Saturday, August 31, 2013

By the Content of Their Character

I keep thinking about those boys! Which ones?, you might well ask. Was it the ones who beat up that old man, or robbed that store, or tried to rape that off-duty policewoman? No. It’s the ones you would have only heard about, most likely, if you lived in New Jersey. Their story came and went on August 28, 2013. No viral reposting.

One could say that is to be expected. After all, isn’t it the norm that four young, Black men (college students, as it turns out) display honesty and self-respect in the public eye? Well, no, it isn’t. And perhaps that is why I just keep thinking about those boys.

It was a simple thing really. The four young men, Thomas James, Kell’E Gallimore, Jelani Bruce, and Anthony Biondi entered a store in Wayne, NJ on a Sunday afternoon. There was no one in attendance. They even checked the back to make sure there hadn’t been some mishap; some clerk lying tied-up or worse. Finding no one, they gathered the items they had come for, calculated the cost, added the tax, left the money on the counter, waved to the surveillance camera and went on their way. This was August 25th. Three days later, the incident hit the internet and the local news. The same day as the commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.

“To be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” resonates over the 5 decades since Martin Luther King, Jr. first spoke the phrase. But, how are we to determine the content of character? We make suppositions from our hearts. We seem to assign goodness to the physically attractive and the meek. We generally say of those who do us some kindness or provide some advantage; social, financial, or otherwise, that they are “good people.” Those who walk with self-confidence and head held high, challenging the world with a direct gaze and erect posture ... well, they face a bit more scrutiny. Still, how are we to tell?

I think that Thomas, Kell’E, Jelani, and Anthony have shown the way. The content of one’s character is reflected not in what one pronounces in the public eye, but what one does when no one is watching. The eye of technology has allowed us to witness the unwitnessed acts of four young men whose behaviors reflect the honesty and self-respect of their characters.

There is another aspect to all of this. The exact same behaviors by two similar young people will be judged differently if their skin colors are different. People of color in the United States have been charged with somehow demonstrating the content of their character by their appearance and public behavior. Something that simply cannot be done in the service of a casual glance by others. Character is only revealed over time and in repeated behaviors. Acts that the society values as positive contributions to the quality of community systems are defined and designated to be of ‘upright’ character. But, only the individual, in moments of solitude and conversation with themselves, can come to know the content of their own character.

It is unfortunate that societal biases so often interfere with our internal lives. Everyone - young, old and indifferent alike. Too often, we are distracted by our interactions in and with the world. Our thoughts are drawn inescapably to the contemplation of others, especially, the “other.” We judge and are judged. We try to position our existence in a manner that provides for self and family and also provides life’s imperative - joy. We rush, always rushing, hither and yon, and nonstop.

Perhaps because there is so little available quiet in contemporary life, people lack the silence necessary for self-reflection. In 1927, Buckminster Fuller decided to stop talking, and did so - for two years. He wrote later that he wanted to know that what he said communicated his ideas and not the ideas of somebody else. To know one’s own ideas is to know the content of one’s character. From such knowledge, anything is possible.

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