Keep your Eyes on the Prize is a well known civil rights era documentary. Some in my generation grew up watching it in our newly created “African American History” classes in high school. My African American History teacher was a black man, who told us how they had won the fight to even offer an “African American History” class at the high school level and how we should be grateful to be learning this in school.
And we were. We understood that without our teachers and parents fighting for us, we wouldn’t be privileged enough to be getting this information handed to us in school like that. I was in about 11th grade and I’d been feeling newly “black.” How I arrived at that place is another story for another post. But anyhow, I’d banded together with a group of black females in my high school and we were walking around with our fists up wielding black power propaganda and telling everyone with pride that we were taking African American History that year, voluntarily. We paid close attention in that class. Hung on that teacher’s words, studied twice as hard, and completed projects with glee! We felt like revolutionaries.
I’m not sure how we shifted from black power to regular grown folks, but I’m seeing a resurgence of that kind of energy sprouting around me. Perhaps it never died, really, but it just feels more intense now than ever before.
So as I was reflecting on the phrase, “keep your eyes on the prize,” after having read about Ruby Bridges since her birthday was this week; I thought about what that phrase means and how it applies to fighting for rights.
Back then, it seemed that they were keeping their eyes focused on a collective prize or vision. A common goal that they all knew and shared. The prize was “equality,” or “civil rights,”… right? Or is it that it only appears that way when we are studying that era in retro-spect?
Perhaps, Ruby Bridges had no idea that she was becoming an icon. When I see her little 8 year old face, proudly wearing her sharp clothes and matching backpack/ lunch-sack sets, marching along with the national guard flanking her. I see my own daughter, Jazmin. A kid who was proudly carrying out the wishes of her parents, just as mine would if we asked her to. She understood she was doing something important because her parents told her so. Ruby’s parents were the real revolutionaries and visionaries. Ruby’s parents and many others like them who were fighting for rights on behalf of their children.
I thought of the conversations Ruby’s parents must have had at night before retiring to bed. The apprehension and worry they must of felt, anguishing over if they were doing the right thing or not. If they were putting poor Ruby in danger or if they were igniting a movement. How many nights did they lie awake? Unable to sleep with anticipation or anxiety. When she was presented with a mini coffin on the way to school and suffered from nightmares, were they pushing too hard? Was it time to retire her from the spotlight when Norman Rockwell, a renowned white artist sold a painting of her to a magazine, was she getting too famous? And I’m sure the worries continued and the intensity grew and grew, but at the same time, so did the movement. It grew along with them and now when we look back on it we say, “they kept their eyes on the prize.” Because regardless of the implications or the risks and the setbacks they stayed focused on what they wanted- equal rights for their daughter.
Today we are trying again with the Black Lives Matter movement. And often I wonder, what is it that we want to gain from this movement. What is our collective prize? When Black Lives finally do matter, what will that look like? What will it feel like when we matter in the way that we desire?
When Black Lives Matter, I have access to the best schools; and finding quality education for my children will be easy and exhilarating.
When Black lives matter, finding employment is simple and enjoyable. Opportunities for career growth flow to me like water, and I have a plethora of exciting choices for employment. I flourish in network of supportive and upwardly mobile counterparts.
When Black lives matter, Black/melaninated people thrive with economic growth. We own land, we own banks, we lend to each other with low and equitable interest rates. We control our communities, we police our own streets, and nurture those who have fallen by the wayside of life with mental health care, instead of institutionalization.
When Black lives matter, we teach each other how to live well. Offering preventative medicine at little or no cost, as part of a health care plan that everyone has access to.
When Black lives matter we don’t kill each other, we protect each other. Others can’t kill us because we look out for each other when faced with a common enemy outside of us.
Let us as a people begin to formulate what our collective prize will be. Let us keep ourselves focused upon what we desire. Not what we despise. The longer we continue to replay the story of what we don’t want, and to get emotional about it, the longer it will take to begin creating a new story.
Let us keep our eyes focused on what we desire. Say what you would like to see, when Black lives matter: ________________…