Every once in a while, a less-melanin’d human will remark that a particular period of American history was better, wishing we could all go back to a time when things were “simpler” and our values were still “intact”.
And when that period is fraught with the inhumane treatment of blacks – which, for our country, is as likely as hitting the broad side of a barn with another barn – it isn’t all that unusual for someone to accuse him of being racist, either seriously or in jest.
Of course he objects, insisting that longing for the feel of a moment in time that just happened to be openly racist doesn’t make him racist by extension, and I agree. Thinking the old days were swell doesn’t make you racist any more than thinking Roswell was a great place to be in 1947 makes you an alien conspiracist.
But let’s look at it another way…
It’s 1999. A brisk New Year’s Eve. You’re at a club celebrating Y2K’s approach, drink in hand, soul on your sleeve. Your favorite band performs and brings you up on stage. You dance alongside them while your friends hoot and cheer until your eyes land on someone you’ve worshiped for months without a word.
Fueled by the night’s adrenaline, you make a move. Your cheeks touch as you exchange flirtations and the sexual tension of the silence that falls in between, and you realize that everything in that moment is right. This is the way life should be!
You later discover that a girl was brutally raped that night. While you were floating on affections and pounding away at the stage, she was dragged into a bathroom, assaulted, and left for dead not more than fifty feet away.
You watched the news about it, read about it, overheard people talking about it. You knew every unthinkable detail there was to know because everyone knew. It was a part of the club’s history now – a part of that night.
It didn’t change the tenor of the moment.
It became the tenor of the moment.
Now it’s 2016 and you’re at lunch with a friend and you say, “You remember that New Year’s Eve back in 1999 when we went to Club Hypothetical? Everything about that night was perfect, wasn’t it? Life was so much better for everyone then. I wish we could all go back in time and relive it over and over again!”
A woman at a nearby table groans in your direction. “You realize a girl was raped and beaten within an inch of her life that night, right?” And you nod, almost as if it were silly of her to ask. Of course you realize it. That knowledge was inescapable.
The woman’s face shrinks in disgust. “If you know what happened, how can you say it was perfect? How can you say we should all go back and relive it?” Because that’s the question hiding under the skin – how can you pine for something knowing what you know?
The truth is that it didn’t concern you. It didn’t happen to you, it didn’t happen to anyone you care about, and it didn’t have any effect on your life.
Sure, you wouldn’t wish it on anyone and you can’t begin to imagine going through it yourself. But you don’t really care in the way others think you should care, because while that girl’s night was horrific, yours was fucking awesome.
And that’s what counts – right?
It’s understandable. Bad things happen to other people all the time. If we all fell to pieces about it, society would drown in tears, a mound of sullen husks moping about on everyone else’s behalf. And we’re not built for that.
What if it wasn’t just that one girl, that one night, that one place? What if it were all girls, every night, everywhere? What if it was the nature of that period that women, by virtue of being women, could be, would be, and were being beaten, raped and killed as others saw fit?
It wouldn’t be isolated enough for you to claim no connection then, would it? You may not know a particular woman, but you know women. We’re all born from and related to women, you may be friends with women, you may date women, and your children may grow up to be women.
You can’t detach yourself anymore because it’s no longer about a single stranger you’ve never met. It’s about every stranger you’ll ever meet.
Could you still look that woman in the eye and say best night everrrrr when she asks if you realize that everyone like her was suffering while everyone like you was free to pursue their fill of happiness? And how what happened at the club that night was merely a testament to that dismal truth? Par for the course?
Maybe you could because it’s only that one night you miss. A night that, in your mind, exists independent of the darkness storming around it. A night that you have the right to long for because it was yours. Maybe you could because you tell yourself that it wasn’t the culture you missed. It was only that club and that band and that lover.
A part of me might still question how it could be so easy for you to mourn for something steeped in so much pain. Who yearns for an island in a sea of blood?
I say all of that to say this…
Claiming that a period in history was better than now in general just because it was better for people like you is a slap in the face to the rest who were also there in mind, body, and spirit because it hammers home the point that you define the world we all occupy by your occupation. That you view the whole of that history as the sum of your parts alone.
It creates a bubble where the things that matter to you are the only things that matter, and the fact that the values you praise are the very same values that permitted the systematic culling of a people is somehow an irrelevant footnote.
In short, it’s a reminder that at the end of the day, the meaning of race in our country and the state of the black race in particular doesn’t affect you because it didn’t affect you. So you have the luxury of calling it what we can’t: The good ol’ days.
And no, that doesn’t make you racist, but boy, does it make you stupid if you can’t understand why many of us have grown tired of hearing white people lament the loss of a tortured past our people are lucky to be freed from right to our faces as if we’re a historical afterthought in a nation whose history was all but shaped by the story of us and how your people chose to write it…