The Other Columbus: To my nieces after their first protest
I cannot express how proud I am that all of you have decided to participate in Black Lives Matter protests. Your presence on the ground means you are willing to see what all the noise is about for yourself. You have opted to go beyond a headline or meme and be part of history. It also means you care about something, and that something is yourselves and your people. I love that you are fighting for both yourself and all of us, in person and in spirit. I have possibly never loved you more, and never felt more loved by you in this protest moment.
Growing up, you may recall that I was a bit of a political black sheep in the family. I was the one it was OK to make fun of for having certain ideas and platforms about racism, though the jokes were rarely clear on what those positions might actually be. I didn’t make too much noise about it at the time because my positions on racism have always been based in the cyclical reality of what it means to be Black in this country. I knew that the truth would reveal itself to our comically obstinate family because that truth is always manifesting somewhere in America.
The beating of Rodney King wasn’t enough to stop the jokes, but somewhere down the line full-on Black deaths caused by police started hitting the news different, with more import, and so family dinner conversations shifted on the topic. At some point the jokes weren’t funny because the reality was proving to have infected everything – our hair, our language, our ability to express emotion to each other. Depending on the holiday, racism was often the reason we were having dinner to begin with. So you kind of dodged a bullet there.
All of you are now of ages when you can see the world as it is. You know where all the Christmas presents and Easter eggs came from. You are old enough to consider not only what the future may hold for you, but are able to truly empathize with people. Having watched all of you rot your brains in post-dinner staring contests with phones for a while now (on that trash game Roblox, no less), I can scarcely contain the excitement your activism brings forth.
But now that you have been to several protests it is time for me to tell you about what comes next. They are predictions that often reveal themselves only later as bitter truths, when there are no crowds or police or parents or media.
You need to prepare yourself for the seeming failure of it all, for the overwhelming lack of change that will come of all these tears and sore throats. Prepare for the laws that never materialize, the parts where things fall apart. The in-fighting and jealousy is already here, so prepare yourself for the unending dramas: the personal dramas, the dramas of passion, the sometimes-true horror stories about your comrades. There is going to be so much lost time you will tap your watch, wondering if you have been abducted by aliens. There will be so many bad ideas, so many well-intentioned wastes of your time. My god, the meetings you will suffer through just to be able to say you were “open-minded,” as if any of this is about a dearth of knowledge. It is not. You did not leave the protests smelling like pepper spray because they did not know children were there.
This is all very depressing, I know. I have triggered myself so many times while typing this that my index finger is popping. I am an intellectually pragmatic activist, not often inclined to concede or seek middle ground once an enemy is clear. People frequently confuse it with an inability to be satisfied with anything, a political anhedonia. This is untrue. I'm not telling you any of this to get you to protest less. Rather, I tell you this to get your protest wind up, to stand with the assuredness that comes with having more resilient demands on your tongues.
This is not a hopeless message. I believe in protests and I believe in you. And because you also believe, we are both caught up in this new, self-perpetuating cycle of hope. You are very necessary now, and moving forward, because things will get dark again. You have already seen the darkness around the edges of this moment. Someone else will get killed before change comes, already has.
I need you to see the struggle for what it is, but never to see it as a failure, even when the protests go away. And they will. The good news is that; that’s just how the work starts.
When I was a few years older than you are now and very active in what was a burgeoning scene following the first Million Man March, a community elder that I would get into it with all the time chuckled at the end of what I am sure was our last argument and said, “I can’t wait to see you in 20 years.”
It was a prediction of resignation that I instead took as a challenge. I never forgot his assumption that I might not have the stuff it took to keep at this 25 years later, and yet here we are. I do not bow my head before honorifics and politicians. I do not demand from others that which I would not give. And I am still very much kicking out the legs of anyone who thinks I’m the one to politically steal on.
My hearts, I cannot wait to see you in just five years. You are already well ahead of where I was at your age, and the world is so hungry for whatever change you can make in it.