“I believe that many of you understand that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. That we cannot be full evolved human beings until we care about human rights and basic dignity. That all of our survival is tied to the survival of everyone. That our visions of technology and design and entertainment and creativity have to be married with visions of humanity, compassion and justice. And more than anything, for those of you who share that, I’ve simply come to tell you to keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.” – Bryan Stevenson
On Labor Day, Julia and I had a gig that was cancelled. We considered ourselves fortunate to be able to sit outside and catch up on back issues of The New Yorker. One of the articles was about Bryan Stevenson. What caught my eye was that Bryan was helping to build a national lynching memorial museum called the Memorial to Peace and Justice. Bryan is a lawyer from Delaware who moved down to Alabama without family, friends or any support. Recognizing the correlation between the lynching mentality that was established in the South and the mass incarceration and excessive use of the death penalty for citizens of color, Bryan founded the Equal Justice Initiative . This organization guarantees legal representation to each of Alabama’s death row inmates. Bryan points out in his TED talk that the US is the only country in the world that will jail children for life. Some of Bryan’s clients are thirteen and fourteen years old. He believes that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I believe that for every person on the planet. I think if somebody tells a lie, they’re not just a liar. I think if somebody takes something that doesn’t belong to them, they’re not just a thief. I think even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. And because of that there’s this basic human dignity that must be respected by law.” Bryan’s desire to build the museum in Montgomery, Alabama is to challenge each county where lynching took place to own up to it. This is not to shame them but to urge them to acknowledge the wound so that it can begin to heal.
Later in the day, Julia and I binged through the rest of season one of Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down. This, highly addictive and amazing show, was a natural extension to reading about the Equal Justice Initiative. Set in the South Bronx in 1977, The Get Down shows how racism and poverty create a boiling pot of crime that is a necropolis for many but which cannot extinguish the creative spirit that must express itself. With hues of a superhero genre, the show emphasizes that the real success that is achieved stems from love, friendship and the synchronicity of bonded effort across community lines.
The show illustrates how we have demonized creativity that arises out of poverty such as graphitti and hip-hop. One of hip hop’s pioneers, Grand Master Flash is a character on the show. When interviewed he said that Hip hop’s message was simple, “We matter. We stand for something.” His character on the show instructs a talented aspiring DJ who is slipping into graft, “It’s about music. It will move you forward and open up doors that everybody says are shut. It will give you the whole world for free if you just hold back nothing. Ah… do you hear that? It’s life and destiny, that is the Get Down!”
“We love innovation. We love technology. We love creativity. We love entertainment. But ultimately, those realities are shadowed by suffering, abuse, degradation, marginalization. And for me, it becomes necessary to integrate the two. Because ultimately we are talking about a need to be more hopeful, more committed, more dedicated to the basic challenges of living in a complex world. And for me that means spending time thinking and talking about the poor, the disadvantaged…thinking about them in a way that is integrated in our own lives.”- Bryan Stevenson
There are those who inspire tirelessly and selflessly like Bryan. They are superheroes. They are here to reflect the spark in the rest of us. For me, there is a difference between identifying ourselves as victims and committing in whatever way we can to being the expression of love that helps us rise up to a greater freedom within and without. Thank you for what you do and who you are. You are that expression.