When the novelist William Faulkner wrote “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” he could have been writing about this painful moment in our history, commenting on the enduring horror of white supremacy and anti-black racism. Indeed, George Floyd’s appalling murder by a white policeman in Minneapolis recalls a long, tragic, and violent history of police brutality against African-American people in the United States, one that stretches back in time before the nation was founded, to the invention of slave patrols whose job was to police the mobility of the enslaved across the Americas.
But if we as a nation seem unequal prisoners to that violent and shameful past, we also see a dramatic transformation in the making with protests on behalf of “black lives matter” occurring in all fifty states of the nation and across the planet. The brilliant black activist and writer James Baldwin wrote that “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Studying history with eyes wide open is not optional, Baldwin understood, but a necessity for living and for living well. Wrote Baldwin, “the past is all that makes the present coherent,” continuing that “the past will remain horrible for exactly so long as we refuse to assess it honestly.”
Here then is a case for hope in a pandemic that has exposed our collective vulnerability to an airborne pathogen and to some of the oldest political viruses in U.S. history, racism and xenophobia, both of which have made the pandemic more deadly. That hope is not based on looking away, ignorance, or denial, but on an unvarnished assessment of the profound inequalities that have brought us to this moment.
In the remainder of my letter, I want to highlight some of the extraordinary history work that our students have been leading and instigating, using the past to make the present both coherent and livable. All of these students are members of the class of 2021 and are majoring in public policy. And all have expanded my sense of hope in this dire and extraordinary moment.
At the beginning of the pandemic, a team of three students, Erin Lee, Julianna Rennie, and Catherine Martinez, set out to answer two challenging questions that frame our present moment succinctly: how have racism and pandemics worked together in history? And what does the ethical representation of those scapegoated by pandemics look like? For answers, listen to their educative and inspiring podcast entitled, “I Exist: Asians, COVID-19, and Ethical Representation.”
More recently, Sydney McKinney responded to her many white friends’ anxieties about discussing racism by forming a book club that has quickly grown to encompass nearly two thousand students across the nation. You may access their readings and join them here. The first reading Sydney recommended is Ibram Kendi’s terrific diagnostic history of white supremacy and what to do about it, How to be an Anti-Racist.
James Toscano and Lauren Howell were recently invited to speak at a virtual community gathering in Durham in which they reflected on what history and citizenship require of them at this moment. Their comments energized and uplifted the audience of veteran democracy activists. Jimmy urges his white peers not to yearn for a return to normal that endangers the lives of his black peers and suggests ways they can participate in “Flipping the Script,” available to see here. And Lauren Howell explains “Why We Fight” in her moving reflection on joining and now leading the protests against police violence in Raleigh, N.C., an effort she directly links to a conversation with her historical ancestors.
We look forward to sharing with you the exciting leadership work of more of our inspiring students later this summer.
Director, Hart Leadership Program
June 17, 2020