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Stand up for something….

A boy once called me nigger in elementary school and the teacher either didn’t hear it or chose not to hear it. But I heard it and hearing it was enough for me to curse him out with my little fourth grade self.  The kid was one of the Governor’s Island kids, one of the Coast Guard kids that came from across the river to attend our Catholic school on 14th street in the city.  He was about as big as a kid could be and still be considered a kid, which meant he was a giant compared to me.  But at the time, I didn’t see his size, I just saw the word that shot out his mouth like venom.  It made me so angry that I remember being unable to breathe for a minute.  Later on, once I was older, I learned the word for what I felt.  It was rage!

Did it feel good cursing him out?  Now, I should probably say not at all, but that would be lying.  It felt great standing up in the middle of the class and letting him know that as small as I was, I was not about to let any kid use the N-word in front of me without offering them a few choice words of my own.

Later that day, that same giant-kid and a few of his friends caught me in the bathroom and fucked me up royally, while all the time calling me the N-word  and a few other racist words as well.  One would think I would have learned that maybe it is best to shut up sometimes and just let shit be what it is, but that was not the lesson I learned.  How could I?  Because my mom came up to that school the next day with rage and fire in her eyes demanding that something be done.  She not only stood up for her son, demanding that the school get its act together, but she stood up for all children in the school who were not being treated with respect.  She let them know that something had to be done and something had to be done fast!

And something was done. After her visit, if memory serves me correctly, those boys were either suspended or expelled.  Either way, after she said her peace to the school principal, my life in that school changed and I am guessing that life changed for the one or two other kids of color as well.  But if I had not stood up in class, then that boy and his friends would have kept harassing all of us children of color in the school and perhaps, the school not being well equipped to handle issues of race and bullying, would have continued to do nothing as Black children like me got called the N-word in class.

Yes, there were consequences to me standing up that day, but even so, I don’t regret it at all.  And maybe cursing out a kid twice as big as me may not have been the best way to stand up for myself, but hey it was what it was.  After all, I was this little boy from the Lower East Side who had not yet learned all the civilized and sophisticated ways to deal with racist bullies.  All I knew at the time was that I would not stand silently by and let anyone call me a nigger.

Since that time, decades ago for me, I have seen many people stand up for things they believe in and I have always felt great respect for them for having the courage to take those stands.  It is a beautiful thing to see people standing up for their convictions and standing strong in the face of ignorance.  And I don’t even have to agree with what people are standing up for so as to respect them.  Though there are many things I wish people did not believe in, I cannot take away the fact that they are courageous enough to stand up for their beliefs.  And yes there are even things that people stand up for that make me cringe, that even terrifies me a bit, things that I would never want to see anyone stand up for, but still, I cannot take away the fact that they stood up for something.  I can deal with people like that, people who don’t hide what they believe in, people who are willing to stand in broad daylight and let you know, THIS IS WHAT I BELIEVE IN AND THIS IS WHAT I AM WILLING TO STAND UP FOR!

Yesterday, I saw a picture of a beautiful young woman holding a fierce sign of resistance above her head.  She was standing on a Manhattan street  as many protesters were walking away.  Perhaps, it was the end of the Women’s March, but whatever the reason she was standing alone, the effect of the picture, of her standing there on her own, with that sign raised like a banner above her, left me speechless.  I was not only blown away by the look in her eyes, by how she stood ready to take on the world, or by what she was doing or of how she was doing it, but I was also blown away by the fact that this young woman is my little sister.

As the image really sank into my spirit and I began to realize that my sister was standing up for all women yes, but that she was really also standing up for herself, then I got that feeling in my gut I got the same day that kid called me the N-word long ago.  The rage was back.  Because not only did I realize that the world was the kind of place where a young woman like my sister felt the need to have to stand up for herself with the powerful words on her sign screaming out to the universe, but I also felt that with such acts of resistance there are always consequences.  The consequences can come in many forms and don’t have to be as violent as mine were, but however they come, they still usually come.  And this thought enraged me even more, because I am not ready to stand to the side and let my sister or anyone else’s sister or daughter or mother or wife have to deal with those consequences on their own.  And better yet, I want to do my part to help build a world where all people can be equally honoured, where there bodies and minds and spirits and hearts can be equally respected!

I have known far too many girls who have been violated in countless ways not only by men and women, some of whom should have been the ones to protect them, but have also been violated by society in general.  And so I have no doubt that a change must take place, one that must be supported by all people regardless of one’s political leanings.

Our mother spent many years of her life working for gender equality in the United Nations and so both my sister and I knew that one does not have to just accept the world for what it is, that one can change not only the rules of the game, but more importantly, one can change the game itself.  But before anything can ever change, first someone must be willing to stand up, not only for themselves, but for others as well.

And  one must be willing to stand strong, hold their banner up,  look the world in the eye, and with the power of their entire body, let the world know, that what was wrong yesterday will not be tolerated today, and that no matter how many days, weeks, months, years, decades it takes, one will not stand to the side and let what was wrong yesterday continue tomorrow.

Because, if you don’t stand up for what you believe, then what are you standing up for in life… Unless, of course, you are choosing not to stand up at all for anything ever…. And if that is the case, then this blog is truly not for you…….


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