem to depend not on the visible world, but on one’s vantage point, whether chosen or not.
It’s a view which must improve for black Americans if our country is to realize its ethical promise, and my hope is that a simple “Black Lives Matter,” a simple symbol of solidarity, might contribute.
It seems there are others who agree; our block now has two “Black Lives Matter” signs, and others have asked about them. Perhaps soon every house will be sporting one, whether physically or internally, within the expanse of the mind.
I’ve got a couple of extra signs waiting, just in case anyone asks.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, published recently by Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.