A young inmate picks up a rock to throw at a seagull standing in a puddle. Jarvis Master, a black man on death row, raises his arm to stop him. The San Quinten yard got quiet because, in this culture, you stay out of other people’s business. Angered, the inmate shouts, “What do you think you are doing?” Jarvis answers, “Don’t! That bird’s got my wings.”
What did Jarvis mean, “That bird’s got my wings?” On freejarvis.com, he explains how at that moment, his heart wanted “so desperately to feel human, still connected to this world, as if I have a purpose.” The seagull represented a bridge to humanity. Connecting with other human beings is a deep need we all share. He felt that maiming the bird crippled his chance to one day connect with humankind outside the brick building and steel bars.
Many people believe Jarvis is innocent, and the effort to free him continues. But this is not about Jarvis Master or George Floyd, but about where we find ourselves, grappling with racial injustices and the mounting cultural pressure to reckon with America’s racist history. While few white people can relate to what black people have lived with all their lives, those eight minutes and forty-six seconds cracked our shell, and we found it hard to breathe. No longer can we pretend this isn’t happening. Black parents should not have to give their children survival lessons because some of those in authority see their offsprings as moving targets. Nor should children of any color need to wear bulletproof backpacks or have active shooter drills at school. Our hearts ache for a more just world. The question we can’t answer yet is whether we can sustain our compassion so this moment becomes a movement, an evolutionary change from me to us. Will those of us who have wings persist; speak up for a more loving world?
Although I don’t recall where I first heard, “that bird’s got my wings,” the feeling it aroused in me was one I’m familiar with from meditation, a flutter of goosebumps, a mind orgasm with staying power. It’s a feeling of wholeness with my human brothers and sisters, the universe, and everything beyond I can’t yet fathom.
This underlying awareness of belonging—the human connection—stretched and broke when we heard George say, “I can’t breathe.” He was our brother, and those eight minutes and forty-six seconds choked us too. His vulnerability became ours. The “I can’t breathe” became “We can’t breathe.” This emotion cracked our shell, and we saw the horror of racism. Leonard Cohen’s Anthem lyrics express this moment: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
For millions of people, we are in a moment of a possibility for a more compassionate society. A conscious awakening. We no longer want “me” but “us.” With staying power and speaking our minds, this can be a world-wide transformation mending society’s torn fabric. It can be a path to love for everyone, including caring for our earth and animals tortured on a daily basis. Our spiritual awakening recognizes our universal longings, freedom and fairness.
People who want to be on the right side of history—reject racial injustice—this is our moment. First, we need to face our own racial prejudice and biases, and accept that we have much to learn. It’s OK to admit that it’s a starting point as long as we commit to doing better. Covert racism is no longer underground and white privilege is bad karma. Instead of judging, delve deep into the pain of those who are cut off from fairness. It’s about opening our hearts to include everyone. Train our minds in seeing that the bird has our wings of freedom from cruelty. With sustained determination, we will all have “equal justice” under the law.
As white people, practically, what exactly can we do? We can learn to unlearn behavior by accepting that we may be engaging in prejudice, however big or small. For example, we see our skin color as the norm, and all other colors deviate from it. Why is that OK? We can accept that our life experiences are NOT universal. (True also between the “have and have nots”) We can have a conversation with family and friends, and challenge those who are openly racist. It will be uncomfortable, but as white people, we have the power to engage people in issues we usually avoid. Selecting books written by blacks gives us a front seat to their world. How To Be An Antiracist, by Ibra X. Kendi and The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson have near-five star ratings for good reasons.
Reading a princess story to my three-year-old granddaughter, Astrid, her eight-year-old brother sat with us listening. I pointed to a picture of a black queen sitting with two princesses, one with black curly hair that I assumed was her daughter, and the other that looked like Snow White with her yellow hair. “Who are they?” I asked. Astrid said it was Queen Isabella and her daughters. My grandson pointed to the white princess, “No, she is just a friend.” Indignant, Astrid shot back, “No, they are sisters.” I watched with curiosity as big brother scrutinized the picture then said, “Why do they look so different?” A tender moment of color blindness.
Movements swell and shrink. No matter where we are in our spiritual awakening, this is a moment pregnant with opportunity for transformation. But we must stay awake to resist returning to our automatic small-minded ways caught in judging others. We lack the color blindness of most children, but we can take steps to grow an inclusive heart. We can speak up for justice, refusing to be silenced by those who add to our shared human misery. Yes, we live in an attention-deficit society, but “I see the light through the cracks of everything.” There is bigness in this moment. I value what Buddhists call the bodhichitta (awakened mind), even though I don’t always live up to it. But my heart felt longing for kindness towards all is steadfast and grounded. Please, let this be the moment where we move towards a more loving world.