I didn’t always know that black people had such a fraught relationship to the United States. When I was really little, it was simply my home country. A place to which I was proud to belong.
I never questioned that belonging, either. I learned–like most Gen-Xers–the Pledge of Allegiance before I even knew the definition of the word “allegiance”–I had to be three or four–and the words to “America, the Beautiful” before I understood that the country stretched far beyond the city of Cleveland to the east, south, and west.
I was a very blessed, very sheltered little black girl. I lived in a decent-enough neighborhood with my parents, who made decent-enough money to keep us decently enough.
My neighbors were all black like me. My classmates were all black like me. And even though my teachers were largely white, they were actually quite caring and nurturing. I didn’t attach any significance to the difference in our skin color, or have any concept of “racial identity” that arose from an experience of racial prejudice or hatred, until I was 11-years-old.
My fifth grade social studies teacher can be thanked for introducing the concept of blackness to me. Oddly enough. She was an older white woman that had tired of wrangling pubescent kids long before I landed in her classroom. To make her job bearable until she was able to retire, she eschewed with all the lecturing, and she showed us videos.
One of them–“Eyes on the Prize”–changed me irrevocably.
“Eyes on the Prize” is a 14-hour television documentary series produced by PBS, which painstakingly documents the Civil Rights Movement in America from 1954-1985.
Before I watched it, I had only a vague notion of my people’s history in this country.
I knew that we had been slaves, but I didn’t understand the exigencies of chattel slavery or inescapability of its implications. I naively thought that whatever worldview that had allowed the masters to buy, own, and beat my ancestors died with them, and I was thankful that I hadn’t been born a slave and never would be a slave.
I knew that blacks had struggled to gain legitimacy as citizens after emancipation, but I didn’t know about Jim Crow beyond the clichéd photos in my history texts of “Whites Only” signs on water fountains. I didn’t know about the decades of terrorism to which black people were subjected during Reconstruction and Jim Crow. I didn’t know about lynching. I didn’t know what had happened to Emmett Till or four girls that were murdered in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, who looked so much like sixth grade me.
I learned about Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair from “Eyes on the Prize.” I gained an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement. I also experienced one of the most painful realizations of my life through that learning process.
I realized that America did not want me. It had wanted the labor of my ancestors long ago, to build itself up, when it could have that labor for free and procure it through violence, but it did not want the descendants of slaves as citizens, and it did not want to treat us with the regard and respect due our legacy.
America hated me, and the even worse irony of that fact is it hated me for being free.
At the same time that this idea was implanted in my mind, though, so was another one. A counterbalance.
The idea that one day America would realize how mistaken it is about my people and welcome us to the proverbial table as citizens–
(if we are to hold to the tired symbol of American citizenship as a table to which white people can choose to welcome or from which they can dismiss Others–the American Indians, for example–Happy Thanksgiving, by the way).
I learned–and here it finally is–to anticipate the moment when America would somehow halt in all its racist lunacy and embrace black people as it rightfully should.
And I have done that. I have anticipated full, unequivocal acceptance into America as an American black person for thirty steadfast years.
Now, though, my hope is flagging, and I don’t think I have to explain in another detailed narrative why that is.
Anticipation can be life-giving, but it can also be crazy-making. Looking for something to happen that may never happen can provide you with years of hope, but it can also eventually fill you with bitterness and rage.
I am not bitter at having believed for so much of my life that America is a better place than it is. It allowed me to feel good about being an American and to feel somewhat safe existing here.
After this Presidential election, though, I don’t feel good about it anymore, and I don’t feel safe here anymore, either.
I can’t dredge up enough evidence to hope that things will get better when politics seem to be teleporting us backward, to the horrific times depicted in the earliest videos of “Eyes on the Prize.”
Sadly, what I anticipate happening to America now–and I admit that I do have a vivid imagination–as a writer and movie buff–is a devolution into some sick effigy of Nazi Germany, in which all people, outside of cisnormative, heteronormative whites of European descent, are openly persecuted if not “cleansed” from the proverbial fabric of the country altogether.
I wish I could anticipate a movement in which all of us that are not supported in Trump’s vision come together and fight for the America we deserve.
I wish I could anticipate the politicians that claim to be our champions taking bold action and saving the country rather than their own vain, cosseted faces for once.
I wish I could anticipate this entire experience ending like a nightmare that we have all somehow shared–as we might in a cheesy dystopian Hollywood movie with really obvious, unscientific plot devices like mass induced dreams–but I can’t.
History teaches me that Americans can be brave, but only up to a point; they can push for positive change, but only up to a point; and they can embrace healthy newness, but only up to a point.
And sadly that is the point at which they have to completely break down the way they think about things like democracy (arduous process, not free gift), difference (negotiable complication, not fatal cancer), connectedness (fact, not fiction), decency (action verb, not abstract noun), and responsibility (wonderful opportunity, not dreadful burden) and act in accordance with brand new, soul stretching definitions.
I don’t know what will happen in the weeks leading up to Trump’s slated inauguration. I know what I want. I know what I wish. Sadly, they don’t jibe with what I think will happen.
Anticipation of something revolutionary happening, like the emancipation of the slaves, to preserve this country in some workable semblance of its better self is mixed in with my other, darker emotions. The resentment. The anger. The fear.
But it’s just the faintest flicker of a flame.
I keep thinking of ways that I can feed it.