That night, our country again became a coliseum, with throngs ascending its risers, teeth bared, demanding blood. At sundown, the gladiator emerged from his pit and presented himself to the lion, emptied and unarmed. He had no steed or chainmail, no sorcery to fell his accusers or hypnotism to convince them of his truth. He had only faith in eternity, only resignation to a likely fate. Death seemed his lot, and he had accepted it, even as a chorus of valorous dissenters railed against it in his stead.
As in so many times before, there were jeers, the drunken sloshing of goblets, hateful epithets sailing through the air on the spittle of onlookers. There were those in whose eyes rabid glee danced in the light of the torches. And I shuddered, remembering those countless clearings in the woods where crowds like this one gathered to string up the bodies of black folks like so many ornaments in their trees.
The same festive bloodlust abided, the same unwillingness to hear reason.
This was no place for children.
But I wanted you here.
You needed to know what we’re up against, what’s worth wailing for, what it means to rend both your heart and your garments in the public square. We are not of a privileged caste, my love, not exempt from the reckoning gaze of an emperor who will never know the acrid tongue of hunger, never find himself so much as grazed by our afflictions. When the life of one of our own sits in the balance, our land condemns to death cavalierly, striking out each fresh crescendo of doubt with the flourish of a 10,000-dollar pen.
The lion pawed at our gladiator who, for his part, remained on his feet, holding his own till the tribunal declared him broken enough for the next round. We tugged the hems of adjudicators’ robes, boxed hundreds of thousands of signatures petitioning our gladiator’s release, fashioned banners decrying injustice, linked arms beyond the iron gates. We sang a song you have heard in your nursery–about igniting our inner light, about bringing the darkness to shame.
As our hymn lulled you to eventual slumber, I thought for just a moment that we would upend the world while you dreamt. We would deconstruct and rearrange the empire, so that when you woke, there would be a remarkable new world, where the cries of the people pricked the hearts of their government, where empathy warmed the cold, long arm of the law.
I thought we would not taste failure, that mercy would fall from the sky like manna and the gladiator, tasting it, would be spared.
I would tell you then that the blight of Jim Crow had finally been scoured clean, that our ancestors’ innocent blood has seeped so far into this soil that it’d begun to yield far less bitter and strange fruit.
I did not know that as I imagined you awakening to find that fairness had swept through our land, the poison had already broken into our gladiator’s veins.
When you woke he would be dead.
The burden of explaining his absence would be mine. Someday, I would need to tell you, as we prepared to protest yet another suspect imprisonment, another battle in the crumbling coliseum, that what we do is not in vain. I will stroke your hair and remind you that in times before either of us were born, we could not protest without being toppled by hoses, could not picket without the attack of dogs. Before that, we could not sleep without the distant crackle of fire against flesh and the terrifying wonder whether the burning father, brother, or aunt was our own.
Beloved, our battles matter. The ground we gain may seem insignificant, but when measured in yards and not inches, you will see how far we have traveled, away from the cotton and cane we once plowed without pay, on threat of torture and death.
We are still without privilege, but there has been progress. We must always believe there will be more. I cannot allow you to live life discouraged, expecting defeat when it’s probable. I have to explain how we hope.
We look at the knights and the lion, at the fattened emperor and the pit. We listen to the gladiator concede.
And still we sing and link arms and we love.