Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
—T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Each year, about this time, balloons are blown, champagnes corked, and songs sung—invariably, as well, members of the Old Guard linking arms with a few from the New Guard, and trotting down many a Southern Street, bleating chants of “We Shall Overcome,” to commemorate the history of a people who, after four centuries of a most brutal excursion, have, alas!, very little to show for “progress” and “advancement.”
Organizations lease out their finest to colleges across the country, and young leaders-of-tomorrow listen with peak attention, at standing room-only forums, as cheerful speakers drone on about how a petite, light-skinned woman sat against orders, a broad-shouldered dark-skinned man marched tireless miles, and the doors of opportunity flung open, the gates of Jim Crow closed, and the golden road of economic ascension was paved anew for a people who, even after four centuries of a most brutal excursion, were finally beginning to come into their own—much thanks to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and countless other Affirmative Action amendments sneaked into legislation, without which the “credits” of the Race could never sip coffee with White peers at lunch counters, or pound the screens of Diebold voting machines, or walk into public schools without a dimwitted governor and his military minions lined against the entrance, daring a group of nine colored school kids to advance.
Yes, the stories still hold their thrill—and, as Gore Vidal would insist, an amnesiac society cannot be counted on to recall, of own self-will, the immoral legacies it once championed so publicly—but if by now, Governor Barbour aside, the facts of history aren’t yet mastered, and elementary school kids don’t already know content of character trumps color of skin, probability suggests a fatal outcome. And since the copyright owners of the Civil Rights Movement have, within the past couple of years, decided to include the new emperor as fettered to the legacy of a man who once railed against spiritually dead societies which treat human beings as things, it might be time to stop the charade before irreparable harm is dealt.
“Miss Kathryn, I don’t understand this question. It says, Which leader, out of the four options, had the greatest impact during the Civil Rights Movement: a) Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. b) Rosa Parks c) Bill Clinton d) Barack Obama?”
“Well, what’s the problem, Michelle?”
“Um, I don’t think the last two—”
“Go with C—he’s my favorite!”
I propose, with humility, a new way forward—from this day onward, let February tinker less with cartoonic facts, and deal candidly instead with the world as it stands today for a people who, after four centuries of a most brutal excursion, now find themselves trapped in a society hostile to their very existence.
Their kids attend schools where metal detectors and body scanners block the entrance, waiting to dehumanize all comers. Upon surrendering belts, emptying book bags, untying shoelaces, and widening their mouths for inspection, they troop through hallways swarmed with state agents, and somehow find solid will and courage to keep their feet moving into unventilated classrooms where technicians have trouble finding broken pieces of chalk for the day’s lesson.
Schools where I learned, they should be burned: it is poison—Nas, “What Goes Around.”
If a snarky kid mouths off too sharply, the agents are alerted with a button’s push—and into the van, with handcuffed hands, perhaps a broken bone or two, the kid is led to a precinct where felony charges are slapped on like the wrists of their fairer counterparts, miles away on the other side of town, for same infractions.
Should they come home daily with the look of death upon their faces, consequences can be dire, for all worthy parents would pass through furnaces to see their kids justly treated. Ask Kelley Williams-Bolar, 40, single-mother of two, 12 and 16, whose low-income kids, four years ago, switched to an upscale Ohio public school district, using her father’s address from a township nearby. Soon as the district sniffed a rat, PIs began tailing her, and with revenge in its eyes, against this woman who had “defrauded” the school of $35,000, a jury took seven hours to convict her of tampering with court records—her father: fourth-degree felony, grand theft—temporarily nullifying any chances of her becoming a teacher, 12 credit-hours shy. “Because of the felony convictions, you will not be allowed to get your teaching degree under Ohio law as it stands today,” the judge roared, before dismissing her to begin a 10-day prison and three-year probation sentence.
“The apprehension of life … has been the experience of generations of Negroes, and it helps to explain how they have endured and how they have been able to produce children of kindergarten age who can walk through mobs to get to school.”—Baldwin, The Fire Next Time.
Their schools are dilapidated warehouses with under-staffed faculties and under-funded programs, and the new Civil Rights martyr can only muster that they put down video games and quit eating Popeyes and attend school more often. (Reagan could have said much better.) Their neighborhoods, mostly, offer the safety and serenity of war zones, and the shining prince is comfortable looking the other way, too occupied with the GE and Goldman executives dropping by for monopoly sessions. Their fathers, mothers, uncles and aunts, roam the streets in search of jobs, and come back nihilistic as ever. Their grandparents pick up the phone, and the blaring voice is of a bill collector, threatening to flip the earth upside down, should payment arrive a day late.
Meanwhile, most of their brain-dead male entertainers find greater fulfillment in the height of the rims on their tires, and the count of carats in their watches, and the dozens of disposable females by their side. Their female entertainers—but for a few, the lot is stocked with confused, violated, careless creatures predisposed to the self-denigrating fad of the day.
Their leaders—the one, two, or three whose jackets remain uncorrupted by the logos of McDonald’s or Chase, Home Depot or Wal-Mart—have been silenced so strongly by corporate press, their voices cannot carry with the same echo once heard when King or X or Height or Simone or Evers or Jackson or Newton or Baldwin or Rustin or Belafonte stepped up to a lectern to sound off against injustice with candor and certainty.
All movements in their support today seem to take place electronically, on walls and in nests—where 140 characters are deployed to address centuries-long grievances and conditions.
Four hundred years, it seems, have produced a reality too bitter for most to swallow, and history, unlike reality, stands amenable—Photoshop willing: a trim here, a tint here, and a crop there can rewrite stories of fervid resistance into titillating carnivals.
This time we can save the balloons, champagnes, chants and songs, and deal with the tens of millions whose lives remain stranded at the entrance doors of decrepit public schools, stuck at the long rows of unemployment benefit lines, and behind the rusty iron bars of state penitentiaries.
Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic currently living in Michigan. He can be reached at: [email protected]