I was not always this way. There was a time—actually just a few years ago—where I was the very demagogue and firebrand that I speak against now. I used to view life through the prism of black and white and saw injustice through the lens of the left and right divide. A life time of being conditioned to see humanity through our differences inculcated in my mind a most potent form of tribalism. I spent years trying to organize Democrats and speaking up for “black people” not realizing I was furthering the very same system of divide and conquer that is the source of injustice to begin with.
I remember the day it happened; the moment I shed tribalism from my eyes. April 21st, 2015 was a day that forever changed my life. After losing everything and finding myself homeless in South Carolina, I found shelter at the Greenville Rescue Mission—I was going through it. Mired in hopelessness and stuck in destitution, pity and sorrow were my calling cards. Then all the sudden it happened; on a Tuesday morning, my outlook on justice and fairness changed in a blink of an eye.
While I was eating breakfast in the community kitchen, I saw a little girl who was mingling with other people who were as broken as I was. Except she was not weighed down by sorrow. Even though her parents were suffering in poverty and struggling to provide for her, she maintained her innocence and laughed without a care in the world. Her exuberance was contagious, people who were otherwise bracketed by woes and neck deep in distress found themselves smiling the minute she came around. She did not judge the poor nor did she discriminate between black and white; Sam treated people society disregards as lepers as if we were all royalty.
My first reaction was anger followed by tears; seeing a child being condemned to a homeless shelter before she could even reach her potential was a bullet at my soul. But once the initial sadness subsided, I was hit with a revelation that rocked my world. I came to understand why scriptures says that we must be like children in order to reach the kingdom of heaven. It’s because children have not been indoctrinated to see our differences and have not let the iniquities of this world corrupt their hearts. They might be petulant and throw temper tantrums, but I have yet to meet one child who has malice in her/his heart.
I was changed by my encounter with Sam in other ways. I used to think that white people were the source of this world’s problems and treated them accordingly. Even as I spoke of justice and equality, I would regularly use rhetoric that impugned all white people and occasionally dabbled in outright bigotry in my condemnation of people who had a lighter shade of brown than me. The Teddy who regularly bashed “white people” in abstraction was greeted with the reality of a “white” child eating donated food and living in a homeless shelter. I jettisoned my antagonism on April 21st, 2015.
This is not to disavow that racism exists; I don’t need anyone to tell me of how people are treated differently because of their complexion—I am reminded daily by society. However, being hurt does not give us the license to hurt others. If we do not like being maligned because of our skin tone, what gives us the right to do that to others? Two wrongs don’t make a right; fighting fire with fire leads to multiple fire victims and only profits the blowtorch maker. Click To Tweet
There are some who think they are standing for justice by employing exclusionary language and insulting their fellow citizens, but if vengeance delivered equality, we would have attained peace on earth a long time ago. I’m not advocating subservience and telling people to acquiesce to those who have their boots on our neck, but squabbling with others who suffer as we do is doing the job of those who oppress all of us. Unity is the only weakness of this global system of gluttony and profiteering that is robbing the lives and livelihood of billions throughout the world.
The picture above is not Sam; it’s a picture a mother took of her daughter to put a face on the festering issue of children who suffer in homelessness. It is easy to dismiss the panhandlers in cities and blame sloth for their plight, though people should think twice before judging. A few missed paychecks and there we go too—I write of this from first-hand experience. Yet for every adult that is on the street, there are equal number of children who live in squalor bracketed by abject poverty and hopelessness. Forget bipartisanship and politics as a whole, can we put aside ideology and come together as humanity so that children like Sam can have a better tomorrow?
Almost two years after dancing with adversities and sleeping on pavement pillows, I find myself far from the stress and distress of homelessness that was once my reality. By the grace of God, I escaped a lifetime sentence of indigence. Yet, I can’t shake what I once witnessed; where I emerged from darkness, there are countless many who are buried by distress. I can’t see the world through a tribal lens anymore when I know that hardship doesn’t discriminate and that insolvency is an equal opportunity killer of hope.
So I pass on this lesson from Sam and pray that others hear this underlying message. Please stow away anger and bitterness and seek justice with love instead. Do not let our differences have more meaning than our common hopes and the commonality of our pains. If we are going to bend the arc of history towards justice, we can only do so through togetherness. As Martin Luther King once said, only love can drive out hate. I hope people take in these words not to nod piously and point fingers but to pause and reflect on ways we can all change internally.
We can keep fighting about politics and taking each other to the woodshed over politicians who don’t care an iota about us. Or we can start building up each other and refuse to play the cards of rancor the establishment keeps feeding us. The choice before us is simple: the more we bicker, the more our individual suffering grows thicker. We live in a land that has more riches than the rest of the world combined, yet each day our pie gets smaller as crumbs become our lot. It does not have to be this way, we can do better as a society if only we stop being splintered apart.
Disregard firebrands on TV or in print who preach separable grievances, these people are getting paid by the very system they pretend to be against. Instead of following people who peddle animus and inject acrimony, be more like children who see our likeness where we lead with our differences. When you are about to speak against people based on their external traits and labels, just ask yourself—would you say those words to Sam? #LessonsFromSam
Work for a future that you want to pass on to your children instead of fighting to avenge your past hurts::
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Check out this Ghion Cast where I discuss how we can all work towards a better tomorrow by standing up for inclusive justice and believing in togetherness.
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Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.