I don’t know. I just don’t know. How many times have you heard this? How many times have you said it yourself? I would be lying to you if I said I haven’t thought it. If I said I haven’t spoken the words aloud.
I don’t think anyone who is confused, who is hurt or betrayed, who is frightened, who is aware that literally everything seems to have changed… I don’t think anyone can be faulted for just not knowing. It seems like things are spinning a little madly, a little out of control.
Anyone reading this post near the time of its writing knows exactly what I’m talking about, but they tell me that once something is on the internet it never goes away, so maybe someday in the distant future, (when the only thing baffling about everything that is confusing us today… is that we were perplexed at all), some background may be necessary. In recognition of my own limited storytelling abilities and in the name of brevity I’ve put together this summary for the readers of the future:
There was this country founded upon the backs of kidnapped Africans…
It is an unforgivable story that begins over 150 years before the creation of the United States of America.
Then a president was elected who strummed a dark chord the resonated with this long history of racism…
He wasn’t the first president that had a personal history of racism, but he certainly came along at just about the worst possible time, re-empowering people from whom power had rightly been removed.
Next, there was this virus…
Its story is still being written, but here is a link to a timeline of the outbreak turned pandemic. The changes it’s brought to the planet already have in many way rendered it unrecognizable.
And then, in the midst of that madness, an African-American man named George Floyd was murdered by a white cop…
As much as it pains me to admit, it is far from the first time it’s happened.
And so here we are
And this is us, trying to make some sort of sense of ALL of this. A phrase that is currently trending is “returning to the way things were.” It is not uncommon during a period of tumultuous change to long for the old, familiar, and presumably much better times. It has happened before in my life.
Anyone alive in 1973 will remember it was also a time of great unrest in the United States. We had this president named Richard Nixon. We might have had him as president in 1960 if not for his tendency to sweat under television lights. Along with many other more tangible differences, Nixon’s sweaty upper lip convinced many voters in 1960 that the less sweaty guy was the better choice. But in ’73 he was, God help us, in his second term as president, embroiled in a great national scandal and was, one would have to believe, sweating all the time.
In that same year a movie was released by filmmaker George Lucas that sought to look back at a period of innocence, while at the same time recognizing that even our fond nostalgic memories were birthed in an era that wasn’t truly innocent at all, (because no time ever truly is). Although the film has far more depth than for which it’s credited, it was without question significant for ushering in a period of intense wistfulness and sentimentality for the images and sounds of the 1950s and early 1960s. I was just entering high school at the time and remember being exposed to so much great music and I remember the day during Spirit Week that we called “Greaser Day” which, I suppose is as good a way to characterize the time period as any other and is definitely representative of how we paid our personal homage.
You can take a look at this actual page from my actual yearbook. This is the 1975 edition, my freshman year. American Graffiti, and that great nostalgia that it both represented and created, was still a thing. The torch, by this time had been taken up by the TV show Happy Days. It is that show that we have to thank for the thumbs-up gesture.
And while such a movement toward looking to the past hasn’t really had time to develop into mainstream art just yet, (and indeed can’t during the age of covid), the idea of returning to the old ways is comforting now just as it was during the days of Viet Nam and Watergate.
Last year at this time I was already enjoying the warm weather. Our family was in full good-weather birthday cluster mode, and we’d already gotten everyone together for numerous cookouts. It would be wonderful to do that now. I’d love to raise a beer with each of you, face to face.
But this is a new world…
It’s new in many different ways. I’m referring to far more than the post-pandemic landscape. The danger of nostalgia is that it tends to airbrush all the unpleasant aspects of the time we’re pining for. It might make us feel a little better, but it won’t really make things better.
Because everything thing that is scaring us now, everything that’s not like it was before, you know, when we were all happy, is stuff that needed to be fixed then.
Of all the links I shared with you at the top of this post, the one that matters the most is the ones showing the first pandemic. If we’re going to be grammatically correct we need to recognize that this disease is now endemic, and has in fact been so for some time.
I am not minimizing the horror of the corona pandemic, nor will I ever. We’ve lost in excess of one hundred thousand human lives in my country alone. World wide the total is nearly four hundred thousand. The people who have had the virus and survived know first hand how incredibly terrible it is. It has cut this swath across the planet in mere months.
But George Floyd died of a disease that dates back much further. It was not a disease that George carried. It was a disease of our entire culture. It started in 1619 when the first shipment of kidnapped Africans arrived in the new colonies. It has led to more death, more degradation, more words of flaming hatred than anything else in the same time period. And the most frightening thing about it, and I am speaking as an adult white male, is that we are constantly exhibiting our deeply ingrained racist training without even realizing. And every uncaptive racist thought firms up the foundation on which to build the next layer and the next and so on until a cop actually feels justified in keeping his weight focused on the neck of another human being for over eight minutes. For a case of mistaken identity. For a non-crime.
If I am standing in front of every one of you today, and I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror I’m going to have to do two things. One is get a lot better looking. The other is to admit this:
Now is the time
Now is the perfect time. Now, in the midst of chaos, literal, utter chaos, we have the opportunity to begin the change that is, ultimately, our only hope. We can start to dig down into the roots and scrape down to the foundation and we can start to replace the rot with something that will last. Something worthy of being a new foundation.
For me, this is going to begin by looking at myself, at my behaviors and my thoughts. It will mean shutting up and listening. A good friend recommended some books to read (you can find a link to her post on my Facebook Page to see the full list, as well as several other thoughts including a great resource, which I’ll also share below.) The title that called out to me was How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Keni. I’m going to begin reading it as soon as I post this. Because my heart tells me I need to do the work.
And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.
So… what next?
Let’s take this serious. Let’s not miss this opportunity. Now that you recognize the need for change, find ways to support the people who are out there making it. The best summary of places to turn if you’re ready to start making a difference I have also stolen from my friend’s blog post, pointing you to a friend of hers. Please take a moment, or even a couple of moments to watch the story play through and make note of the resources.
I guess it comes down to understanding the need for change, honest change that starts with the face in the mirror, and then deciding that nothing short of eradicating the murder of black Americans at the hands of their countrymen, nothing less than reversing our centuries-old ways of thinking, nothing less than true change is acceptable.
Then we get to work.
Let’s get to work.