In these times of perpetual chaos, I often feel small. Small beneath the weight of systems I cannot untangle, and answers I do not have. I combat that feeling, that smallness, that cynicism, by looking for personal connection, by looking for the specific lines that run from my life to the heart of the matter. So, at the risk of seeming self-promotional in any way, I’d like to speak about the meaning behind our song “Border,” as I find its underlying details to be incredibly relevant to the current times.
I wrote “Border” for my father, Louis Martín Miller. He was a Black and Latinx man that called the United States home for much of his life. He suffered from schizophrenia and was homeless for a large portion of my upbringing. In the summer of 2018 he had a stroke and was taken to an underfunded hospital, in an underserved Black neighborhood. Despite repeatedly telling the doctors about his mental illness, he was not given his medication. And after barely a week in recovery, he suffered an episode and walked out of the hospital. When I arrived to pick him up, the doctors weren’t even aware he had gone missing. This is the story contained in the song’s first verse.
What is not contained in the song is the aftermath of this incident, in which my mother and I pleaded for months (frankly, my mother has been pleading for decades) to various public resources to assist my father in his recovery. What we received was virtually nothing.
At the beginning of this year, my father passed away. And what has gnawed at me ever since is the aching feeling that his death was entirely preventable. That the systems our nation designed not only failed him, but failed to notice him. And I share this all in the hopes of illuminating to those who are puzzled, why it is that buildings are burning in cities across our nation.
These protests are not solely about police brutality. The violence on display by policemen in our cities is merely the byproduct of a system that often protects property before people. Some of the looting and vandalism we’ve seen this week is being perpetuated by opportunists with no political agenda. But, some of it is being done by people that deeply resent the fact we live in a nation where the Targets and AutoZones of the world have more capital and resources than the Black hospitals and public programs that failed my father, and hundreds of thousands before him.
I too believe that violence is not the answer. But I cannot hold that belief without first acknowledging our nation’s long history of violence that has led us to this juncture. This country was quite literally stolen and founded with violence, it maintained slaves using violence, it spends a completely outsized proportion of its money on the military, which is governed by white men, and it enforces its economic systems using a police force where, in cities such as New York, white police make up a disproportionate percentage of the department.
It is no wonder then that we see violence in response. In mass shootings, in low income neighborhoods, and occasionally in protests. It is all we know — white, Black, Brown, alike. To condemn the violence of the protests without first acknowledging the violence that our nation perpetuates is to turn a blind eye. To condemn the looting of the protests without first condemning the looting of resources and funds from underprivileged areas by our government and corporate monopolies is to turn a blind eye. To ask the people who have been the target of that violence for centuries to lay down their weapons, without first asking our nation’s police forces to stop killing them, is to turn a blind eye.
I want to digress from this point for a moment, in part because it warrants an essay (or a hundred) of its own, but also to speak to the second half of this song’s meaning, which I hope will have a more uplifting message.
In the second verse, I re-purpose the lyric “split identity” that appears at the beginning of the song. In its first use, it is a reference to my father’s struggles with mental illness. And when it re-appears in the second verse, it refers to my own experience as a mixed-race individual, another type of split identity. My mother is white.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I harbor a lot of shame around my identity, and that feeling becomes extremely acute in these contentious moments. I often feel I carry the most privilege, by moving freely between Black and white spaces with little questioning. And yet, because of my skin tone, I face almost none of the discrimination that Black people contend with on a daily basis. In times like these, I wonder if I weaponize my father’s race to call people out, distance myself from the problem, and generally do less than I should. I feel bothered by the constant deluge of reactionary messaging on social media. And I question whether it’s because of its inherent virtue signaling, or because I’ve grown used to living in my own bubble, where people rarely hold me accountable or challenge my opinions.
I feel shame for all of those reasons, and many more, which is what I mean when I say in the chorus, “I don’t want to be this type of way.” I don’t want to live beneath the weight of constant confusion. I don’t want to choose between sides, and versions of myself. I don’t want to live in a world that thrusts those questions upon me everyday. I want to be whole.
I am lucky to have a network of friends and family with whom I have these conversations regularly. This past weekend in discussing these thoughts with two friends, one white and one Black, we realized that each of us harbored our own unique brand of shame around this topic. My white friend felt shame for being a benefactor of our oppressive system, for being not as informed as he felt he should be, and for not knowing exactly where to place his energy. And my Black friend felt shame for much more granular reasons: dating outside of his race, growing up in a good neighborhood, and generally feeling like he too at times had distanced himself from the issues at hand.
It reminded me of something a mentor once told me about my art: “shame is not a sustainable feeling.” That if I continued to resent the work I made, I would never create more work, and thus I would never improve. I think that is an essential message to communicate in these times. If you feel shame, I congratulate you. It shows you are paying attention and accessing some part of your empathy. But, it is also imperative to remember that we were not born with that shame. That it is, in many ways, a byproduct of how we discuss these topics. Placing blame, chastising others, yelling our point across the room, and generally being less concerned with progress than we are with being “correct.”
If we are to do the collective work of creating a better world for everyone, it cannot be on the backs of shame. It is not a sustainable motivator. Not only because many feel no shame, but because the rest of us freeze in its grip. If we are to do the work, it must be because we genuinely believe that a more just world is a better world for everyone. We must honestly feel that raising up our fellow citizens will allow us too, to live a better life. Just look at all that Black people have achieved in this nation with one hand tied behind their backs. Would we not be wise to uplift them, so that their ideas, spirit, and boundless talents may uplift us for the centuries to come? Instead, we fear them for the very wisdom they wish to impart.
The problem is, among many other things, that collective thinking is seldom rewarded in American society. We give sportsmanship awards as a consolation prize and are taught (white, Black, Brown, alike) that to climb the ladder, we must step on necks and step over those weaker than us. We are taught that the acquisition of land, property, and status constitutes freedom. And in many ways, within the framework of Capitalist America, it does because it buys you the privilege to isolate and ignore. But, I know in my heart that there must be something beyond that. There must be a more meaningful and robust freedom, for which our nation is not yet calibrated.
Currently, there is no motivator in America above the U.S. Dollar. And so, in my opinion, it will take whole industries of businesses and corporations going on strike to protest the inequality of marginalized communities if we are to see real, tangible, irreversible, systemic change. It will take whole industries coming together, making demands of our government, and turning over large portions of their excessive profits to help fund the historically underserved. And if that seems impossible, I’m here to remind you that it is not. As employees, as taxpayers, as citizens, we hold an immense amount of power when we organize. And with any luck, it will be our generation, and our children’s generation, that one day will sit on the boards of these companies.
So if, for now, we can simply begin the work of thinking collectively, of truly understanding the ways in which our freedoms are intertwined, we may one day see a world far more beautiful than this one.