June 2, 2020

Teaching the T-Rex to Fly

Written by Akasha SaundersAkasha Saunders

Make a fist with your dominant hand. Now, unclench that fist one finger at a time. Thumb. Index finger. Middle finger (I won’t take it personally). Ring finger. And finally, your pinky.

I hope that was relatively easy for you to do. I realize, though, that it may be challenging for some of us. When I asked my 13-year-old son to do this, he struggled because of the ways cerebral palsy impacts his muscles. After trying for a few minutes, between grunts, tears, and all kinds of body twists and turns, he said, “Daddy, it’s like trying to teach T-Rex how to fly.” Besides admiring his apt use of metaphor, his acknowledgement of the challenge he faced and his willingness to meet it are helping me maintain some hope during many of the difficulties we are going through as a human family.

We are faced with all kinds of challenges these days. Across the globe, our healthcare systems and providers, parents and educators, leaders, and business owners are being stretched to their limits as they cope with Covid. I talk with friends, colleagues, clients, and students who are uncomfortable with the relaxing of shelter-in-place orders. They feel challenged and unprepared, even while many of them are grateful to dine at their favorite restaurants, reconnect with nature, and be in the same space with loved ones they haven’t touched in months. Last week, my 18-year-old brother went to his now alma mater to collect his high school diploma and take pictures with his family who he sees everyday and not his friends who he hasn’t seen since early March. Sure, we were all very happy to put on our best outfits for 15 minutes and celebrate his graduation. And he missed his friends.

We face other challenges, individually and as a human family. In Hong Kong, citizens are fighting for their rights and their lives, to be seen, heard, and to govern their own lives. As I write this article, my heart aches at the most recent racism-inspired events in the U.S. – the gunning down of Ahmaud Arbery while jogging in Georgia, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of the police, and the events in Central Park involving the two Coopers. I feel the sharp and deadly edges of racism and anti-blackness as they thrust out from the psyche of some white people and manifest as discrimination, oppression, and death for black people. We have nothing to protect us, only a smartphone with a good enough camera to capture the mortal blow.

Where is our humanity in this? What is its color? I grew up believing that whatever the color was, black wasn’t it or a part of it. Of course, I don’t believe that anymore. However, I am pushing myself more now than on most other days to go beyond my cultural programming, beyond my stories, beyond my fears, beyond the evidence of cruelty against black people to trust that the color of our humanity does include black. Some days it feels like teaching T-Rex how to fly.

For far too long, I thought I was doing an okay job compartmentalizing the pain and fear born out of being in this black body. The walls that held up the compartments came crashing down after Arbery and Floyd’s killing. My head felt 10 times its normal size. My heart felt like it had a puncture wound and I couldn’t plug it up. And my soul felt like it was in smoke. And now, I am afraid. Not for my black body, but for all our black bodies. This one black body that so many of us inhabit. When I think about another person, my son or my brother being shot or choked to death, I feel my throat tightening up and I struggle to breathe. How could we cause such harm to each other? I honestly don’t get it.

Can we privilege life and our shared humanity? Or is life asking something impossible of us? I do not think so. Yet, where is the relief as the weight of racism and anti-blackness crush an entire group of people and mortally wound our humanity? How do we address these twin dark shadows inside ourselves, in our work, our communities, and in the world? Call me naive and an idiot, but I trust in the strength of our humanity and our love. Love is the antidote to the cruelty, hatred, and rage inside all of us. It is the wings to our current flightless state. But what can love do? And who will stand with love?

When my son struggles to flex his fingers, I do not stop him, even while it pains me to watch a brave human being unable to do something that many of us do without a thought. Instead, I sit and struggle with him, knowing that I do not understand what it’s like to be in his differently-abled body.

Can we sit and struggle with each other – one person, one group, one community, one nation at a time until we learn to fly as one into a world where we are loving fiercely across our differences? I think this is the greatest act of our generation and we all have a role to play in it. If you coach, teach, facilitate, lead, or support black people’s development in any way, it is likely that they may struggle with feeling safe and with issues of belonging. So, acknowledge these issues and your commitment to humanity and to social justice at your next meeting, in your policies and values. Be genuine. See black people. Sit quietly with us. Listen to us. And try not to cry, especially if we do. But do not be speechless. Speak up for us – for all of us – and for injustice everywhere. March and stand with us. And most importantly, continue to look inside yourself for seeds of racism and anti-blackness and dig them out. Do not let shame, guilt, and fear stop you. Please don’t.

This week, my son told me that he is not afraid to die, but he wants to be remembered for making an impact, for making the world better for future generations. I asked him what exactly he would want people to remember about him. He said, “I want people to remember that I was black, that I was happy, and that I went beyond my limits.” And just like that. My son grew his own wings and is teaching me how to fly.

One thought on “Teaching the T-Rex to Fly”

  1. Avatar Lisa says:

    Akasha,

    I read your post when it came out a few weeks ago and I continue to sit with the power of your words.

    Thank you.

    Lisa

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