‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.’ -Maya Angelou
I watched the Netflix documentary recently, featuring stories from Michelle Obama’s tour to promote her book Becoming. Both times I’ve read the book, I cried. Of course, I cried watching the documentary, as well. I believe her intention for writing the book was meant to be inspirational…to motivate people (especially young people) to be the owners and writers of their stories…that we should each captain our own ship when navigating life’s journey…and that we should help others when their voyages have gone awry, or whose ships may be taking on water, and sinking. So why cry when reading a book or watching a documentary that features so much good?
Over and over both the book and in the documentary, Mrs. Obama emphasizes to young people to stop thinking of themselves as statistics; they are not invisible. We don’t build friendships over our statistics; we build them through recounting our past, sharing knowledge, finding commonalities, uttering anecdotes, sharing laugher, and confessing our pain. Communities are formed similarly. In truth, Becoming makes me nostalgic for a time when I believed America was on its way to becoming better. The turmoil of the 9/11 attacks, then entering into a war none of us wanted/believed in, and the start of the recession had brought the country’s spirit to a low point. Bush’s 2nd term was ending, and we were all eager for the country to find its way back to the light. Even though the ugliness of the 2008 election, I distinctly remember how Obama continued to inspire the kind of hope that we needed, which made us proud to say we were Americans again.
His presidency sent a clear message to (what I like to call) the good ol’ boy regime that the tides were finally turning. During the film, Michelle mentioned what a proud moment it was for the black community, but with that comes the immense pressure of being the “first black anything.” Admittedly, I have no idea what this must feel like, but I appreciate the weight these words carry. While the black community felt pride in this historical moment, I know so many of us in the white community were equally overjoyed. America’s past is stained with racism and oppression. While oppression happens all across the world, which seems to be a uniquely human affliction, it isn’t something that many of us want to talk about. It’s certainly not something that evokes a sense of patriotic nobility. Still, we should acknowledge and make reparations if we ever hope to become a more equitable nation.
Throughout his campaign and years in the White House, this aspiration for true equality – regardless of the color of their race, creed, or color – seemed to finally be burgeoning forward after years of laying the groundwork by all of those who have fought for freedom. Yet, this legacy of racism runs deep like the roots of a Banyan tree, with “white privilege” deeply ingrained into our society, beginning with the constitution, on down to segregated schools and neighborhoods, to most notably the criminal ‘justice’ system, and we have learned those roots are hard to cut out. Immediately after Obama took office, the pervasive ugliness of this unworthy endowment reared its nasty head on TV, in newspapers, and in everyday communities, exposing our collective naivety of hope, dashing the idea that real change had finally arrived. Many in the white community were just waking up to suffering experienced by our black and brown brothers and sisters over centuries, signaling it was time we dig deeper into the past to learn what we are rarely taught in school.
Although many of us in white society is not racist, there is no doubt we have wholly benefited from the systemic biases built into our culture. Just because slavery was abolished does not mean that we haven’t allowed the architecture of slavery to create the framework of current-day society. Maybe “white guilt” has accelerated this denial, or political partisanship prevented us from seeing those who have been left behind relegated to statistics. Speaking for myself, I can’t remember a time growing up when I ever felt fully aware of how I benefited from systemic racism. It wasn’t until I was old enough to vote that I began to see the disparity. I think it took Obama’s presidency to pull the veil from our eyes to truly see even the simplest of inequities for many of us. Why else would we allow a white man to a tan suit in the White House and think nothing of it but contrive a false scandal when a black does the same?
If you didn’t see this brazen hypocrisy before/during his presidency, you most certainly have to acknowledge it exists now. Physics states that when the pendulum swings hard in one direction, it comes back in the opposite way with equal force, but eventually, the amplitude of their swing declines until it eventually rests somewhere in the middle. The current administration represents that recoil effect of having our first black president, and he will by no means be the last. Whether the white people in “power” want to believe it not, evolution does happen, and throughout history, we have seen the narrative change. This is the common theme amongst the fall of the British Empire, the Ottomans, the Han Dynasty, or the Roman Empire: oppressing people leads to depressed economies, imbalances in trade, the overthrow of governments, and greater turmoil. Economies work well when you have a healthy, educated labor force, people are extended their freedoms, and there are high levels of research and development.
That is not the state of our country today. Pandemic aside, income inequality comes at a high price, not just for the poor but the wealthy alike….just ask the people who lived through the Great Depression. Yet, nearly 100 years later, we have forgotten those lessons as well…too much infighting has severely weakened us as a nation. We are now incapable of learning from one another to strengthen our economy and fortify our nation against all enemies (foreign and domestic)…there are rats living in the White House, my friends. The separatists of the south wanted to keep people enslaved long after it was proven to put them at a disadvantage for long-term economic prosperity. They lost the Civil War because of their inability to modernize, to allow people to walk free. More than 150 years later, our system is still reinventing “new” ways to keep people marginalized, but history rings true time and time again…oppression shreds an empire.
When a black woman dies at the hands of the police, for nothing more than a pretextual traffic stop, while a white woman can freely run stoplights and only get a minor scolding, that is oppression. When a black man is strangled by the authorities for selling cigarettes on a street corner, while a white man is calmly arrested after murdering 9 black parishioners in cold blood, that is oppression. When a white person can leave their home to go for a run, or sit in a park, or have a BBQ without fear of having the police called because you were “laughing too loudly,” or having your body chained and drug behind a pick-up truck, or hunted down and shot dead, that is oppression. While these stories are not the ones we want to tell, they are the ones that must be told until the narrative changes.
If we do not learn from our past, if we do not get to know the “other,” we allow the empires to keep us fearful, relegating us to nothing more than a statistic…history will repeat itself, and we will fail. We see it happening already, from the dysfunctional response to the pandemic to the dismantling of an organized government. Our economy has experienced a greater negative impact than those societies with highly functioning governments. Those who believe in investing in education and science, investing in their people, and development, have not experienced as traumatic economic fallout as Americans. Education has been called the great equalizer, so if we are to change the narrative, we must not be afraid to share our stories. We must not be afraid to listen to the stories of people who may not look like us, think like us, or pray like us. For if we put those fears aside, we will learn that we all have more in common than what we were raised to think or the current administration would have us believe.
Michelle ends her documentary by reminding us of this…no matter what Tangerine Toddler (my description, not hers) says, no matter what some in the “news” media reports about, there are many good people out there. She has met them along the way – from her time campaigning for her husband to her time in the East Wing, and all along her recent book tour, there are so many people who want to do right by one another. It is time for our stories to be heard.