Calibrating the Civic Heart

Time to start taking our lessons from those who’ve been there and done that for decades.

Movements are about more than moments; they are about thoughtful networks of dissent built over time.

These words shared in the New York Times, by Blair Kelley, a professor of Civil Rights History echo sentiments I shared in an article I wrote in the fateful weeks after Trump’s election.

To say it has been hard to hold the vision for justice in America through Trump’s steady, aggressive onslaught against it — the defining signature of his presidency — is, let’s just agree, an understatement. But understanding the long arc of commitment in the civil rights movement does give me faith.

I remember being so shocked when gay marriage was made legal that I honestly couldn’t register that it had happened. I still can’t believe our bathroom signs have been modified in schools to accommodate transgender children. A fight that I expected would take decades to win -knowing this country- was victorious, seemingly overnight. I’m not dismissing the long haul of the LGBTQI rights movement from Stonewall on, but compared to the civil rights movements around the world, its history has been relatively short. The progress during the Obama administration was thrilling on this front, but there is a sobering truth to face here. A truth African Americans have had their whole life in this country to be sobered by. It’s a truth I remember well because I taught college students about it some time ago in graduate school.

It was in a writing class I that studied the history of US Supreme Court law that placed the decisions made by the court over time in the context of American culture and history. Students were asked to write essays summarizing the cases and viewing them from the perspectives of the court. Given my own, and many of my student’s progressive politics, it was a meaningful challenge to invite these students to take the perspective of conservative rulings, or at least try to make sense of them in historical context. What that class material taught me was something about America, itself, for better or worse, and a certain kind of temperance.

I came to understand why — in spite of my own values — it took 58 years, from Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 to Brown vs. Board, 1954, for enough of the country to begin to be open to desegregation. In a country as vast as ours and as divided in its world views, things just don’t change quickly enough for those of us who like change. Facing these hard truths about America AS IT IS, not America as we want it to be, is a practice we have to engage if we are not going to collapse, burn out or become numb. Human fear, ignorance, projection and the cultural alliances surrounding the many different identities in this country have deep and STUBBORN roots. Not unlike the challenges faced in any marriage, (gay or straight), we must face the reality of truths we don’t like in the other -for better or worse – and that, itself, is the vexing fodder for our growth. To be sure, African Americans had no part in consenting to marriage with the United States, but as long as we are united by the rights and responsibilities inscribed in this country’s constitution, we are bound to the tremendous work of living under that one roof in fairness.

Each morning, and then again several times through the course of any day in these fraught times in America, I find myself somewhere on a continuum coming to terms with what this country is. On one end is the collapse into overwhelm and hopelessness. This is bleak. I resort to unrealistic fantasies of California ceding from the nation or brace myself against the equivalent of a national divorce — some more vivid step in the direction of civil war. On the other end of the spectrum, but not without considerable intention, I gain some purchase on a broader perspective. There, with a breath, I find space in my chest and some tenderness. A deeper, more courageous and creative anchoring arrives.

Somewhere in the journey from collapse to resilience history provides comfort. Reeling from my sense of powerlessness over Trump’s vilifying of the caravan of immigrants from Honduras, I find myself connecting with my parent’s generation and the fears they must have felt in Europe during WWII. I remind myself that while the rampant nationalism and murderous projections onto the Jews and between nations took hold of a whole generation, today, the Germans and the French and the English talk to one another. My empathy for the fear and anxiety that must have been felt during the war (something I admit I didn’t really have a reference point for until now) somehow connects me back to humanity — mine and others. I ask myself, what did they need to do to be strong, for themselves, for their children? What do I need? This is not rocket science, but the nuts and bolts of recalibrating in times like these. It is also something as sadly familiar to African American mothers as the sound of their own child’s name.

In these days, to find my ground, I draw from the deep wells of love and will that were necessarily called upon to sustain all those who have fought for civil rights over generations in the US, in Africa, and around the world. Remembering that 58 year march between Plessy and Brown and the 64 year march(!) that has ensued ever since. I don’t hear whining. I hear resilience. Persistence. A fierce knowing of what is true and of value in one’s people that is more powerful than the white man’s lies. Yes. The wise, dark-skinned elders of this movement are my teachers now, guiding me in to my own deeper knowing … A knowing about the truth of who I am as a woman, of how we have been separated from one another, how it is our humanity that both divides and binds us.

The noble work to forge *one love* between us is as long as human history. It is only by remembering all that makes me human — my fear, my love, my empathy, my anger, my sorrow — that I find myself, a citizen again, placing the weight of my heart towards the future, towards justice, towards creating tomorrow’s history.

Those who see Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a lost battle in the larger war for gender equality and dignity for women should emulate the activists of generations past. They should keep organizing, connect with like-minded people, volunteer for organizations that advocate for survivors, consider running for office, and work on the campaigns of those they believe in. My scholarship has taught me that activism requires a certain resilience, and the willingness to be long-suffering in pursuit of the cause.” New York Times, “What Civil Rights History can Teach Kavanaugh’s Critics” Blair L.M. Kelley, Associate Professor of History, North Carolina State University

We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders.
DESMOND TUTU

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