Saying that these are unprecedented times would be trite. In many ways, they probably aren’t. The world has been through pandemics before. We have seen civil unrest prior to our times. What is happening in the streets of many U.S. and Europeans cities and towns is absolutely necessary in the face of ongoing injustices. It was about time.
Yet none of it had happened in the era of social media, of citizen-led reporting. Power asymmetries still exist but we are less constrained than we were before by gatekeepers of access and information. There are reasons to be optimistic, as Ta-Nehisi Coates eloquently discusses with Ezra Klein in one of the best podcasts I have heard in a while. The coalition now is much larger and diverse than it was in 1968 (another idea: what would society look like if the state was not based on the idea of the monopoly of force but rather on the idea of non-violence?).
I deleted Instagram a few days ago, which was a rather necessary act of self-care. I wanted to be focused and deliberate with the information that I am consuming and the actions that I am taking. Yet the scrolling impulse is deeply embedded in my psyche and while the Instagram-less life has indeed afforded me a more peaceful mind to focus on what really matters, I have found myself scrolling through Twitter more than I usually do. To be honest, I am not sure I can do Twitter. It is rage and fight (not debate) at its worst (most of the time). It seems that either you are in an echo chamber or you are in the midst of pettiness and ad hominem attacks (although there are notable exceptions). Yet as with everything, there is something to be gained as well.
One of the debates that is now filling my feed relates to statues in the U.K., although this is of course applicable elsewhere. One of the simplest arguments and yet most compelling I’ve heard is that monuments, as art, are not meant to teach but to turn people into ideas and icons. While I am not sure I necessarily agree with the idea that monuments can’t teach, I think it is absolutely spot on to say that the art that we display and show in our streets does reflect who we uphold as moral, inspiring, role models. Who we deem deserving of celebration and appraisal. As everything else in life, this should be subject to re-evaluation and criticism. I am not saying we erase it, I’m not defending we destroy it. But we should always interrogate what we are shown, what we are taught, and that applies as much to arguments from the “other side” as to those from “our side”. It also definitely applies to the history we are taught. Others have reflected on this much more eloquently than I have, so I wanted to finish this short entry with the words of the great James Baldwin in “The White Man’s Guilt”, a short essay I highly recommend”:
“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror because, thereafter, one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to re-create oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating: one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.”
We need to reckon with our history, own it and stop defending ourselves from it. Interrogating and course-correcting where necessary. I hope this is really a turning point and that there’s no going back.
There are many lists of anti-racist resources out there, which is absolutely brilliant. My good friend Kim has created one list I highly recommend, accessible here (she’s also reading one book a day, which she is documenting in her blog, I have found her recaps to be really helpful and have led me to great literary discoveries).
This might be the most comprehensive database.
P.S.: I cringe every time I think of how the history of Cristóbal Colón and his trips to the Americas were taught to me in Spain.