In a recent book club meeting discussion of Tomi Adeyemi’s The Children of Blood and Bone, the question of the role of magic and its effect on the future led me to think about whether the current turmoil over race, diversity, equity, inclusion has been just a moment from 2020 meant to last as long as the pandemic or whether it is a true movement meant to endure.
While I don’t recall where I was for some of the previous and subsequent moments of police brutality, the week of Memorial Day 2020 is seared into my memory as a series of before and after moments. Memorial Day itself started with all the hallmarks of a gorgeous summer -bright cerulean skies with the occasional wisp of cloud drifting by from time to time, summer temperatures right on time for unofficial start of summer in Minnesota, and the overall feeling of everything being as it should be.
By dinnertime, the murder that sparked a movement occurred in broad daylight. Nightfall produced an eerie stillness in the dark. The liminal space of the first night would be the only opportunity to avoid the violence and uprising that would spread through many communities in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. I recall not sleeping much as I watched on live television the peaceful protests turn into concern, and then rage against the local fourth precinct. I saw how repressed fear and anger that ordinary citizens could be killed without swift justice by the very law enforcement sought as protection boiled over into public rage and numerous fires.
It was not just seeing someone from the crowds setting fire to the Third Precinct police station. It was not just realizing in horror that other buildings that were down the street, in places where people lived, worked, and shopped were set on fire. It was the painful understanding that I was witnessing for hours at a time the dissolution of civilization as I had known it during my lifetime.
When live broadcasts show how the fire department refused to come and put out the flames because the violence and the risk of being shot was too great, I wondered if this one death would be the end of a free society and the start of a path to authoritarianism or totalitarianism. Repressive governments often start with something small, a reason to use the need for order to return a functioning society to normal.
In the heat of rage, words are said and actions are done that reflect the mental and emotional imbalance in a society that is hurting and suffering from deep trauma. This leads to a cry for order. In many place where this happens, the military or government forces take charge, martial law perhaps is installed as an emergency measure – except the emergency doesn’t end and the result is a transition from a democracy to an autocracy and authoritarian rule.
Individual freedoms that we take for granted, such as the right to live, walk, play, where one wishes or to speak freely about any subject disappears when authoritarianism descends upon a country.
In the United States for well over a century, many, specifically African American and by inclusion other Black and Brown people, were not accepted by the ruling populace as being worthy of equal treatment in various aspects of public and private life. Despite landmark decisions such as the Brown vs. Board of Education, the Voting Rights Act and related bills signed into law, Loving vs. Virginia, and Obergefell v. Hodges , over 156 years since the Emancipation Proclamation led to a death that sparked a movement.
George Floyd’s murder in broad daylight before dozens of witnesses at the hands of four police offers perhaps was the spark because so many people of color of all ages, genders, and abilities had suffered mistreatment during interactions with law enforcement for such a long period of time. The practice of lynching at times was the reality of the alternative law enforcement, a type of justice practiced when mob rule or racial rule prevailed in spite of the presence of law enforcement in a particular area in the United States.
The summer of 2020 impacted so many worldwide due to the overwhelming pain that seared through each soul that watched live or on video the last breaths of a living human being at the hands of another. Thanks to COVID, the pandemic actively stopped or paused many activities and allowed us to focus on what might have been a local incident, perhaps a news item nationally for a few days or a week. When the whole world can see in real time what is going on and how a country based on democracy and meritocracy treats one of its own, judgement is swift and condemnation flows quickly.
Doors for diversity, equity, and inclusion, which had been closed or only cracked open with glass ceilings limiting progress were suddenly smashed. Promises were made to truly change the reality for many in the United States. Pictures of groups protesting in sympathy around the world on every continent including Antartica demonstrated the power that one death could bring upon the entire human race.
For a time, it seemed like the struggle finally bore fruit. Finally, long-fought battles were being won and that the scales were finally achieving a balance promised in the amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and our own Declaration of Independence which has been used by numerous countries around the world as the basis for their own newly formed governments.
The blossoming of hope and progress appeared to be in inverse proportion to the real uncertainty in the United States regarding the possible duration and damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the world struggled to fight a virus that took more lives than any recent medical crisis, as a species we were kinder to each other. Parts of the world that used masks or governments that emphasized pandemic strategies such as social distancing or getting vaccine series were seen in a more positive light due to the emphasis on preserving human life above all else.
Societal perception of the pandemic’s impact quickly waned for some groups in the United States, while others continued to take precautions for themselves and their families.
Sadly, this split appears on the surface level to break down into blue states and red states. Blue states are considered politically liberal as a majority in governance, while red states are considered politically conservative. During the pandemic, the clearest difference was on the use of masks, the acceptance of the need to take the COVID-19 vaccine, and the timeline to return to in-person gatherings. Blue states embraced the former; red states resisted or outright rejected the use of masks, vaccines, or restrictions against gatherings.
Now, we are in 2023. The new “DEI” wave appears to have slowed or even reversed in parts of the country, most notably around the areas of education and children in so-called “red” states.
One of the most prominent examples lies in education in the state of Florida.
Governor De Santis (FL) is in a multi-year battle against what he calls “woke” or “wokeism.” These terms are dogwhistles to those who consider liberal ideas to be harmful for children. Ironically, in 2021, the Yale (undergrad) and Harvard Law School educated governor supported a ban on Critical Race Theory in public schools on the grounds that it is harmful to children, regardless of the fact that it is not taught in K-12 public education in any part of the United States.
In 2022, under the guise of strengthening parental rights for children’s education in the state of Florida, DeSantis signed into law the Florida Parental Rights in Act (“The Don’t Say Gay” bill) and the Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act, which in effect dilutes historical teachings and facts that are permitted to be taught in Florida schools, trainings, and in the general work place. For educators who teach history for peoples of color or who are members of the LGBTQIA community, they have had tough choices: be authentic and face job loss or hide to make a living.
Education is the key to a healthy and prosperous future for many who choose to come to this country, the “land of the free and home of the brave” from other places that repress individual and cultural freedoms. DeSantis himself enjoyed the benefit of education at two institutions of higher learning that prepare current and future leaders with a solid intellectual foundation. While they are not the most liberal colleges or universities in the United States, the wide range of diverse views on both campuses should produce a well-rounded individual who theoretically would want the same for his constituents in the state of Florida.
However, movements like the ones made by Governor DeSantis have the chilling effect of silencing any mention of African American history beyond what is watered down to a palatable level. Despite the national Black History Month(February), many parts of African American history are unknown to students unless they learn of these events in grade school, high school or college. The recent successful alteration of the Advanced Placement (AP) African American history course for the brightest of our high school students is one example of the trauma inflicted upon white students as well as students of color.
Successful completion of AP courses is one method of demonstrating readiness for higher academic institutions of learning as they are more complex and closer to college-level courses. The very same institutions that DeSantis attended (Yale and Harvard) expect their applicants records to contain lots of AP course completions.
DeSantis’s objections to the course caused major changes, most notably a clear erasure of Black History, regardless of the actual words used to say otherwise. The revised course eliminates major historical points and contemporary struggles that are key to understanding African American history, culture, and life. Other AP course racial and cultural histories remain untouched in Florida, so this change brings into question the true importance of Black culture and the role of Black and Brown people to the local government.
What many may not realize is how DeSantis’ use of the term “woke” or “wokeism” is actually a misrepresentation of a cultural term used by many Black Americans for the need to enlighten ourselves regarding societal issues and especially our history and culture.
Before the late 1970s, teaching of Black history was limited. Started as Negro History Week in 1926 to honor Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the impact was to succeed by doing what making history clear does best: combating misunderstandings or outright lies about a community’s existence and importance. The week was not nationally recognized as a month until 1976 under President Ford.
As Dr. Carter G. Woodson, an earlier Harvard graduate, noted: “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”
In short, Black history is celebrated so that we are not erased as a people. Erase a people’s culture or history, and they disappear.
This is the ultimate racism and the purest form of genocide.
What is remembered, lives.
What is forgotten, never existed.
Many songs emphasized the reality for Black people, Black history, and Black culture in the 1970s. These were understood to be examples of “woke” in the way the word and meaning are actually intended to be used.
One example of how the term should be used can be found in the classic 1975 hit and title track from Wake Up Everybody by Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes. Written by the classic rhythm and blues songwriting team of McFadden and Whitehead, the song looks at the social ills of the 1970s, and 1975 in particular. The lyrics emphasize the necessity both to understand what is really going on and to get involved in helping to heal society.
Wake up everybody, no more sleeping in bed
No more back to basics, time for thinking ahead.
Ironically, “woke,” a positive term used for education and for providing growth in our society is now held hostage by a government official who himself is the product of Harvard and Yale, two institutions often considered politically liberal by many. Harvard and Yale are also two of the most prominent institutions in the world. The eight of our nine Supreme Court Justices attended one or both for law school.
In a world where bloodless battles in the areas of diversity force painful choices on individuals and groups, it is time to think about what we can build rather than what we can destroy. We live in a world now where the choice to erase diversity as a means of faux healing is becoming more of the norm. The idea is that if we believe that all are equal, then that is enough.
However, if the definition of equality means only embracing identical values, socio-economic beliefs, religious belief, sexual orientation, and societal structure, then we are missing the point of our country. Many Pagans are raised in other backgrounds. Some are transgender. Others are from a variety of races. Would any of you want to have your history sanitized or erased due to its continued absence?
If our own national history becomes a restructured lack of acknowledgement of past injustices, then the question becomes who are we really? Are we a democracy? As a nation, did we just experience as moment that became a brief memory of a failed movement, or are we still attempting to wrestle with the same realities that our founders did in 1776 – where gender and race showed that not everyone counts because not everyone is fully human?
In the words of the author Paula Giddings, from her book, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, I acknowledge that I cannot hide my skin color, nor would I want to do so. Indeed, when and where I enter, my race enters with me. Regardless of where a person lives, we all need to know that our home life, the people around us, and the place where we choose to live out our lives can be welcoming and safe.
I believe we are still in turmoil, and we just have to have the courage to speak up and engage in conversation with one another. We need to acknowledge our history instead of insisting that one type of history is better or more harmful than another. We need to be able to live freely in areas that nourish and sustain our bodies, minds, and souls as individuals with the freedom to be who we are.
Isn’t that what the United States of America represents?
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