I didn’t intend to write anything today. I’ve been ensconced in a couple of different research projects that have taken up most of my waking hours of late. But the events of the past week have demanded that I lift my head up from researching the past and pay attention to the injustices of the present. I am a writer; the very least I can do is lend my voice to the concerns of the oppressed.
Words, right now, mean little. Spilled ink does not reverse spilled blood. No words can bring back George Floyd. None can now bring back Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, and so many others whose lives have been senselessly cut short. All I can think as I watch the news of the protests in Minneapolis, and the protests that have spread across the country, is that this has happened before, and that this will happen again.
And every time, the narrative becomes clouded. Violence mars the protest – doesn’t it always? – and storylines focus on that violence and the corresponding vandalism rather than the reasons for the protests. We seem to care more about the lighting of a fire than the extinguishing of a life. The injustice of racism is pushed to the margins. God forbid we take the time to write about meaningful and relevant issues when we could write about looters bastardizing a Target.
Racism. It’s always racism in this country. It’s become common parlance to call racism—and the system of slavery that entrenched it—America’s original sin. While Native Americans would rightly claim to be the first victims of European colonization in the Americas, the point is academic; racial othering and the injustices it breeds hold a powerful place in the history of the Americas.
America is a convoluted, complicated concept. When I lived abroad, I told people that Donald Trump was not representative of the United States. I still believe that. The ideals of the American experiment can be used for more productive ends than divisive hatemongering, pernicious xenophobia, and childish isolationism. We have done better; we can do better; we will do better.
The images of burning buildings, of a people so violated that they cannot take any more; the image of a white man kneeling over a black man like a hunter over his kill. That, sadly, is the United States. The country was in part built on the backs of enslaved black bodies. From its inception, the American republic proffered liberty to its people. Enslaved persons, Native Americans, and other outsider groups were not considered part of that people. The liberty espoused by the republic did not belong to them, for they were never viewed as part of the republic.
While laws have changed and social attitudes have undoubtedly improved over the decades, that original othering continues as a lodestar in the American story. To study American history is to study racism; the two are intimate dance partners, maliciously intertwined in imaginatively destructive ways.
No policy proscriptions can solve this problem. No new elections, no legal reform, no political movement can cut through the problem like Alexander’s blade through the Gordian Knot. A fundamental reform of social values is required. Is it even possible to separate the American experiment from the racism endemic to its creation?
I don’t know. My heart hurts right now. And if this is how I, a white man, feel, then I cannot imagine the pain, the suffering, and the fear that black Americans feel every moment of their lives.
Listen to them. Listen to their stories. Hear their words, and heed their actions. Because black voices matter. Black experiences matter. And, yes, Black Lives Matter.