The Greatest Generation

In 1998, journalist Tom Brokaw coined the term, “the greatest generation.” It was the title of his book on ordinary Americans who, during and after World War II, were such an important part of this country’s growth and success. Many celebrated his stories using words like courage, sacrifice, and honor to describe the individual valor and contributions of everyday people. While Brokaw’s book wasn’t only about veterans, World War II formed the core of his greatest generation.

For me, there’s another complement of “greatest generation” heroes.  War veteran isn’t their primary identity even though many may have had a connection to that or the previous war. In fact, the segregation of troops made them, and their children, even more aware of how America was failing Black people. My greatest generation are the 1950s and ‘60s unarmed, non-violent, marchers of the civil rights movement. Their enemy wasn’t tyranny from a foreign country, but oppression of Americans, by Americans, right here at home. They. too, are quite aptly described by the words, “courage, sacrifice, and honor.”

My greatest generation includes people like Carolyn Wilson (left in photo) and Dorothy Batson (right in photo), elders who I recently heard talk about their experiences in a little-known, but horrific event in Danville, Virginia — Bloody Monday, June 10, 1963. They had marched to the courthouse steps, protesting segregation and overall racial inequality. To break up the demonstration, police turned high volume water hoses on them. The power of the hoses knocked Ms. Batson down the steps. For the other marchers on the street, the aim and force of the water combined with the street’s incline pushed them down and under parked cars, adding to their injuries. Ms. Wilson and Ms. Batson told the audience that white bus drivers and garbage workers were deputized, armed with night sticks, and given the authority to beat them. Ms. Batson reminded the audience that, due to the norms of the time, women and girls didn’t wear pants then, only skirts and dresses, sharing how the gravel and concrete from the streets dug into their exposed legs as the water carried them along – a little told fact that adds to the physical pain suffered by female protestors. The small audience listening to them was transfixed as these women calmly told their story of actively participating in a movement to gain rights that America had promised to all, but only delivered to some.

As I, a Black woman, listened to them, I wondered if I could have done what they did. Could I have gone into a situation in which I knew I would most likely be harmed, possibly killed, to fight for my rights? Just as I started to think if I had the guts, Ms. Wilson reminded the audience that they weren’t courageous, just teens and young adults who probably viewed themselves unconsciously as invincible. Ms. Batson agreed that as a 20-year-old, she doesn’t remember being afraid, just tired of “not being treated as people.” Surely their age contributed to their decision to join the march, but it wasn’t bravado. It was bravery. They knew the members of the KKK in their town who met boldly and openly. They definitely knew there would be repercussions. That’s what makes their actions great – moving forward, marching even though armed haters lined the street, poised, and probably anxious, to attack.

Whenever Brokaw’s greatest generation is discussed, the commentator will say something like, “we’re losing over 350 of these heroes every day,” simply acknowledging their aging and life’s passage. Almost 60 years after it occurred, I happened to be in a room listening to Ms. Wilson and Ms. Batson tell of an incident I’d never heard of even though I grew up only 150 miles away. So many stories in your own town or very nearby are unknown. There are far too many unrecognized heroes or leaders whose role in the movement has been forgotten. Seek them out, learn their stories, and celebrate their leadership. There isn’t much time left.

For me, “the greatest generation” will always be those men, women and children who marched, were beaten, jailed and, sometimes, killed, so that I might have the rights I do today. As a country, we have much further to go to achieve racial justice, but I — we —  owe a huge debt to those who paved the way.

Out of sight, out of mind

When a problem isn’t constantly before you, directly impacting you, concern often ebbs. Sadly, it seems to happen regardless of the seriousness of the issue or your degree of previous commitment to address it. This is especially true when you don’t understand how you are impacted by the problem, a problem that, on the surface, seems to be someone else’s problem. That’s the situation as I see it with racial justice. Top of mind – always — for Black people. Out of sight, out of mind – often? typically? — for white people.

It looks like this is the year racial justice has again fallen off the social justice map. The May 2020 televised murder of George Floyd galvanized the country. Finally, many white Americans understood why the slogan, Black Lives Matter, had emerged as a rallying cry and they joined in the push for racial justice. For a minute, it seemed that Black lives did matter. It seemed that white people were understanding how racist narratives had shaped, or misshaped, their perception of the truth of America. They were digging deeply into a topic that many had only scratched the surface of before. Now, interest in learning about race and racism seems to have waned, as have many of the public efforts to fight for racial justice. Not only are states banning the accurate teaching of our country’s history, but books on our racial history and our current reality that once dominated the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list are no longer there. Training of staffs on racial equity has slowed as businesses, governments, and nonprofits seem to feel like either they’ve done it – checked that box — or other social justice concerns have popcorned to the top. Is it my imagination? Has the multi-racial moment/the movement ignited by the murder of George Floyd come to an end without fanfare and without much notice?

Black people live with the trauma and reality of racial inequity and injustice every day, never needing any reminders beyond day-to-day life. Many white people seem to need “punched in the gut,” horrific, visual moments for them to be jolted into racial awareness. Moments like Mamie Till Mobley’s raw despair as she grieved over her son, Emmett’s battered body; the national coverage of water hoses and snarling dogs attacking peaceful civil rights protestors in Alabama, or the plethora of cellphone videos of racially-charged incidents in a hotel lobby, a college dorm, a park, or just about anywhere. These incidents sparked momentary outrage and commitments to racial redress. The images, in 1955, 1963, the 2010s or 2020, got many off their sofas and into the streets to protest or into the voting booths to elect individuals committed to change. But the commitment, the passion, in white communities seems to be rarely sustained. I want to know how to change that.

Understanding and addressing racial injustice is not a one and done situation, not reading one book, or participating in one racial equity training, or voting one time for the “right” candidate. There must be lifelong learning and unlearning of years of messages, and then working, in many ways, big and small, for racial justice. I thought the heinousness of George Floyd’s murder, coupled with so many high visibility, recorded racial incidents, might be enough, but it doesn’t seem to be. While race and racial justice remain top of mind for Black people all the time; for white advocates, other issues seem to have pushed race and racial equity to the back of the proverbial bus.

Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility

Racial injustice cannot be recognized and understood only by Black people. White people must see this too if we are to have a racially just America. White people must believe that justice for Black people will enable justice for them as well.  White people hold the reins of power in America.  Just as women wouldn’t have gotten the vote without the commitment of men, Black people alone cannot overhaul all the policies, procedures, and practices that undergird racial inequity in America. Black people can identify issues/inequities. Black people can march, protest, and vote. Black people can define and humanize the impact, but Black people do not sit sufficiently in those positions that wield the power necessary to transform racist systems and institutions. White people, you must engage on this topic, not just in the moment of a hate crime like the recent ones in California and in Buffalo, but on an ongoing basis. Black people must not die to prove that America continues to be racially unjust. Black people must not die to prompt white people to act.  How do we sustain the commitment of the white community to work for racial justice? I really want to know. I need to know.

Racial prejudice hides in the oddest places

I love to travel. I was scheduled to go to Tanzania in Fall 2020, my fifth trip to Africa. I’ve been to Egypt, Senegal, Morocco, and South Africa. Something had always bothered me a bit about the Tanzania trip; but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then came the pandemic. The trip was cancelled. I wasn’t disappointed … not really.

As COVID restrictions lessened, friends asked if I planned to reschedule the Tanzania trip. I didn’t. I now know what had been missing all along. The trip to Tanzania had been largely about animals. I wanted to learn about the people, the culture.

Travel in many African countries is centered on animals. Visiting the Serengeti plains and viewing exotic animals was to have been the focus of my trip to Tanzania. I hadn’t sought that. In fact, I had already been on a safari in South Africa, but I’d never thought of that trip as a trip about animals. My friends and I had planned everything.  It wasn’t a tour package. We curated it ourselves. We learned about Nelson and Winnie Mandela, David Webster, Steve Biko and Bishop Tutu, the Zulus and the Xhosa, apartheid and the truth and reconciliation hearings – the people, not the animals, were at the core. The safari was just a small add on. But when Tanzania became the destination for my new traveling group, every trip package we examined, from multiple tour companies, focused on the Serengeti plains and what was often referred to as “Africa at its most primitive.”

If you’ve been to Africa or have started planning a trip there, did you notice that?

Primitive Africa. I am of an age when Africa, for many, was defined largely by Tarzan, a fictional white man raised since infancy by apes in the jungles of Africa. Movies and books about Tarzan only feature native Africans as servants carrying crates for white people exploring the jungles. The image of Africa has changed, somewhat, particularly with the fictional depiction of the fierce, sophisticated, and technologically advanced Kingdom of Wakanda in the 2018 movie, Black Panther. But even with this evolving image, is culture and civilization what comes to mind for you when you think of Africa? What is your image? What do you know about African countries? How did you learn it?

Our formal education about Africa remains very limited. I bet you that most well-educated Americans, whether of the age of Tarzan or of Wakanda, can tell you an awful lot about the political, social, and historical reality in western Europe. Western civilization. That’s the focus of textbooks used in schools,  the coverage of major world events in  newspapers, and what is reported on on televised news. Our education is Eurocentric. Our sense of other parts of the world is not driven by formal education, but by cursory classroom exposure or fictionalized presentations. Since that education happens so subtly and nominally about some places, we are often unaware of just how skewed and unbalanced an education we’re receiving.

COVID, while limiting my travel, offered me uninterrupted time to learn.  I watched, and you should too, the PBS series  Africa’s Great Civilizations. Over six hours, historian Henry Louis Gates introduced me to African civilizations and culture — art, history, accomplishments —  that I had glimpsed here and there but never taken the time to fully explore. This is what I had wanted in my Tanzania trip.

Even something as innocuous as travel is racialized. Vacation options continue to underscore Europe as a land of culture and contributions while presenting Africa as a land of beauty and majesty, majestic landscapes and beautiful animals, that is. For the African culture and contributions, sadly, with most tour companies, you still have to dig for those add-on experiences. Primitive, not cultured or civilized, continues to be the projected and marketed image of much of Africa.

Quick quiz:  There are 44 countries in Europe and 54 in Africa. How many on each continent can you name? For how many, do you know the name of the current leader?

What makes me hopeful

“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”                                         Nelson Mandela

When I learn more about the history of Black and brown people in America or am confronted by the latest racist act or inaction, I realize I am often in a space with just two emotions – anger and sadness. Anger and sadness that my people have faced such hardships and inhumanity. Anger that racism still thrives in America. Sadness that the will to achieve racial justice still seems to be embraced by so few.  When I realize I have these feelings, I make myself think about what gives me hope.

Richmond, VA activists for racial justice — Chelsea Higgs Wise, Jewel Gatling, Valerie Slater and Chlo’e Edwards

I am hopeful when I go to my hometown, Richmond, VA, and interact with young activists committed to challenging the system, utilizing new tactics, and continuing the fight for racial justice.

I am hopeful when I read a friend’s Facebook post about her white yoga instructor in Vallejo, California who closed her class asking for prayers for the people of Ukraine and continued by offering prayers for the Black and brown people in Ukraine who were forced to let white people leave first.

I am hopeful when a reader of my blog tells me she is white and 80 years old and asks me not to give up on her demographic’s role in understanding and working for racial justice.

I am hopeful when a white friend in Florida notices that the Google pictures for a nearby majority Black community feature only negative imagery of Black people and then does something to change that.

I am hopeful when an all-white group of college friends decides to pursue a deep examination of some of the racial elements of our school – William and Mary – its community – Williamsburg, VA – and our country’s current racial reality.

Weissberg Foundation trustees and staff at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Kehinde Wiley sculpture, Rumors of War

I am hopeful when a foundation board on which I serve commits fully to learning, understanding, and investing in the pursuit of racial justice through its support of Black and brown-led organizations and -owned businesses.

I am hopeful when the Richmond Public School system embraces a supplemental curriculum called REAL Richmond, focused on the parts of Richmond, Virginia’s racial history that aren’t in the textbook.

When thinking of what makes a person hopeful about the pursuit of racial justice, some might point to the president’s selection of a Black woman as his nominee for the Supreme Court or the multiple efforts across the country to protect voting rights for people of color or  Evanston, Illinois, an evolving case study in how a municipality can offer reparations to the descendants of enslaved people. These are interventions that will have deep, meaningful, long-lasting impact. They represent major change, change writ large.

At the same time, I recognize that each of those actions started with one person finally getting it. One person, who understood racial injustice, and acted. And that one person may not have known what an inspiration they were to others. Often, seemingly small, isolated steps lead to institutional, and societal change that will ultimately ensure racial justice.

What are you doing that gives hope to others? Five years from now, who will recognize you as the inspiration that sparked their work for racial justice?

                                          “A leader is a dealer in hope.”                                                                                        Napoleon Bonaparte