In this country, some woods still howl; I’ve heard them. You need only venture South, to a city where the work of Ida B. Wells still looms large in the hearts of so many haunted families. Stand in the ruddy dirt of a clearing, let the fire ants seep between the straps of your sandals and nip your skin, wait for the trees to bear witness. Someone died there.
It’s a safe assumption that, as the white man who killed him kicked free the wood slab that had staved off the noose, the vision quickly dimming in that dying man’s eyes was not of a diverse and well-heeled audience, promising him that everything he wanted for his children would come to pass. It was not of Latino twins from Texas whose mother’s work as a domestic cleared their path to plush seats in Southern politics. It was not of a brother-governor openly voicing his displeasure with his white predecessor without the threat of violent consequence. And it was certainly not of a black president, his brilliant Chicago-bred wife, and their two elegant, well-educated girls who speak of fear, not through the life-or-death lens of racial animus, but only as it relates to the demise of their healthy home life.
No, what was far more likely flickering before the eyes of the man — swinging, gagging, slackening in the clearing where you can still hear his howls –was a cluster of sneering faces: eyes absent apology, their drunken drawls rising loudly in the whorls of their oil-torch embers: “There goes one less nigger with his hand out, one less mouth we’ve got to pay to support, one less mind that dares to dream beyond its station. We are one step closer to getting our country back. We own this.”
Depending on the decade of his death, he may have left this world without much expectation that this crime against him would someday be avenged or that there’d ever be a day when this kind of existence became abnormal for men who looked like him. He would’ve hoped, but not hard enough to envision so many faces similar to his own in positions of congressional power, not high enough to hear the voice of a remarkably accomplished woman extolling a black family’s hard work and high debt as virtues and vices capable of yielding them not just their own plot of land, but the highest office in the land.
As he hung there dying, here are the ideas that would’ve been easier for him to apprehend: a digital effigy of the first black first lady’s face superimposed on a topless slave’s body; the existence and froth-mouthed intensity of the Tea Party; the willful ignorance of Birthers; a presidential candidate so entitled and unwilling to relate to the people he hopes to govern that he and his staunchest supporters consider themselves benevolent when they offer to relieve us of our hard-earned rights.
If ever you find yourself in those woods that howl, answer the wind. Tell all the voices of our restless ancestries that, though our generation remains far more similar to theirs than we’d hoped, we exist in a realm far beyond any they could imagine. Race still matters so much more than it should — and, on occasion, in ways that can still get you killed. But we are freer than we were, we understand that we are not free enough, and today, we have so many more means to defend our liberty on the countless occasions when it’s challenged. Assure them that when they see us rejoicing it is not because their sacrifices have been absorbed and gradually forgotten. There will always be those among us who volunteer to tote the barge of history and remind others of the vast indignities for which we have yet to atone. We rejoice because we have the wisdom to know that the power to affect real change — however fleeting or illusory or jeopardized — is still possible for people like us to wield. Tell them, come November, when we cast our unsuppressed votes, it is their hearts we’ll be holding in our hands.