What in the world are we going to tell ourselves about this time? What are we going to tell our kids? Is this the first time your beloved scribe has ever asked this question?
It’s amazing how fast things can change, even for those who’d like to think they saw a lot of this coming. The most terrifying thing was watching it all unfold in real time, the slow creeping erosion of not only institutional norms but norms of humanity. It’s the departure from institutional norms that first jarred me, a once third grade kid who learned all the presidents in order with the help of a placemat. Sure there are the zany facts: Who was president from only Feb to April of 1841? Or the custom bathtub brought in for William Howard Taft, who always felt more comfortable in the court room than in the White House. But then there are the deeper lessons, like how Roosevelt and Hoover hated each other but in the end shared a car and a blanket on a cold Inauguration Day in 1933. Or how Roosevelt himself navigated an unimaginable physical setback to find new meaning in life, lifting up others along the way.
In the Fall of 2016, when I heard then candidate 45 say he might not accept the results of the election, my alarm bells immediately went off. This was not normal, nor was it something we could just quickly brush off. What was required was sustained indignation and sustained rejection, which might not be what most of us are accustomed to doing. But the Election of 1800, when power was peacefully transferred from the Federalist party to the Democratic-Republicans, is vital history for a reason. For all the talk of tradition and customs, not enough of us know the things that make this country special.
But it’s not enough just to know history. It’s also necessary to have an imagination and not think America is exempt from the same forces known in all people and across all time. For the past four years and certainly the last six months, I’ve been doing the Chicken Little cry to my parents, who are far from naive about despotism. My father grew up during the Nigerian military juntas of the 1960s and 1970s, sneaking out to see the mighty Fela Kuta perform at the Shrine, speaking truth to power through intoxicating funk. My mother, meanwhile, grew up on a sharecropping farm in Mississippi in the dark days of Jim Crow in the 1950s before heading north in the Great Migration with her pioneering mother. And while my mother has been around the world, she’s never returned to her native Mississippi. How could it be that I was far more concerned than they were?
I will say that the older I get the more human my parents become. There are times when they still advocate for me in ways that can only be blamed on unconditional love. But this was one of the times I needed to go to bat for them so that I could make good on what they started, beating back forces that maybe even they sometimes thought they left behind.
For a while now, I’ve been trying to to get a new definition for respectability politics out into the world. Respectability is so much deeper than the surface level apparent pragmatism of saying “no sir” and “yes sir” to the cops but actually ossifies as virtue. The calculus is that you somehow believe you can outperform a society that is misbehaving under white supremacy. But I also have a bone to pick with those who excessively rail against respectability politics, some of whom also need to more deeply understand history rather than assume they’re the first black Americans in history to levy this critique. The New Negro of 1918 rises to give their vital testimony.
End of the day, people are just trying to do the best they can and believe they have agency, just as our ancestors were. And whether you are a respectability believer or allegedly woke, all marginalized people deal with the same tricky sprite who tells all of us that we are in our station because of a unique moral failing. This animates respectability politics and also, paradoxically, those who rail against respectability politics.
Don’t believe me? Look under the hood of some of those well-meaning proverbs of self-empowerment: “Not all skinfolk are kinfolk” serves as part admonition, as in “don’t assume that brother down the hall didn’t vote for 45”, and part lamentation that we are not more united, “O, if only that that brother down the hall didn’t vote for 45!” And so we cry out and self-flagellate, even though the bulk of black folk never voted for that man and our intuition and moral clarity, never mind our collective action like down in Georgia, should be lauded from the mountaintops.
It’s also why the quote “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves,” words Harriet Tubman likely never uttered, gets bandied about on black twitter every day. Once again, yes there’s an important message about the value of unity and empowerment being expressed here. But if you still don’t know deep down that millions of enslaved Africans on slave ships turned Black Americans resisted in many ways small and large, subtle and profound, a part of you is still being seduced by, yes, the notion of a unique moral failing — the real and ultimate respectability delusion.
People will make these arguments, while a simultaneously being the first to rightly point out that other Americans, so believing in whiteness, have been going against their (class) interests since Bacon’s Rebellion in the 1670s.
These last four years have required me to revise my own respectability delusions. When I was younger, I dealt with debilitating anxiety. At one peak, in high school, I turned entirely inward, spending hours on end on toxic racist message boards. Sure, maybe it improved my writing, ability to debate, and even fostered some race pride, but it also started to make me feel like I living in a hostile world. Still, I developed a reputation and what I thought was respect on these boards. Until one day some user told me that every lynched black soul must have done something wrong otherwise, by definition, they would not have been lynched.
This experience and others have helped me understand the limits of appealing to reason and rationality. These are but one of the many things that animate, and thus persuade, human beings. Are not these irrational past 1460 days proof of that?
During another period of (albeit pandemic-enforced) isolation, I find myself on Twitter, reading and occasionally replying to anti-maskers in the comments of the daily Los Angeles Public Health coronavirus update. When it appeared we had flattened the curve in the summer, these users were spouting off insights like “it’s no worse than the flu” and demanding a full reopening. And in our darkest days as we’ve become the nation’s epicenter, those comments are still going strong.
I recall one particular not so-Socratic dialogue. Someone said for pretty much anyone under 50, coronavirus is harmless. Like a well-armed militiaman, I already had a tweet at the ready noting that young people were more likely to have long COVID — that is to say a prolonged period of chronic symptoms after even an initial mild bout — than older folks were to die from it. And do you know what came in reply?! Why, what they always say: “Dude, it has a 99 percent survival rate. Relax.”
Then we move on to the rag tag clan that descended upon the nation’s Capitol and came out unscathed, when I was treated worse for reporting my stolen bike to the campus police during undergrad. Still, I just knew that there’d be hell to pay for penetrating into the nation’s heart, putting even the then Republican VP’s life in danger. You’d expect at least a modest pause to think about how far we’d descended in just a short time. But no. Many spoke in such a mealy mouthed and elliptical fashion about what happened, and the naked forces behind it, only to immediately pivot to reconciliation and unity without even an iota of accountability.
In a way, these dishonest tangos brought me back to what I largely thought was a unique dynamic in which only the grandsons and granddaughters of slaves found themselves ensnared. “But if he wasn’t resisting, he wouldn’t have been shot,” or so the cliched dialogue goes. Or “how do you know it was really about race?” But as it turns out, American racism is not the only arena where human beings self-delude. We play dumb about our own mortality, doubling down on risky activity rather than eschewing it. We spin an anti-mask protest at an Apple Store into our own Custer’s Last Stand, all the while averting our eyes when the fragility of our democracy and so-called exceptionalism is laid bare.
This morning, I woke up appreciative of the traditions and civic minutia that too many of us have taken for granted. As a student of history, I’m certain that the dark forces that propelled the past few years will not magically disappear. This cannot be wished away and after the needed celebrations are over, it’s time to take a full accounting, on an individual level, in our communities, and in our nation. And while we can start with the former occupant of the White House and his co-conspirators, it also requires on the ground reckonings. Because what I saw at the top was also something I also saw on all fronts. I’m not sure who said “It is what it is” about coronavirus first, my neighbor or that man at the podium. It was a bizarre symbiosis which created not a healthy biome but a human centipede.
Remember when the man we called 45 rose from Walter Reed, and did his bootleg autocratic helicopter tour through the DMV before returning to the White House. Notice the images and cast of characters that were not part of this movie. Why did we not require the shot returning to the worried and loving arms of his wife and kids? Why did we never require that man to speak to the loss of 400,000+ Americans in a normal way? How did we allow such a man into the people’s house, who could never understand what even FDR and Hoover, Obama and Bush, Adams and Jefferson, could all agree upon?
Reconstruction is my favorite period of American history. Often people focus on the betrayal aspect, and the giving way to Jim Crow. But I do believe there was another path forward then, as there is now. The paradox of that period is that two things were going on at once. As the nation’s first black statesmen took office and the recently emancipated cast their votes, America’s original domestic terrorists began their plot against progress. Yesterday is now today. And once the glorious celebrations of today are over, we need to face the fact that history can still bend either way. And once the glorious celebrations of today are over, we need to bend them the right way…towards justice.