Upon the news of Justice Kennedy’s retirement, I, like most other freedom-loving people I know, fell into despair. Others were quick to remind those of us falling into the abyss that Black folks have endured and survived circumstances infinitely worse than what we even imagine and that they fought for freedom under those circumstances—and won it.
For example, this tweet from Dr. T’Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (@@IBJIYONGI), which begins a thread of thoughtful perspectives, reality checks, action steps, and resources:
I tweeted this earlier today but just going to say again: abolitionists lost every single SCOTUS case. every single one. John Brown failed. And chattel slavery is over now.
— Dr. T’Chanda Prescod-Weinstein🙅🏽♀️ 🇧🇧 (@IBJIYONGI) June 27, 2018
My comfort in that tweet lasted about 24 hours. Then I thought, “Yes, slavery was abolished. And then came Reconstruction and the gains of citizenship, voting rights for Black men, and government positions for Black men. But Reconstruction ended in 1877.”
Then came the Post-Reconstruction Era.
The racialized terror white supremacists were able to inflict upon entire Black cities and towns at will and with impunity might be captured most simply and effectively in lynching statistics. The Equal Justice Initiative’s 2015 study, Lynching in America, found 4,084 “racial terror lynchings” occurred in twelve southern states between 1887 and 1950, and upwards of 300 occurred in other states in the same time period. According to the NAACP, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the U.S. between 1882 and 1968, and 72.7% of the victims were black.
This means that lynching, this single form of racialized terror—because there were others, and they were physical, mental, spiritual, and economic—continued well into the 1960s, as some of the most well-known gains of the Civl Rights Movement (i.e., the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act) were made.
This also means that while many Black folks endured and survived (literally millions by moving north and west during The Great Migration), a whole lot died, too. And it means that freedoms gained also can be lost.
I mean to be pessimistic here. While this country’s commitment to white supremacy remains constant even as its methods adapt to become less detectable to the civilized eye, political pendulums and dominant social ideologies swing dramatically from liberal to conservative and back again. Sometimes it takes 30, 50, sometimes 100 years. These are changes that are deeper and more intense than presidential and mid-term election cycles. These are identity crises, when Americans ask themselves who they want to be and what they want their country to be about.
The pendulum swung to abolition, Reconstruction, and full citizenship for everyone born on U.S. soil. It swung to enforcing exceptions to the 13th Amendment, to lynchings, and to Jim Crow.
The pendulum swung to school desegregation, to the Civil Rights (Fair Housing) and Voting Rights acts. It swings to the dismissal of civil rights claims in the Department of Education, SCOTUS decisions that eviscerate the Voting Rights Act, and the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development run by a man who would throw his wife under the bus when confronted with fiscal mismanagement of his department.
It swung from the Warren Court years to the Burger Court and from Griswold v. Connecticut to approval of “crisis pregnancy centers” lying to women about all their reproductive options.
It seems Oglethorpe may have been the end of the pendulum swing towards gay rights, Masterpiece Cakeshop the beginning of the swing the other way.
The pendulum has yet to swing to an Equal Rights Amendment—a (still only proposed) amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifying that civil rights may not be denied on the basis of one’s sex, so perhaps women—I mean someone besides middle class and rich white women who, throughout history, have been better able to come up with enough resources (cash and connections) to get the reproductive care they need—still have time to do what they believe is best for their own bodies.
Outside of academia and pop culture, I don’t think the pendulum has made its way to laws and practices recognizing the fluidity of gender, so maybe … Neh, never mind.
Again, I mean to be pessimistic here. There may be more victories to come (or regain) for freedom-loving people who consistently have to fight for recognition of their humanity, but many of us living right now may not live to see them.
That is the difficult reality I’m attempting to reckon with right now. What if, just by date of birth, I’m in the reincarnation of the Post-Reconstruction Era? Do I just mind my business, keep my head down, and find a new normal? Do I remain a troublemaker in writing, or save some bail money and return to the streets in direct action? Do I start soliciting single Canadians on the internet for marriage and dual citizenship? Do I go somewhere else and just conveniently outstay my visa? What would my joys be in a new normal? What would my prayers be? How could I sleep at night, in that new normal, if I felt there was just the tiniest chance I could have prevented it?
I think of season 1, episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, when Serena warns Offred not to mess with her husband outside of her forced role as a handmaid. I imagine myself saying, “I don’t want him noway, and your barren ass is the one who asked me to be here, old dysfunctional egg bitch,” and I know, I can’t just find a new normal. (I must note I don’t begrudge people who go for the option to keep a low profile and find a new normal. To be honest, this is really what most of us have been doing since the election, when we last felt this woeful. It’s also what the vast majority of oppressed people have done throughout history to preserve their lives, bodies, families, and livelihoods–such as they were–for as long as they could. The human will to live, love, and protect is strong; that’s why intimidation, violence, and terrorism work so well to keep people subservient.)
What, then, are my joys and prayers if a constant fight is my new way of life? How do I adjust the goals I set for myself if I have to give most or any of them up to secure rights for the next generation? These are selfish questions, and some might say selflessness and service is what God was calling us to by allowing 45’s presidency to happen and what God continues calling us to as 45’s regime’s power grows. But, cussing Christian though I am, I also think God planted those goals, talents, and capabilities in me for a purpose, and though I’ve never thought the purpose was for monetary wealth, I also don’t believe God’s purpose or plan for me in this life is misery—no matter who in political power says otherwise.
But I think an abundant life is lived in freedom, for everyone. And I just don’t know if I can have it in the very place I was born and raised.