Life in the Time of Coronavirus: The Limits of Distraction

Playing with our kittens may be delightful, snuggling with them comforting, but they’re not enough to distract me from the heartache I feel now in the aftermath of yet another murder of a black man by police. This time in Minneapolis, this time by a police officer kneeling on his neck. George Floyd, already in handcuffs, cried “I can’t breathe!” and he died.

In horror I felt drawn back into the world as I watched the complete video of George Floyd’s death in police hands, heard bystanders cry out for police to stop, saw a white woman recording the scene with her phone. Then the protest rallies in Minneapolis began and in cities across the country and around the world. Our so-called leader hid in his White House bunker then came out for a photo op holding a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, ordering peaceful protesters to be cleared out of his way with tear gas to allow him to walk there from the White House undisturbed.

It brings to mind another such time when I was coming of age in 1968. I turned 21 that June. I was home for spring break from William & Mary when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and cities erupted in protest. There was violence and looting then also. Safe in the DC suburbs, I watched TV in similar horror to see my home city burn. I returned to campus, to Shakespeare class with Professor Robert Fehrenbach at noon Monday, to have him dismiss class with words of not wanting to be isolated in an ivory tower and inviting us to join a vigil on Duke of Gloucester Street happening at that moment.

I recall five years earlier watching Dr. King’s 1963 March on Washington from a distance. At 16, it didn’t occur to me to attend, and I doubt my parents would have allowed it, fearing for my safety. But I read about it in the Washington Post and saw the photos around the Washington Monument, huge crowds extending around the reflecting pool. I was a naive and idealistic young white girl full of enthusiasm for the civil rights movement. My heart went out to the black people fighting for their rights. At that time the only black person I knew was the black maid who came once a week to clean our house. The schools I grew up in had yet to be integrated. I remember water fountains labeled “white” and “colored.” I knew this was wrong.

I might have been naive and uneducated but I could read and I was eager to learn. James Baldwin became my teacher. I inhaled his stories of the lives of black people and had my naivety punctured. I heard and understood the anger black men felt. I imagined they would laugh in my face or spit or ignore me if I offered to help. And what help could I offer? I was not only young but unskilled.

After I graduated college in 1969, ready to change the world, I joined the National Teacher Corps, part of LBJ’s War on Poverty. The Teacher Corps sent me to Little Rock. There I had my first experience with integration in the group of 30 or so Teacher Corps Interns. I met my first middle class black people and through them continued my racial education. They were eager to share and invited us to attend a Black Shriner’s Dance. Four of us white people went to dine and dance with a huge crowd of black people. This was my first time to experience what it felt like to be in the minority. I confess it felt strange and uncomfortable. All those black faces and us four white faces. I could imagine what it was like to be black in America but only a tiny bit. Our black friends did not want to kill us. They felt supported by our attendance. But I realized, if that had not been true, we would have been outnumbered and vulnerable. It was a wake up call.

Today I grieve for my country and its 400 year legacy of slavery. We made some progress in the 60s, but it is far from over. And now we have a leader who has fanned the flames, giving encouragement to white supremacists who seem to be coming out of the woodwork, and threatened to use US military against peaceful protesters. The demographics are changing and the white men in power don’t like it. In a few years white people will be in the minority. In my adult years, I have been blessed with some wonderful friends, black and brown, all colors of the rainbow. I celebrate this diversity. To those white men who want to remain dominant, your days are numbered. The November election is coming. A new generation is watching you. They are taking the reins.

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