Watching "The Butler" this week, it dawned on me that given our brief history as a country, slavery was (relatively speaking) a few months ago. The Civil Rights movement was last week. Perhaps one reason why there has been such public outcry over recent tragedies is that what racial balance we HAVE achieved as a nation must seem tenuous to those who relatives still remember, firsthand, things like separate water fountains, lynchings, segregation.
We have come so far, but it is understandable that there would be fear, fear that that balance might tip at any moment. We haven't come so far, at least in some minds, that we could never go back. I don't think we will, but then again, I haven't been raised on horror stories.
White and raised in the South, my parents nevertheless taught us tolerance and equality. I never heard the N word in my home. I'm too young to remember much about the marches and the riots, the anger and the hatred. It was difficult to watch "The Butler" at times, to see a level of intolerance and cruelty I have never experienced. Snarling customers in a diner spitting in the faces of young college students conducting a peaceful sit-in. People made to feel as though they were less than others, less than humans.
In our nation's history, injustice and racial inequality was the norm for a substantial length of time. When protests erupt, when cries of racial injustice are heard once more, it may be that the New Normal is not be quite as solid as we thought, as absolute as we had hoped. Having seen history retold in the movie, I understand a little better how it could easily seem to black Americans that we are not standing on a rock, but on shifting sand.
Those who lived through the Civil Rights struggles may be the best hope for speaking out today for moderation, cooperation, reason, kindness, forgiveness. Emotion cannot rule the day. There is too much at stake, for too many people. Those who raise their voices in anger, calling for violence...they only remember the struggles, and not the triumphs. Those who gave their lives for Civil Rights would not be pleased, I think, with much of the response to recent events.
But I think I understand a little more WHY there has been such an outcry, the protests, etc. Not just because of the incidents themselves - it is so hard to remain objective when lives are lost, when lives are ruined - but the culmination of our history, the upsurge of old feelings and fears once again.
Without a frame of reference, it is difficult to understand situations foreign to us. If you haven't buried a child, you can't possibly comprehend the depth of that particular kind of grief. Most of us have no real frame of reference for racial tension because we haven't personally experienced it. And we need to realize that for those who HAVE - the wounds are not fully healed.
We can, however, all appreciate the progress that has been made, the battles that have been fought and won so that human beings of one race can treat fellow human beings of other races with respect and good will.
Several years ago I was sitting with my mother at a restaurant in North Carolina. A black waiter came over to the table and was clearly enjoying his job. Friendly, glib, a twinkle in his eye, he charmed us both as he took our orders. When he left, my mother commented, "Times sure have changed." I knew what she meant. In her lifetime, she had known of blacks being separated from whites at theaters and restaurants, black men beaten for looking at white women, black schools inferior to white schools. Our waiter had benefited from the struggles, had complete freedom to chat two white women up without fear of giving offense or receiving punishment.
We may not agree with the protesters, but we don't need to get sucked into mindsets that go completely off-topic; we shouldn't equate the loud, fist-raised ranters with the majority of peaceable citizens who just want to find a way to get through life, make a decent wage, see their kids graduate.
If you haven't seen "The Help" and "The Butler" I'd encourage you to do so. Many of the events they portray occurred in our lifetimes. Faint memories, perhaps. Incredible progress since, absolutely. But perhaps viewing our history, brushing up on painful attitudes and hurtful actions, may help you understand why there seems to be a fear that this or that are not isolated incidences but part of a growing trend. I don't happen to agree with that, but I think I understand a little better how much fear and anger remains.
We're a young nation. Very young. At times, a little too big for our britches. And issues are far more complicated than I fully appreciate, with roots going far deeper than I have much grasp of. But we must find a way to continue the forward motion and progress we have made. We must not become discouraged or let fear and bitterness widen the divisions between us.
I've babbled on a bit about something that seems a little clearer to me this week. In no way do I encourage violence as a means to an end. In no way do I encourage anything that discredits the thousands of Law Enforcement officers in our nation who daily lay their lives on the line for their communities. But I get it, at least a little bit more than I did before watching "The Butler." The scab is just about healed, and then it gets scraped off again. It's human nature to fall into a "here we go again" mentality, to doubt that change is real, or permanent.
Our timeline is so short. Two months ago, blacks were sold into slavery. Two minutes ago, there were random lynchings. Two seconds ago, an unarmed man was shot by the police. Completely unrelated to those with no frame of reference, but fear is strong. Fear runs deep. If we can all understand that, perhaps we can help find some real and lasting answers in the upward trend toward justice.
(c) Ellen Gillette, 2014