Bryan Stevenson doesn’t think that slavery has ended in America. This is because the root cause of slavery was not involuntary servitude. Nor forced labour. No, Bryan, human rights lawyer and founder of the human rights group the Equal Rights Initiative, believes that the real power of slavery was rooted in ideology. How? Because back at the beginning of enslaving people, slavery needed to be justified. Enter the narrative of white supremacy. White people can do things that black people can’t do. Black people aren’t as good as white people. You know the rap.
Although the practice of slavery may have been abolished in America in 1865, Bryan believes too that his country is not free yet. This is because this narrative of the ideology of slavery has never been addressed openly. Now America is burdened. A shadow looms over the poor, the excluded and those who try to implement change. It’s like a smog that hangs in the air. It affects everyone.
‘Nothing will change,’ Bryan says, ‘until we change this narrative. And for this to happen you need to get close to the problem.’
I’ve been a huge fan of Bryan’s for some years. That’s cool talk for I’m totally in love with him. His dedication to his cause. To human kindness. ‘The opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice.’ With his words, I believe we begin to get glimpses of the golden ticket. About who we really are.
Since becoming a fan of Bryan’s, I’ve carried his words around with me. Then they came to the surface when, a few days into our stay in Florida, Jack turned to me. ‘Black people seem tougher in America,’ he said. ‘They seem like they’ve had it harder than people in the Caribbean. That things are still hard.’
Real racial experts, us. Turn up from Welsh Wales and instantly let our fingers fall on the racial pulse. But I nodded. I’d noticed it too. The look you get back when you smile hello, the worried expressions. The way people move among each other. It was definitely different from Barbados. Trinidad too.
We spend most of our time in areas in the Caribbean which are not tourist-driven. It surprised us then that people’s response was different to what we’d been used to in the Caribbean. Since America is the land of opportunity. Hands down, you feel it when you’re in the Caribbean. You feel the enormous power of America like that cousin you have who made it impossibly rich and lives in the mansion round the corner.
Then you listen to Bryan Stevenson. And you realise. The United States of America has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. One in three black men between the ages of 18-30 are either in prison, on probation or on parole. After a lifetime of working amongst the condemned, the disenfranchised Bryan maintains that, ‘We have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability shapes outcomes.’
Before we came, we weren’t sure what to make of Trump’s America. As a small sideline, can you imagine if you’d fallen asleep for 15 years and woken up to find that Donald Trump was the United States President? Would you want to turn over and go back to sleep again? Or would this be the start of something – like weird gossip that revitalises you somehow. Like if life is this crazy, I should at least see what happens next.
Every gaffe, every potential scandal has been poured over in the British media with relish. And cheese and ham. Would we see protesters in the streets we wondered? Would there be a scratch the surface aggression towards the president? Instead, Fort Lauderdale seemed peaceful and booming. We took a trip down to Miami Beach. After an Uber, a double-decker train and a bus ride from Miami’s international airport, we were there. And it was a sunny day despite the recent dire weather predictions. The soon-to-be-teenage Lulu was impressed. ‘Finally,’ she exhaled, stepping off the bus, ‘I’m somewhere that’s cool.’
I was more circumspect. Huge blinged-out cars.. Range Rovers dripping gold along South Beach. Was this really honest money? Meanwhile, renovations were rife. Art deco buildings scaffolded and wrapped up like sausages, ready to emerge in their former flamingo pink glory. ‘Chinese money,’ the motel porter Henry told us knowingly when we got home. Meanwhile, we absorbed the scene. And went for a swim. It seemed compulsory to swim off Miami.. so we got changed behind a trash can. Green warm water, schools of fish darting in and out of our ankles. And yes, impossible not to be nervous. Were there any fins pointing like arrows out of the ‘more-shark-bites-than-anywhere-else-in the-world’ water? At least the iconic lifeguard stations were reassuring. If a cartilaginous critter did take a bite, a beautiful lifeguard would come. Because that would be exciting too, no?
Instead of sharks, electronic billboards floated past. This got Jack very excited. As the proud owner of a London-based billboard site, the appreciation levels of seeing a water-based advertising horde was high. Plus the planes flying past. ‘Eat at Foxy’s!’ we were instructed. We didn’t though. We got changed at the trash can again and ate at a crab shack across the road. Beautiful oysters. Po’Boy sandwiches full of shrimp and salad. Uh-oh. Back to American food again. No wonder everyone wants to live here. And if we follow Bryan Stevenson’s way, could this wonderful country finally be free? Could it? Please?