Black Lives Matter: A Letter of Love

I am a child of the 50’s, born into an integrating New Orleans during the Civil Rights Movement, coming of age during the era of the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali, and Martin Luther King. I was in the first wave of children who integrated the Catholic school systems in Louisiana, and experienced the ugliness of racism at an early age. Attending the recent rally in Frederick, I found myself experiencing a flood of emotions regarding where we were as a nation, how far we have come, and how far we have to go.  

As a physician, I am exposed to the views of all sorts of people, caring for them equally without regard to anything other than the oath I took to do so. An esteemed colleague recently asked me why do Black people not like the phrase “All Lives Matter”? I needed to give him a good response rather than an emotional one. My answer came in the form of an analogy. When one goes to the Olympic Games, there are different flags carried by all the nations for the world to see. All of those flags matter, but the flag that YOU hold matters the most TO YOU; and so it is with BLACK LIVES MATTER. My life and my loved ones’ lives matter most TO ME. We all carry flags in our lives; flags help define us both as individuals and as groups. To a great extent, Black people in America do not feel that our “flag” has been equally valued by American society. Deaths of unarmed men at the hands of the authorities are but one stark set of examples of the institutional denial of equal opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness promised to all American citizens by the Founding Fathers, many of whom were slave owners.

America was formed in conflict with its own ideals: “All men are created equal” is a profound declaration, but was not honored by all men. The controversy over kneeling recently arose. As a Catholic, I kneel before the altar in supplication; men kneel to propose to their future wives; men kneel to be knighted and before sovereigns; genuflection is a form of reverent submission to a higher power. The act of kneeling for a cause does not itself disrespect the occasion, but demonstrates a commitment to a set of principles. Regarding the National Anthem, I believe that the message FOR the kneeling was lost in the tumult ABOUT kneeling. Perhaps now, the issue is a bit clearer for those who did not or would not give any credence to the purpose behind the reverent act of kneeling. 

Had there been no video of the Central Park dog lady, of the killing of an unarmed jogger, of the ungodly death of George Floyd, the perpetrators may well have gotten away with these insults, and may yet given the history of such events. But now, what the Black community has always known, the world has now seen in all its terrifying and brutal reality.

Let us all reflect on who we are and what we are: mortal beings with limited time. Hate may be easier to do than love, because there is little investment in hate. Hate can be anonymous; love is a personal investment, providing dividends that ripple through our lives. Let us listen to and invest in each other so that we might enrich our lives with the dividends of love.

Stephen J. McKenna, MD, MBA, FACS

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