The pictures are as iconic as they are incongruous– whether upturned, smiling faces of men, women and children standing in the dappled sunlight of a Florida pine grove where the charred remains of a corpse hangs just a few feet away; or that of a high-schooler with text books hugged to her chest, bending like a willow but unbreakable despite the gauntlet of faces twisted with rage, one shouting “Go home, nigger!”, all within arms reach. While I can’t recall the exact moment when lynchings and public school integrations first penetrated my consciousness, I distinctly remember thinking several things simultaneously while staring at images from a pre-civil rights America even as a little girl. I remember because the same thoughts still come to mind today.
Mostly, I’ve wondered what it would feel like to be captured on film at the height (depth?) of one’s ignorance for posterity? How might such people explain their younger selves to their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren? Is their telling of history revisionist (“Sugar, I realize that woman looks exactly like Nana, but I swear that is not your beloved granny grinning in that snapshot taken at some poor man’s execution!”); or apologist (“Darlin’, you just don’t understand what it was like in those days. We didn’t have Barack Obama or Oprah back then, so how were we supposed to know that black people could be so smart and lovable? Hell, I only wish I could claim either of them as a former classmate today.”)? Ultimately, once I got past such projections, I would feel smug in the knowledge that I’d been born in an era where I would never have to apologize for the unforgivable.
Or, so I thought…
“It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time’ .”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
When President Obama sat down with Robin Roberts of ABC News to state his support for gay marriage last night, the deluge in print and broadcast media which followed served as a reminder that for every silver lining there is a very dark cloud.
In an era where a New York Times headline can characterize President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage as “A Watershed Move, Both Risky and Inevitable” without irony; the president’s self-described “evolution” on same-sex marriages incites debate as to whether or not all Americans are entitled to equal rights and protection under federal law… even among young people; Mitt Romney is willing to risk his political capital in an election year by reaffirming his opposition to the president’s stance; and, most shockingly, 55% of African Americans openly claim an aversion to gay marriage due to religious beliefs– it is clear that our silence has been appalling and we are waiting on time.
I am thrilled that our president has delivered on his “Change We Can Believe In” campaign slogan. By the same token, I feel profound shame as I acknowledge that my generation owes the gay community a long-overdue apology for the unforgivable: for ignoring the Golden Rule in spite of our proclamations of family values and Christianity… for not looking out for the most vulnerable in our midst… for acting like it’s a big deal when an elected leader takes the lead on the #1 civil rights issue of our day.
As Dr. King prophesied, we will have to repent. But if my insights on human nature are accurate, I can predict how future generations will regard us and– in spite of what we tell our children– it will not be a pretty picture.