Yesterday morning, while sipping coffee, I read Emily Raboteau’s diary recounting of a year’s worth of conversations about climate change. Raboteau, a poet, notes in the diary’s introduction that “some scientists say the best way to combat climate change is to talk about it among friends and family — to make private anxieties public concerns.” As I see it, this is a way of recording history in real time. A conversation about climate change, by its very nature, requires us to account for the recorded past, experienced present and future prospects. I understand that this is rooted in peril and dire need, but you have to pause to account for history; you have to breathe and take a moment. As we crash from missile- driven news cycles to Meghan Markle-driven news cycles, I argue it’s a joy to take a moment to account for how we have survived and consider what is required to continue that survival.
When I got to Raboteau’s entry for July 25, 2019, I read a paragraph that called to me in a way that made me straighten my posture:
Mary said she worried about her aging mother down South. “I’m the first person in my family born after Jim Crow. They fought battles so I could live the dreams my mother couldn’t. How can I talk to her about this existential grief of mine when she’s already been through so much?”
I began to do black math in my head. My mother was a 10-year old black girl in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1965; that’s the year the Voting Rights Act became law. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act the previous year. I kept checking dates, carrying ones, trying to resist a fact that quickly became clear: On my mother’s side of the family, I was likely the first person in my family born after Jim Crow. I was born in 1985.
Like going to the beach and standing waist-deep in the sea, there are moments when you can feel yourself swaying in history’s call and response. I consider these moments of actualized historical significance a joy. They are vital and hard-won. The clarity we are granted when we are able to pinpoint our letter in history’s alphabet is a joy. Being able to confidently rebuke people who insist we are obsessed with “old wounds” is a joy. This isn’t “feel-good” joy, I know. It’s the kind of joy that helps you keep your head up. Vital, sustaining, clarifying joy. A blood fortune. Consider erasure. Consider who usually gets to define the terms of our history and who usually is relegated to the margins. It is a wonder any of us actually know where we came from, why and how.
In these moments, the need to share what I’ve learned is truly overwhelming. I tried tweeting about it, but quickly deleted my tweet. I decided, instead, to text my friend (also named Mary) in New York. We went back and forth for a bit, marveling at how wild all of this is. Then, she said, “I’ll never forget when this white boy in my AP history class refused to go to an assembly with one of the Little Rock Nine because he said that history didn’t matter anymore, but was first in line when a WWII vet came to speak.”
As I stared at her text message, mouth agape, she added: “He’s a high school history teacher now.”