As a child of the Post-Civil Rights era, a certain narrative was taught to me. It went something like this.
Once upon a time, the United States of America had an issue with race. Africans were brought here as slaves and treated like property for 246 years. Northern abolitionists were greatly disturbed by slavery while Southerners stubbornly defended and perpetuated it. These differences led to the Civil War, in which the valiant forces of the Union would free the slaves and defeat the tyrannical Confederacy. The end of chattel slavery gave African-Americans their constitutional rights-well not really. After the Civil War the process of Reconstruction began and former slaves had equal rights-well not quite, as Reconstruction ended prematurely in 1877. Subsequent years saw the rise of Jim Crow, and freedmen and their children would continue to suffer as second-class citizens and victims of calculated terrorism. However America would get it right. Led by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, African-Americans would launch multiple non-violent protests and marches beginning in the 1950s. And though these years saw the brutal murder of Emmett Till, peaceful protesters set upon with water hoses and dogs by police officers,the bombings of Black churches throughout the South, the assassination of civil rights leaders and the kidnapping and murder of civil rights activists, in the end the American values of liberty and justice would prevail. Shamed into action, our country did the right thing. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act into law. And with the stroke of his pen a truly special and magical event occurred: all of the hatred and inequality disappeared. When the 1960s ended, so did our racial problem. The end.
With the passage of these landmark pieces of legislation, there was no need to sing “We Shall Overcome” anymore. We already had. There was no need to dream of an America where everyone was “judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin”;we’d arrived at that point. In January we’d always pay homage to the great Martin Luther Jr and his dream, and smugly pat ourselves on the back for listening to him. We were “post-Racial”.This is the narrative that I have known all my life. And though there have been tremors in my three decades of life in this country, I struggled to hold on to this narrative. I have now lost that struggle.
I now ask myself: how could I have ever been so naive? How could I have been such a Pollyanna? Why did I stubbornly believe such things, despite mounting evidence to the contrary? I have asked myself these questions repeatedly. The answer is simple: I wanted to. The alternative was too painful and disturbing for me to face. The very idea that the mentality of those who committed and/or condoned the horrible violence and oppression against my people was still in existence was too much to bear, so I denied it for as long as I could.
However my nation had a date with destiny, and the events that followed would make my continued denial impossible. On November 4th, 2008 we would elect Barack Obama as our 44th President. The backlash that ensued was the beginning of the end for me. Over the last four years I have watched in horror as the most vile, racist words and images returned with a vengeance. Once my shock subsided my heartbreak set in. This didn’t fit the post-racial/post-Civil Rights story. This wasn’t the America that I knew and loved. This was an America that I’d read about and heard my Grandma testify about. This was supposed to the America of the past yet here it was, spilling its’ noxious bile all over my present.
At this point the scales have fallen from my eyes. My image of America, along with my heart, has simply been shattered. Only time will tell whether my faith in her is to be wrecked as well.