“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” – Václav Havel
I so want to be optimistic and airy, to write of our generous spirit, to wax
poetic about moon landings and beach landings, entrepreneurship, sliced bread,
the assembly line, the World Wide Web. It feels un-American to discover an Antebellum
shackle and not see its value at auction, not imagine the great stories of triumph and
tragedy it can tell. An unarmed Black man was—again—murdered by police this week;
they crushed his windpipe with a knee. Shall we steal that leg, extract the knee like a
tooth, shine it like a fine pair of shoes worn at a meeting of the Fraternal Order of
Police, donate it to the National Museum of African American History?
Mr. Floyd was shackled and dead when the ambulance arrived. What
will become of those cuffs when they are no longer needed as evidence?
If the little Black girl at her lemonade stand can become president, if
the little Black Boy Scout selling cookies can launch an empire,
what more do we owe the past? We’ve gotten ahead by looking ahead: history
recedes until nothing remains but glorious myth. Our most dangerous belief is
in the Grand Gesture, the faith that all wrongs can be righted. If in 1860 the South
had manumitted its 3,953,762 slaves, would George Floyd’s windpipe still be whole?
America on the brink. America always on the brink. Land of the
larger-than-life. Land of slavery and freedom. Land of monumental dreams,
it’s not optimism I need, but hope, “the ability to work for something
because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”
An American didn’t say that: We are strivers, doers, achievers, no time to waste.
When I was a teenager opposed to one of the many
wars we like to launch for one reason or another—we thought it was oil,
this one, but maybe it was geopolitics, or messianic Christianity,
or, most likely, someone stood to profit from the bombs bursting in air—
my teachers told me it was naïve to oppose war, that I would grow out of
idealism, as though there were honor in accepting the unacceptable
and shame in questioning it. They were wrong. I did not outgrow it, still
I am ashamed of myself, ashamed of my country. The shame
grows hot like iron forming into manacles, and soon every last one of us
will be chained, face to the pavement, knee to the neck,
unable to say what it means to be free.