Walt Whitman used the phrase “after times” to describe America after the Civil War. Eddie Glaude, Jr. , professor of African American studies at Princeton, defines the phrase as what has come before and what is beginning to appear, and compares it to James Baldwin’s deep anguish and disappointment after the Civil Rights movement. After times follow periods of great eruption, social volcanoes, and are filled with anticipation of a change that never happens.
Are we facing a new after time? A pandemic is upon us and the health effects are much worse for Black Americans than White ones. Vivid glimpses of how some police officers use their power to control Black Americans have resulted in an increase in social turmoil around government policy and practice. One of the cornerstones of a democracy is public education. Since it was closed in March countless vulnerable Black children and poor children have had no quality instruction. If Americans do not find a better way to respond to this upheaval and the underlying causes, then the same thing will happen in this after time as has happened in the previous ones. More cynicism, more apathy, more restrictions, more violence.
My personal approach to these issues has always been to act now, communicate urgency, to plow ahead to close these gaps in outcomes, to widen the tent of prosperity, and to push hard for equity for children of color and poverty. At 70 years old with 34 years of working in the trenches, that path has proven to be a dead end. All that action and urgency and pushing has only resulted in some incremental changes but we still live in a country where Black Americans experience dramatic inequities in education, health, and wealth.
Ibram Kendi’s books have challenged me to consider my approach in a new light. If the approach does not result in progress, it is likely the fault of the approach. There is no reason to blame the recipients of the effort. I must find a new path and a new focus. I have been asking myself, how do I find a better approach and how do I advocate for it? I don’t think I’m alone.
James Lowen’s words hit me hard. “Telling the truth about the past helps cause justice in the present. Achieving justice in the present helps us tell the truth about the past.” I want to use this time of “waiting” that the scriptures describe*, to find the truth in the past so that I can be an instrument for justice in the present. I am going back in time and begin again.
On Thursday I will share what I have learned about myself, my family, and the history of Black Americans.
I am including some books and authors below. Not scholarly footnotes!
*Eddie Glaude, Jr. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lesson for Our Own
*James Baldwin Notes of a Native Son
*James Loewen The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader (documents)
*Ibram Kendi How to Be an Anti-Racist
*The Bible “Those that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength and mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” Isaiah 40:31