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Mortal Men and the City of Baltimore

04/28/2015 09:23 am ET | Updated Jun 28, 2015
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"When sh*t hit the fan, is you still a fan?" -- Kendrick Lamar

On the most talked about track ("Mortal Man") on the most talked about album (To Pimp a Butterfly) of the year, Kendrick Lamar engages in a fictional interview with the late Tupac Shakur. Near interview's end, Lamar inquires of Shakur, "I can truly tell you that there's nothing but turmoil going on, so I wanted to ask you what you think is the future for me and my generation today?" In words recorded two decades before, Shakur states, "I think that n***** is tired of grabbing sh*t out the stores and next time it's a riot there's gonna be...bloodshed for real. I don't think America know that...It's gonna be like Nat Turner, 1831."

As violent protests now rage in the City of Baltimore in response to the horrific death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, a Black man whose spine was severed 80 percent at his neck while in the custody of Baltimore police, Shakur's words prove prophetic. In the wake of a multitude of horrific Black deaths at the hands of police officers across the country, there is a sense of a generation that has grown weary of these atrocities, and, as such, has also grown weary of the suggestion of peaceful protest as a means of bringing these brutalities to an end.

Interestingly enough, Shakur's prophetic words find their historical compliment in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In March 1968, a month prior to his assassination, Dr. King boldly stated, "It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard."

It would be the grossest of errors to look upon the uprisings in Baltimore solely in the context of Baltimore. What has occurred there is but the next chapter in a centuries-old American narrative in which unarmed Black women and men are killed in the custody of police officers. Yet, while this narrative is generations old, the advent of new technologies and social media platforms has not only magnified the pains suffered, but it has ensured that evidence of the same go farther, wider, and faster than ever before.

Multitudes have protested peacefully in Baltimore and around the nation. Yet, a question now arises as to what should be done in response to the violent protests presently unfolding on the streets. Both King and Shakur, themselves young Black men who were victims of horrific acts of violence, would caution America to respond responsibly. For only to address the violence of a minority of protesters and not the systemic violence that has set the stage for their responses would be to reveal historical ineptness.

Recently, I was invited to make a presentation at a national conference for large churches in a major U.S. denomination. In my presentation, I provided instructions for how churches could involve their members in social action initiatives. About halfway through the presentation, a woman was clearly perturbed by my verbal challenge for all churches to do more to fight for justice in the communities that surround them than to exclusively engage in mission trips abroad. In her frustration, she stated, "I would rather help people who are not responsible for their suffering than those who are."

This woman's misguided statement revealed the faulty lens through which many persons look at Baltimore, Ferguson, Staten Island and far too many other communities to name. These persons, rather than hearing the voices of a people long suffering under intolerable conditions, conditions that have claimed the lives of Freddie Gray, and countless others, have exclusively attributed the causation of the people's pain to the people themselves. Hence, the blood on the hands of a nation is washed away.

Mortals are defined by limitations. Baltimore is but a sign of a people who can take no more. While we may not agree with the response, we cannot overlook the cause of the response. Just as Lamar listened to frustrations rendered a generation ago, it is time for us all to listen, anew.

At the conclusion of "Mortal Man," Lamar poses one final question to Shakur. Speaking in metaphor concerning the butterfly and the caterpillar, Lamar notes "Wings begin to emerge, breaking the cycle of feeling stagnant. Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations that the caterpillar never considered, ending the internal struggle." To all of this, Lamar asks, "What's your perspective on that?" The song concludes as Lamar seeks an answer, yet Shakur offers no response.

It is suggested that at song's conclusion, Lamar provided an insight void in Shakur's initial articulations: a way to change the world without also destroying the world in the process. Indeed, the violent protests in Baltimore should end for the violence will not bring about the ends needed within the community. As King also stated, "Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral... because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind." However, our nation must actively listen to what these actions are speaking to us. Then, and only then, will we be able to shift the conversation and offer opportunities to secure the changes we seek and so desperately need.

I am not a fan of violence, but I am a fan of the people being heard. Now that it has hit the fan, I pray that we open our ears to hear the cries of a people far too long trampled upon, a people who can take no more.