“You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.” ~ Malcolm X.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” When you want to be a writer, or even an author, you aspire to create a killer first line, an opening sentence that will make the reader crave the full story. Where will it go from here? Charles Dickens was such an author. He started off as a journalist, then released fictional sketches in the weekly papers. We are all familiar with his ‘Christmas Carol’, a haunting tale in which a man is able to see his past and his future, if he does not change his ways. Other novels described the life of the working class poor, of children who worked for pickpockets and thieves, of the struggle against oppressive poverty. He was such a child, having to work in a factory when his father was sent to prison for bad debt. His Tale of Two Cities is set in London and France, before the French Revolution.
My mother’s version of that killer first line was ‘If it’s not one thing, it’s another’. Not quite as catchy, but apart from being an acceptance of life, of whatever fate throws at you, it could also be a call to stand up and be counted. If you’re not for it, you’re against it. These past few months, these strange times have brought home the contrasts. You’re either an essential worker or you’re not. You’re either working from home or you have no income. And now, with the reality faced by every person of color in this country every day, you are either outspoken for change or you are complicit, accepting the status quo.
It is easy to be incredulous, for those who live with the injustice, the imbalance, the two Americas, for those who are on the uneven end of the scale. It is incredible that white people can live in willful ignorance, turning a blind eye to the long history of racial injustice that begin with attempting to eradicate the original citizens, the First Nation People, the Native Americans. It is hard to believe that an educational system can be whitewashed (literally) to minimize the vicious cruelty of a system which stole people from their land to own them like animals and enslave them. It is implausible that adults can be so ill-informed that they fail to read about or understand that ‘emancipation’ did nothing to redress the injustices, to compensate for the generations of abuse and ill-treatment, did nothing to create a nation of equal rights and justice.
And so, those who are better informed, those who live under the continued propagation of a system which is not only biased against people of color but which actively destroys them, can be a little unsympathetic to the cries of ‘but we didn’t realize’, or ‘it’s only a few bad apples’. No, it is a silent consent, it is unconscionable, it is inhumane.
Thanks to technology and the ability of every citizen to be a photojournalist, those who would turn a blind eye have been forced to see the stark reality. The criminal justice system (in fact white America in general) has been permitted, time and time again, to be judge, jury and executioner of black and brown men time and time again. Whether it is well-armed private citizens or thugs in uniform, white men (and in some cases, white women armed with cell phones and their whiteness) have felt free to act with impunity to intimidate or even eradicate black lives. As if they don’t matter.
I have to confess that I had been growing ever more impatient. I had been foolish enough to hope that the election of an openly racist, misogynistic, crude man to the office of the Presidency would be enough to stir up a backlash among the majority of white people in this country. I could not imagine that educated, knowledgeable white folk could look beyond his flaws, his shortcomings, and believe that, well, how much harm could he do? Surely he would be good for their pockets, and for those ‘Real Americans’ (i.e. white) they won’t draw his ire.
I could not believe it would take this, the heinous, cruel disregard for the humanity of another human being, this public execution of a(nother) black man, to make John Public ignore the threat of the pandemic to gather in the streets and protest. One the one hand I finally feel hopeful, but on the other what took you so long? I read a posting this week from an average white woman in a Southern state, who took it upon herself to ask her black repair man and small business owner what life was like for him as a black man in the US. She was shocked and appalled by his stories, the every day harassment by police (why was he driving a work van, why did he have money and checks on a clipboard, why did he have packages in the back of his work van etc etc). The way he would still be called ‘boy’, the way he had to think about how he responded to situations, the way he was perceived as he walked into a store. I have to admit that at first I was shocked and appalled that the lady who was writing of this was so unaware, so ignorant that she needed to ask. That she had no idea. But then I realized that if we are to change anything it has to begin with acceptance.
They say a picture paints a thousand words, and a video appears to have started a revolution. The signs efficiently summarize the charges: ‘Silence is violence’; ‘No justice, no peace.’ It is up to all of us to make sure this moment does not become a flash card, yet another feature of the astounding 2020. It is up to all of us to educate ourselves about the reality of the lives of someone who looks different from us, who has a different experience of the American dream. Not only must we be vocal in demanding better of those who make the laws, who represent us, we must speak out against injustice everywhere.
These last two weeks have forced the citizens of the US to face the ugly truth, that the disease of racism still runs deep in this country. It has resulted in horrible death rates from Covid-19 among people of color. It has resulted in too many lost lives, whether through incarceration, substance abuse or execution. But the vision of people of every race marching through the streets despite acts of violence by the state sanctioned militarized forces, despite the continued need for social distancing brings hope. It is a reminder that (as I heard Cory Booker say the other day) ‘the power of the people is stronger than the person or people in power’. Once we unite, once we stop buying the story that things cannot change, we the people can create a more perfect union.
Charles Dickens’ first paragraph included the phrase “…it was the Spring of hope, it was the Winter of despair…” Let us hope that indeed we are waking up from a long, long winter, and that these green shoots are the signs we have been longing to see.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!