Updated: Aug 1, 2021
I spent Saturday morning embedding bricks into the muddy rim of our garden, the first layer of a decorative divider that would highlight the lovely things growing there. The day dawned hot and grew hotter, the remnants of the previous night’s thunderstorms lending a cover of humidity that pressed down into the lungs. Hard work on a hot morning, one of the privileges of still being well and strong enough to do such things.
And usually such tasks provide a type of quiet, a time when my thoughts can focus on the simple acts at hand, the product of which is a tangible improvement – something new, something better in place. Something repaired. Such work can quiet the mind.
But these are the not days for quiet. There are still things that need to be repaired.
When I had done all I cared to do for the day, I came back inside and showered away the dirt and sand. I put on cool clothes and made myself ready for the day’s best and most important task.
We did not go to Washington, my son Michael and I. With tens of thousands of people on the streets, Washington would not be easy to navigate. We chose instead to rally in Manassas, which, in the end, is our community.
We arrived to a wide green lawn with free water, disinfectant and music. One of the songs played was “Wake Up, Everybody”, sung by Teddy Pendergrass. Michael, whose tastes run along different lines, liked it, and asked me what it was. I told him, and noted that we’re still chasing the same notes of a song written nearly fifty years ago.
So there we stood, masks on in the heat and the humidity and the crowds, and listened to the voices of commitment and promise. The voices who have not let their fear override their courage. And I added to my life’s experiences during those hours, chanting through my own tears the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, chanting “Black Lives Matter” with a raised arm and a clenched fist, standing next to my son, whose own passions were stirred by what he saw that afternoon.
It never goes away. I marched against the insanity that was the Vietnam War when I was in college. I sat down with dozens of others in the middle of College Avenue to block midday traffic and command attention to what we were saying. I gazed into the visors of riot police and heard the threats of tear gas. Much of all that was personal. Thousands of my generation were being sent to that meaningless, brutal war, and I had no intention of joining them. I marched against the injustice of it all, but I was marching to save my own ass, too.
I do not know what it is to be black. I do not know what it is to leave home each day with the realization tucked into a far corner of my mind that I could be a target simply because of the shade of my skin. I do not know the fear, and the frustration, and the vulnerability, and the rage. I will never know these things.
But I know what justice is. And I know passion, and grace, and the love of community. I know the peace that comes from seeing and doing the right things, not because they are comfortable or expedient, but simply because they are the things that affirm the dignity and worth of every soul.
During his remarkable Day of Affirmation address in South Africa at the height of apartheid, Bobby Kennedy said, “Only earthbound man still clings to the dark and poisoning superstition that his world is…enclosed in the tight circle of those who share his town and views and the color of his skin. It is …the task of the young people of this world to strip the last remnants of that ancient, cruel belief from the civilization of man.”
Most of the voices who spoke were young voices, flamed by the ideals we have yet to come close to achieving. Their words were complemented by older voices who leavened the passions of the young with the wisdom of those who have experienced the failure of those ideals. But it was the young people who carried the day. We stood on the same ground where slaves had been sold two centuries prior, ghosts stirred again to life and honored by those who accepted the responsibilities of memory and commitment.
Afterwards I spoke with one of the organizers, Brian, who is eighteen years old. He had put this day together four days earlier with others no older than he was. I told him that he had made me feel better that day than I had in a great while, and that he was our future. “Keep the fight.” He promised that he would.
I am more than willing to pass whatever commitment I have to these young people. We have done what we could, and for the most part we have failed miserably. The world is still a harsh place, overrun with violence, poverty, injustice and racism. We still live our lives through our tribes rather than our communities.
We’ll stay in the fight, the older generations. We can draw from the strength and humanism of leaders like John Lewis who’ve sailed into their later years with their voices strong and their ideals intact. We cannot discount the wisdom that comes from our failures.
But it’s a deeply flawed world that we’ve created, in desperate need of repair. Our best hope lies in the energy, compassion and courage of those who must deal with its legacy. . Youth is more than a time of life – it is a state of mind. Our best hope lies with Brian, and the thousands across this country like him who live by the passion and idealism of youth.