We all have heard the stories. They usually begin with “back in my day…” and what follows is a litany of exaggerated narratives about how life back then was so much harder than the present. How she—usually some gray-haired elder wearing a pillbox hat and compression stockings, hiding the tobacco chilling between her gums and teeth—don’t know why us young folk are so ungrateful.
“Back in my day, I had to walk five miles to school, barefoot, in the snow, carrying ten books, a box of pencils and a lunch pail.”
“Back in my day, we didn’t have none of this new fangled text messaging. If we wanted to send someone a message we had to write a letter and walk five miles to the post office, barefoot, in the snow, carrying ten books, a box of pencils and a lunch pail.”
Sure you did. Lol!
I always found it amazing that they could simultaneously talk about how different things were, how much had changed, while also claiming that there was “nothing new under the sun.” Every dance, style, way of being, harkens back to days of old, according to my Granny. Or “you all think Ferguson is something,” some of my elders back home will say. “I remember when King came to Kentucky to march in Frankfort for civil rights.”
Ain’t nothing new under the sun, they say.
Some of their stories were more sobering though. They shared with us the struggles endured in the Jim Crow south or, for those who were part of the Great Migration that Isabel Wilkerson talks about in her book The Warmth of Other Suns, the many hardships and trials that came from trying to make a better life in the North. I suppose both the ridiculousness and soberness of all these stories, the alleged contradictions between new and old, was kind of a way to illustrate the tension between the past and present.
And speaking of the linkages between past and present, I went to go see the film SELMA during its opening weekend here in Philadelphia. It was a brilliant film that held me captive from start to finish with its amazing images, powerful words, and dynamic acting. But what I was most taken with, what caught me most off guard, was the familiarity of the film. I felt like I’d been there. Strange since I was born a decade after Bloody Sunday.
After some reflection, I finally realize why I felt so connected to the story. I now know why watching a police officer walk up to Dr. King and punch him in the mouth for no reason caused the hair on my arms to stand at attention. It’s because even in my lifetime I’ve seen unarmed black men regularly treated with the same disregard. Abused, sometimes killed, for no other reason than they “fit the description.”
Ain’t nothing new under the sun, they say.
It hurt to sit in that theater and realize that what I was seeing on the screen was not just some depiction or interpretation of a long-gone historical event, but at its core, a present reality. That the thread of white supremacy remains deeply embedded in the fabric of our institutions—despite the many sacrifices of our mothers and fathers.
It also hurts to look at your child and realize that 40 years from now, if true change doesn’t somehow find its way to the hearts and minds of some, she could be sitting in a movie theater watching a film called Ferguson or Staten Island and sensing the same familiarity her mother does today.
Yet in spite of this tension I feel, this convergence of past and present, I still have hope. A crazy, seemingly unfounded, hope. My hope means that maybe, just maybe history will not repeat itself; that we can somehow make room in our world for more love instead of hate.
Sure, on many days, I think my hope is futile. Even foolish. But then I remember this:
And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. – Galatians 6:9 NKJV
Hope is my good. I cannot grow weary of having hope even when it’s exhausting to do so. Our mothers and father in Selma (and Montgomery and Frankfort and…) didn’t stop hoping. Hope fueled their courage. It will fuel my own.
And maybe when K is my age, with her own children, I can pull up on my compression socks, straighten my pillbox hat, and talk about what happened “back in my day” and how “these kids got it easy these days with all their equality, justice, and thangs.”
Maybe there can be something new under the sun.
One can only hope, right?
This post was originally published on MyBrownBaby.com