“I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.”
—Nina Simone, 1967
Here’s a knock-knock joke:
“Aunt Jemima who?”
“Ain’t yo’ mama on the pancake box?”
OK, so you’re not laughing. But that joke killed in 1969 on the playground at Adams Junior High. What self-respecting black kid wanted his mama likened to the handkerchief-head mammy who beamed from the box of pancake mix?
Now comes word Aunt Jemima will no longer be “on the pancake box.” She’s going away, and Uncle Ben, Mrs. Butterworth and “Rastus” from Cream of Wheat may soon follow.
Meantime, the NFL now admits it was wrong to ignore racism, Commissioner Roger Goodell even going so far as to support the idea of Colin Kaepernick playing football again.
NASCAR has banned the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate heroes are falling like rain.
Massive crowds of people, many white, have been marching and chanting against police brutality and talk of reform is so pervasive even Donald Trump felt compelled to issue an executive order, weak tea though it was.
On late-night talk shows, discussions of racial justice have all but replaced movie promotions.
White Americans are asking hard questions about white privilege and—in a miracle on par with the loaves and fishes—many appear, for the first time, to be listening to the answers.
One scarcely knows what to make of it all. Mind you, we have not reached “the Promised Land” Martin Luther King Jr. famously prophesied. But it’s obvious something new is happening.
The proximate cause is simple: the murder of George Floyd. As all the world knows, he died after 7 minutes and 46 seconds with his cheek on the pavement and a white cop’s knee pressed to his neck. Via cellphone video, we all stood witness.
That clip left us—apologies to Martha Reeves—nowhere to run, nowhere to hide from the stark truth it told. We had seen other clips, yes, but they were often grainy images captured from a distance, and thus, they provided an escape hatch for those who were so inclined, room for them to avoid knowing what they did not wish to know.
But Floyd’s death was up close and in focus. We heard him repeatedly plead for his life. And, too, we clearly saw on the face of the white Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin, the arrogance of a man confident that even if he grinds out a Black man’s life in broad daylight on a public street, accountability will never call his name.
And something changed.
Across America, around the world, something changed. Suddenly, it was palpably less controversial to assert what never should have been controversial to begin with: Black lives matter.
Is the change real? Will it last? One is scared to hope. And with good reason.
African American history, after all, is a litany of hope crushed to Earth and forced to rise again. This very weekend commemorates Juneteenth—June 19, 1865—when Black people in Galveston, Texas, became the last human property to receive word that they were free. The Ku Klux Klan was formed later that same year.
Hope rising, hope crushed.
That’s the story of Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, of Barack Obama’s election and the brutal pushback that followed. There’s every reason to fear it will be the story here, too.
But Aunt Jemima is off the pancake box and decent white people are grappling—really grappling—with their role in a system that advantages them by grinding down the rest of us.
One is scared to hope. One knows better than to hope.
And yet, one hopes just the same.