There are deathbed conversions. I was there for one.
The day before he died in 2003, I asked my grandfather what was the greatest thing he had done in his 86 years of life. He thought for less than a second, and said, “ I saved a black man’s life in the middle of the Pacific ocean.” My grandfather was a Navy sailor during WWII and as far as I had always known, a lifelong racist.
As he spoke, I was startled that he said, “black man.” He did not use any derogatory phrases to describe the man he had saved nor the pilots who sunk his ship. The n-word and the term “Jap” that I had been accustomed to him using all during my childhood were missing throughout his entire description of his ship being sunk by Kamikaze pilots. But now he was facing his end. Things changed rapidly.
As he described his part in saving the black sailor when they hit the water, and the battle that led up to it, I could see the new pride he felt in his heroic actions. I could also see the acceptance that at the end of his life, he knew he had been wrong in his thinking about others. The greatest thing he did, in his entire life, was to save someone he despised only because their skin color differed from his. My grandfather, at that moment, became more of a teacher to me than he had ever been.
I became my grandfather’s witness. Facing his own imminent death, he clearly recognized that the way he had chosen to be in the world was not the way he wished he would have been. I saw him comprehending that the choices he had made to create separation from other human beings were ones that he now regretted, immensely. In his words, I saw him trying to enlighten me to the importance of not having regrets about the way I treat other people when I come to the end of my life.
Thanks to the instruction of my grandfather that day, I take up the cause of #blacklivesmatter today because I believe in the equality and equity of all human beings. I believe that every person, without exception, deserves the dignity and restorative justice that will create the world we all deserve to live in. I believe that black and brown bodies are equal to white bodies and should be honored and preserved in the same way by a police force that takes an oath to do so.
We can honor black lives and honor white lives. We can respect black lives, white lives, and the police officers that take an oath to protect them all. If you don’t think this is possible, I direct you to Wichita, Kansas, where Black
Lives Matter and the police picnic together, reifying these very possibilities.
I offer this to you today because we need to do better as we act and react with one another in these uncertain times. Don’t wait until your deathbed. Be bold, be brave now.