I remember the first time I saw violence. I was 3 years old and I watched my babysitter's husband slam her head against the wall — once, twice, four times — and wrap his hand around her neck. Their three children were hiding in the oldest child's room, sobbing, while I peeked around the corner to see if the silence that hung in the apartment was a sign of safety. Clearly, it was not.
The first time I saw racism, I was 8. I was at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta on a school field trip and we were viewing an exhibit on the history of lynchings in the south. There were rows and rows of black and white photos — photos of someone's husband, brother, wife, sister, child — dangling lifelessly from the trees. And throughout the exhibit, Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" played. I didn't sleep a wink that night. And to this day, I can't hear "Strange Fruit" or Billie's voice without feeling a shiver down my spine.
I was reminded of these memories when I watched Raoul Peck's documentary on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro. It was a sobering and much-needed watch because it reminded me that while I may feel that things are especially bad now, it's not new. The only difference is that I've gotten better at recognizing it. I also left the film feeling a deep connection to Baldwin. Here was a man who is weary of the world. He was the son of a country that often refused to legitimize him, so he left Harlem for Paris. But as much as he tried, he could not separate himself from his people, so he returned. In the process, he lost friends and lovers. The FBI even tried to label him as a threat to national security. But he persisted. And he wrote.
"I can't be a pessimist because I am alive," he once said during an interview. "To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I'm forced to be an optimist. I'm forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive. But the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people and our representatives -- it is entirely up to the American people whether or not they are going to face, and deal with, and embrace this stranger whom they maligned so long."
"I can't be a pessimist because I am alive." That is now my motto for 2017. And yes, it is entirely up to us to deal with the blemishes that the American experiment comes with. It is already beginning to make a world of difference:
[S/O to my friend Monica for pointing these silver linings out to me.]
And that's only the beginning.
I do not accept the premise that this recent surge of activism and fight is too little, too late. It is only late when we are all dead. To find something worth fighting for is life itself. It provides sustenance for the soul. I may be fatigued and worried about the state of the world, but I have never felt more alive or been filled with more purpose. There may come a day where someone somewhere will prove my optimism to be foolish, but until that day comes, I will let my existence be my battle cry.
"There is nothing great about the America that Trump thinks he is going to make; but in the end, it is the greatness of America that will stop him." – Former Department of State counselor from the Bush Administration, Eliot A. Cohen, on Trump underestimating the resilience of Americans and their institutions.
James Baldwin was not only a novelist, but an essayist and part-time film critic. His piece, "The Devil Finds Work" is a sharp analysis of race and America and cinema. I'll never look at The Exorcist the same way again.
On a lighter note, The New Yorker essay "I Work from Home" hits way too close to home.
Beautifully and thoughtfully designed by its owner, James F. Carter, this house has bookshelves by the stairs, in nooks, and crannies. It's the stuff of my dreams.
Originally posted on February 4, 2017 at Alwaysatodds.com.