Fulfilling the Promise of Democracy

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I suspect that we are all on edge these days. With Covid-19 it’s been a tough several weeks and we have so little sense that things will return to normal any time soon. I’ve experienced moments of feeling strong and unstoppable, and times when I felt defeated by all of the illness and death. Mostly I have found myself all too often feeling disappointed in some of the negative attitudes I have witnessed. I’ve tried to concentrate on the mostly good and wonderful things that I have observed but sometimes late at night I have been ground down by a sense of disappointment that anyone would be ugly during such a time as this. I have often shed tears not because of any inconvenience to me but because of the extent to which this virus has caused suffering in the world.

It was within this context that I watched a video of the killing of George Floyd last week. I saw the heartless police officer with his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck and I could only think the cop appeared to almost take delight in humiliating and harming Mr. Floyd. I felt a flurry of intensely negative emotions that raced from sorrow to anger. When protestors hit the streets in a state of rage I would normally have wanted to instantly chastise them for being so destructive. I am a peaceful person who has always followed the rules. I like order in my life but somehow I found myself understanding how they had reached the end of their patience with a system that has over and over again treated them and their ancestors without human respect. It was as though I too had run out of excuses for racist behavior.

In the days following I slept very little and when I did I kept having vivid dreams of my mother. In them I was desperately attempting to get close to her so that I might be comforted. She would look at me, smile invitingly but somehow there was a barrier between the two of us as though she was reminding me that she had already taught me what I needed to know. I thought of her and my children, grandchildren and former students day and night. I prayed for peace and also some kind of revelation that might help us all. I found it in remembering advice that my mother had given me at the very beginnings of my long career in education.

When I complained to my mama that my students were behind in their learning, often unwilling to do simple homework assignments and sometimes too rowdy for me to convey my lessons her reply was that I needed to figure out what I was doing wrong, not keep focusing on what I thought they were doing wrong. As I pushed back on her insistence that I needed to change she explained that it sounded to her as though my pupils were dealing with difficulties far more pressing to them than completing math practice each evening. She urged me to find out who they were, what bothered them, what excited them. She said that when I demonstrated compassion and a genuine desire to learn about them we would together begin a dialogue that would lead to everyone becoming better. I reluctantly followed her advice because I was desperate to make a difference in their lives. I soon realized that the art of teaching had to be human first.

As I have watched the looting and destruction in our country in the past many days I have been saddened and disturbed because I feel that it may only lead to more misunderstanding of the message I believe most of the protestors are earnestly attempting to convey. I  have worried that the just causes of our forty two million African American citizens are being highjacked by an element that does not truly represent them. I saw many of my white friends becoming increasingly disturbed and I heard the president invoking a position of force to quell the disturbances. I feared that the bad behaviors of the few in this historic moment would become yet another excuse for shutting down the voices of the peaceful  many just.

I thought of the beginnings of my country, a land that I do love, but a nation with ideals that have always been imperfect in their distribution. I know that members of my paternal grandmother’s family where here in the colonies very early on, and some of them chose to fight when the revolution began. Like so many I have tended to romanticize that epic chapter in history but over time I have learned that it was not quite as glorious in every instance as I would like to imagine. Wars are rarely pretty. People die in them. Property is destroyed in them. So too was our American Revolution a horrible time when the colonists must have been terribly divided and hoping to make the violence stop so that they might go back the their normal. While it was a glorious cause it exacted a terrible price for those who endured it.

As long as I live I will never ever understand how anyone could have believed that it was okay to capture, enslave and sell human beings. I’d like to mark it off as just a time when people didn’t know better but I have read too many accounts of brave souls advocating for the abolition of slavery from its very beginnings. Not only did the practice grow like a cancer in the colonies but it was eventually enshrined in the Constitution of the new country. There were a sufficient number of arguments over whether or not slavery should have been allowed for me to realize that we built our first hundred years of existence on a dastardly compromise. We allowed human beings to be bought and sold like livestock and did not even count them as full persons in the prescriptive phrases of the Constitution. Today’s problems were born in that horrific mistake. 

I have spent enough time researching slavery to know about the brutal conditions in which the people lived. The humiliations to which they were subjected were unconscionable and even though I have not yet found any evidence that my ancestors owned slaves I find myself wondering if my relations simply ignored the practice so as not to cause trouble. Somehow it would comfort me to think that maybe one among them was brave enough to speak out against the horror of the practice. 

When Abraham Lincoln finally freed the slaves it took another hundred years to pass legislation that allowed our black brothers and sisters to live among us rather than in segregated neighborhoods. It was not until I was in my teens that they were even allowed to eat in our restaurants, stay in our hotels, used our public facilities, enjoy the same opportunities of education and work that were the taken for granted privileges of my family. Even then there were still Americans who viewed African Americans as inferior beings. Blacks are all too often stereotyped with labels that they do not deserve and try as they may to be part of the American dream even the most successful among them, including the man who became President of the United States, continued to suffer the indignities of racism.

I suppose that there is a breaking point that occurs when an entire group is being abused. There is a moment when one has to say, “Enough!  No More!” The death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer brought the almost two hundred fifty years of mistreatment boiling to the surface for Blacks in America who are tired of worrying about their safety and the safety of their children. They can no longer simply sit back and accept the tragedies that continue to stalk them no matter how hard they try. Like the Sons of Liberty of old they have cried out against the tyranny that they and their forebears have endured. This time they will be heard just as the patriots of old made their dissatisfaction of the status quo known to the king.

There are those who do not understand the frustration that has led to an eruption of destruction in Minnesota and other parts of the country and yet I suspect that it is something that our Founding Fathers would recognize. Their forays against the British merchants, governors and soldiers were often violent. First person accounts describe how angry colonists would vandalize and loot businesses and then sell the goods that they stole to support their uprisings. When the revolution officially began with gunshots in Concord only about forty percent of the people in what would eventually become the United States supported the philosophies and efforts of the patriots. Many loyalists were harassed and even run out of their homes by the rowdy revolutionaries.

Some of my husband’s kin chose to leave the country for the duration of the battle for independence rather than endure the chaos. Even back then people were quite divided about how to deal with the growing numbers of illegal acts targeting the king and his army. It was a violent and often bloody time that might make most of us uncomfortable if we were to see exactly how things were. Nonetheless the white colonists ultimately gained from the sacrifices that the patriots made but the Blacks did not. They were still in bondage even after our country won its freedom from the British and to this very day they suffer the indignities of discrimination.

We like to think of our nation as one where there is opportunity and freedom and justice for everyone. We have made progress in the almost two hundred fifty years since our country was formed but it must surely be apparent to all good men and women that we are not yet there. It is a struggle that continues to this very day. As we attempt to rid ourselves of the virus of Covid-19 we must be just as diligent in eradicating the virus of prejudice that should have been insisted upon from our country’s beginnings.  The United States of America will not heal and will not be as great as it should be until we break the chains of racism that have tainted all that we were supposed to believe about equality. Until we truly demonstrate our belief that all men and women are created equal with the same rights for all people all of the time we will not have fulfilled the promise of democracy. We will not accomplish this with armies and shows of force but with indications that we are ready to finally listen.