What’ve I done to help?

The events of the past 10 days, a firestorm ignited by the casually depraved murder of a Black man in Minneapolis, have been heartbreaking. The ugliness of that initial moment has spread and spread and spread, from city to city to the White House, where the president described our nation in terms more appropriate to an actual war zone and encouraged police officers to forcefully push peaceful protesters out of his path so he could pose in front of a church with a Bible in his hand.

The ugliness has spread, predictably, on social media where a sizable cohort of Americans appear to be more concerned with broken shop windows than with the broken body of George Floyd or the broken social contract between the police and those they are sworn to protect.

Life in Georgetown proceeds apace. No riots or looting here. The sun shines and the streams flow and my neighbor is mowing his lawn.

“Racism is real. Racism is here.” — Alvin Deadeaux

“World’s on fire, and we just climb higher to where we’re no longer bothered by the smoke and the sound,” Jason Isbell sings in “What’ve I done to help,” the timely first song on his new album Reunions. “Good people suffer, and the heart gets tougher; nothing given, nothing found.”

Thoughts and prayers swirl and stream about us. We #blackedouttuesday because #blacklivesmatter. Orvis and a host of other outdoor brands made public statements against racism and in support of a more welcoming and inclusive outdoor industry. Some of us mentally tick off the names of our Black and Latinx and Asian friends and reassure ourselves that we’re not part of the problem. Most of that is just air guitar: exaggerated movement and not a lick of actual music. Prove me wrong. Please.

Alvin Deadeaux, owner of AllWaterGuides, ambassador for brands like Howler and Yeti and Costa, and one of the pioneering leaders of the Austin fly fishing community frequently posts helpful, inspiring and wryly humorous videos about fly fishing. On June 2nd he posted a video that was maybe two of those things and wasn’t about fly fishing at all. Alvin may be the only professional fly fishing guide in America who has played a SXSW showcase. He also happens to be a Black man.

“Racism is real. Racism is here.” he said in a somber, measured tone. “I may not think of it every minute of every day, but it pops into my mind every day. It’s sort of like a recurring injury. It’s sort of like pain that won’t go away…it affects how I make decisions; it affects where I go, what I do, how I behave. And it sucks.”

Alvin ended his video with this: “If you care, all I’m asking is that you reach down inside of yourself and ask just this question: ‘What am I doing to make it better?’”

It’s a question I’ve been thinking about for days now. And when I hear it echoed from sources as disparate as Alvin Dedeaux and Jason Isbell, it really resonates.

Merrill Robinson casts to the pool

Some knucklehead commented on my friend Edgar Diaz’s Instagram post addressing current events the other day and suggested he “stick to making bracelets.” As if there is some designated “addressing racism” profession, a “make life better for everyone around us” job description out there somewhere, and since Edgar’s an artist he’s not that guy. Of course he’s that guy. So am I. So are you.

I have a “lane,” and a pretty limited sphere of influence. But in addition to being an angler and a writer and an author, I’m also a friend and father and brother and cousin and, at the most fundamental level, a human being just trying to – as Prince sang – “get through this thing called life.”

And that’s all of us. That’s Edgar. That’s the guys and gals I fish with. That’s the cops who take their oaths seriously and do their jobs with integrity (most of them, I think, including my brother and my boyhood buddy Steven). And that’s also George Floyd and Jean Botham and Sandra Bland and Philandro Castile. More than names, but actual people with actual lives. That’s the Central American refugees fleeing violence and corruption and economic oppression for a shot at a better life for their kids, only to have their children torn from their arms and caged at the border. It’s gay and lesbian and transgendered people who just want to live their lives as they were created.

Tragedies like the murder of George Floyd and the separation of families at the border happen only because we all too often and often too willingly “other” the folks who don’t look like us or sound like us or come from where we come from. It comes from both ends of the political spectrum (remember Hillary’s “deplorables” comment?), and often it is a sin of omission: at best, we put these people out of mind and pretend they don’t exist. Deny their humanity, or deny their existence – the result is the same.

So, back to that question: what have I done? What can I do?

I’m proud of much that went into Fly Fishing Austin & Central Texas, my recent book. I’m very happy that of the many fish photos, not one is of a fish lying on the rocks or cranked from the jaw in a “hero shot.” I’m pleased that women are represented in the pages. I’m chuffed that I was able to cast a wide and inclusive net, capturing most (but not all, dangit) of the significant contributors to our local angling community. All of that was done deliberately.

Gently cradling before release

What was not deliberate was the dearth of photos of people of color. It jumped out at me the first time I held the actual, printed book in my hands. And it’s not that I was trying to exclude anyone, it’s simply a function of who is in my circle of fishing buddies. And that’s the problem.

Because even though you wouldn’t know it looking through the June 2020 Orvis Fly Fishing catalogue or the pages of most fly fishing magazines (shoutout to “The FlyFish Journal” for featuring Alvin in its latest issue), #brownfolksfishing is actually a thing (follow them on Instagram to learn more). And, if in my privilege and complacency I haven’t made the effort to meet or include more of those anglers, shame on me. Shame on me.

Here’s why I think it’s important for me to look for opportunities to expand my circle, and to celebrate anglers who don’t look like me or perhaps share my cultural or religious background: for people to feel welcomed and safe in a particular environment — for any of us — it helps to see other folks who look like us or share a background or a culture. (Don’t believe me? Here’s a thought experiment: you, average white dude, walk past a park where a pickup basketball game is just starting. All the players are Black guys. Do you feel comfortable joining the game? Why, or why not?)

Actively seeking to be more inclusive in a pastime like fly fishing isn’t going to change the world (it’s just fishing, after all), but it might change one person’s life. And it might change my life, too, hearing perspectives and experiences different from my own. And maybe those effects ripple and spread out to other areas of life.

This isn’t diversity for the sake of diversity. It’s not about earning a gold star or being “woke.” It’s about being human and the fact that all of us – every single person on earth – are, quite literally, family. Geneticists now know that we all share a common ancestor – that all 7.8 billion of us descend from a Mitochondrial Eve in Africa (there was a chromosomal Adam, too, and likely a most recent common ancestor who lived after both of them), and in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t all that long ago.

We take care of family, don’t we? And there are lots of ways to do that, but one that is in my lane is reaching out, making myself vulnerable, forming new relationships and strengthening old ones, and welcoming and celebrating people of color in this silly pastime that sometimes becomes something much more important.

If you don’t find the biological argument persuasive, you could look at the problem through the lens of religion. What the faith tradition I am most familiar with has to say about these things can be summed up in the “Works of Mercy,” based on the words of Jesus in Matthew 25 and more generally in the second part of the Great Commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Catholics believe that works of mercy are both a means of grace and works of justice that please God. Justice. There are 28 verses in the Hebrew scriptures that use that word. One highlighted this week by my cousin Eric, who is the father of a young man of color, seems profoundly apt for this season: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).

The Christian understanding is informed by the belief that every single person possesses inherent dignity, rooted in his or her creation in the image and likeness of God. Or, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire:”

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Christ — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Remembering this, and acting as if it is true, is relatively easy for me when it comes to pleasant people, to beautiful people, to people I admire and respect and people I already know and love. It’s a lot harder when it comes to everyone else (including the guy I see in the mirror).

But I’m going to make it a priority. It’s one thing I can do. It doesn’t feel like enough, and I’m pretty sure it’s not the only thing I can do and I’m still working through those questions – Alvin’s and Jason’s – and I hope I come up with a more immediate and actionable answer. Or additional answers. If I do, I’ll let you know. And if you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them.

What happened in Minneapolis last week is, unlike the SARS-CoV-2, not novel. It’s an old story, repeated too many times in this nation that so often falls far short of its best aspirations and promise. The response to that horror, though, may be an inflection point. It might just be the start of something new, something that takes root and grows into a kinder, more humane, more just society.

When my oldest son, Patrick, was a pre-schooler, he proudly declared that when he grew up he was going to be “brown like daddy” (it must have been the end of summer, or something, if he thought I was “brown.”) He further declared that when he got even older, he was going to be “dark brown” like Maj. Gen. Danny James. I explored that progression with him, and it turned-out that he had worked out that as humans aged, their skin tone darkened. He was bitterly disappointed when I gently explained that’s not how it works.

I’m disappointed, too. When I was a boy I fantasized about becoming a sharp-dressed, wise old Black man. With a harmonica. Four decades on, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. But there is, I think, still time. Time to honor the innocence of a middle-class, Texas-raised white kid who thought being Black would be cool. Time to find that (actual) Black man with the harmonica, put a fly rod in his hand (or not), and become worthy of his friendship.

A fly angler’s paradise

Aaron Reed

Aaron Reed

Aaron Reed is an award-winning outdoor writer and Army veteran. He currently splits his time between his native Texas Gulf coast, where he drives a tugboat, and his home near the San Gabriel River in Georgetown, Texas. He is a founding member of the Texas Streams Coalition and has worked for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. In 2020, he was awarded the prestigious FFI Roderick Haig-Brown Award. When he is not working, chances are you can find him knee-deep in a stream somewhere around Austin, often with his wife and one or more of his three boys, trying like heck to become a better fly fisherman. His stories and photos have appeared in Southwest Fly Fishing, This is Fly, Kayak Angler, Texas Outdoors Journal, Texas Sporting Journal, Texas Fish & Game, Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine, Lone Star Outdoor News, Austin American-Statesman, Austin Business Journal, the Taylor Press, Soldiers magazine, Leatherneck magazine, Liguorian magazine, The Washington Times, and elsewhere.

8 thoughts to “What’ve I done to help?”

  1. Thank you Aaron for putting your thoughts down and sharing this with our community in such a sincere and vulnerable way.

    1. Thanks for leading the way, Edgar, and for being such a generous contributor to our community over the past five years.

  2. Good words. I grew up on n a small shrimping town where the population was 98% Hispanic, and I went to public schools. I experienced being othered, but my best friend, to this day, Rey Nunez, always took the sting out, because we were like brothers. I can’t even imagine the hopeless feeling of being a black man in this country, in a system where everyone immediately deigns you a criminal, and a dangerous one at that. One way white people can be part of the change is to be genuine friends with people of color. But PDs across this country need to fix themselves, from small town constables clear to on up to the Federal agencies.

    1. I agree, Ben, and I’ve also had very brief and disconcerting experiences of being the only “white” face in a room or at an event. It was scary and disconcerting and that tells me I have work to do. It was also the kindness of just one or two individuals that made it okay, in those moments

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