In the past few years, I’ve been rereading much of the writings from the civil rights era in the US. Familiar names like Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis along with the works of James Baldwin, Angela Davis and Malcom X and histories detailing the lives of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers have featured amongst my reading lists.
It’s crazy how relevant those works are today despite being 50 or more years old. Many of these writings could have just as easily been written today. We still need to make further progress vis-à-vis racial equality, basic rights and justice, particularly in making right generations and centuries of oppression and injustice along with a fair amount of racial violence.
Granting further for others does not intimidate me nor leave me fearful that my own rights will be somehow diminished or limited. More rights for you means I will not enjoy a benefit or privilege based simply on my race or class or standing granted by birth within a particular category. Understanding my own privileges helps me understand what systemic changes are necessary in order to achieve equity and in order to right historical wrongs, whether perpetrated by myself or my ancestors. Generational pain is real and persistent. Understanding that helps me do better and helps my communities become more inclusive and more just.
I’m thankful for a new generation of writers like Ta-nehisi Coates and Ibram X Kendi and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m enormously grateful to the many writers and activists who share their histories and their guidance on how we can be better allies and antiracists.
But, I’d be even happier if such works highlighting our need to continually work towards a more just society were unnecessary.
Two minutes in to this book, I said to my husband, ‘This should be required reading for every single person in the United States.’
Two minutes later, I amended that absolutely everyone. Everywhere.
The last two-plus years have been a surreal nightmare for anyone longing for a just, fact- or evidence-based world, ruled by democratic principles or adherent and respectful to the rule of law. We should have understood how fragile our democracies were. We should have known how easy it is for the likes of the Trumps and the Farages of the world to rile up racist, classist, xenophobic, misogynistic sentiments.
We should not be surprised by how quickly this all becomes the new normal. It’s all intended to exhaust us and wear us down. And, I fear it’s working a little too well.
I lived in Moscow as the keys to the kingdom passed from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin. And, I watched as the masses ignored his assault on the budding free press and democratic infancy of the post-Soviet era that favoured rampant oligarchy and corruption and as Putin crushed any sort of dissent or criticism. In a world run by those with the most power, it mattered not that one of the wealthiest individuals on the planet criticised Putin. He lost and ended up behind bars and silenced, because he pissed of Putin. I watched in horror as Russians declared their love for the man with the stone-cold stare who craved power above all. And, he still does.
Everyone–everyone—needs to read this book. And, keep it close to them as we watch the shit storm in the US primarily but elsewhere continue. And, everyone must understand that we are teetering awfully close to full-on, full-scale tyranny.
I’ll be reading this book again and again and again.
I will never know what it is like to live as a black man or woman in today’s America. And, I can’t imagine raising a black child, particularly a young black man, in the US. All I can do is image the reality of knowing that they may not come home any time they leave.
Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ long letter to his son, I can understand the pain of history and helplessness that accompanies current events a little bit better.
Coates is very quickly becoming one of my favourite writers on contemporary issues in the US. His perspective alone equally intrigues and compels me. His writing blows me away. Through it, I can feel his anguish and uncertainty and anger, and share those sentiments. I also feel more than a little shame for being a part of a system that values him less than me simply by virtue of our individual histories. I am privileged because I am white and solidly middle class, as well as for growing up in a suburban utopia that never knew the dangers of simply stepping outside whilst black.
I sat down to read a part of this book; I ended up finishing it in a single sitting.
Everyone, and I do mean everyone, should read this book. Not once, but multiple times. If we ever hope to move beyond the existing divisions and racial inequity that surrounds us all, we need to understand the experiences of those like Coates. It will make us squirm with discomfort and shame by actions which I imagine we in our privilege never think of twice. And, it should.
But, by understanding such perspectives a little better, we can also understand why so many feel compelled to take a knee or protest yet another white cop escaping justice for killing another unarmed black man.
I saw ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ during its only showing in Helsinki a few months ago at a film festival. I knew it would be a powerful documentary and commentary on race in America, both historically during the civil rights era and given contemporary events. I had no idea I’d still be so affected by some of those words and images today.
Given current happenings in the US, and specifically the events of this past weekend in Charlottesville, I keep returning to various scenes from the film and the eloquent anger and pain carried through Baldwin’s words, whether calmly spoken and delivered by himself decades ago or narrated by Samuel L Jackson. Medgar, Malcom and Martin were silenced, but Baldwin almost seems alive in the theatre or in the words printed in this book. I can only image how incredibly powerful his planned book would have been. In its absence, I’m grateful to at least have ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, along with all of his other works.
In a fevered state this afternoon, I came across this excerpt, and it seems so appropriate in this moment:
‘You never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’
Nothing can be changed until it is faced.
Nearly 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr was shot and killed, we appear to have regressed in our attempts in the US to face the brutal reality in the history of our nation. Until we face that reality—openly and honestly and completely—how many more Charlottesvilles will we witness?