By Bruce A. Smith
These are the most dramatic days of my lifetime – the Covid crisis coupled with historic social change that will hasten the end of racism. The coronavirus has killed 120,000 Americans, half of whom would be alive if Trump took appropriate and timely measures, such as testing and mask-wearing, and acted with anything approaching competence and compassion.
More importantly, the nation has finally risen up against police brutality and the systemic racism in our society. The death of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis was the triggering event. Protests organically emerged in cities and rural areas beginning the following day, May 26, and I mark that date as the beginning of this transformation of America.
Due to my Covid concerns, I didn’t hit the streets to add my presence to the call for change. But I took to heart some suggestions I gathered from TV, especially from Derrick Johnson, the CEO of the NAACP, who appeared on the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon show. Johnson suggested that supportive white folks, sometimes called “allies,” could reach out to the black people they knew and engage in conversation.
“Make a black friend,” Johnson said, simply.
However, I doubted that any of the few people of color that I knew – a handful – would be all that receptive to a friendship call from me. Maybe, though.
As a result of those doubts, I first took Johnson up on his second suggestion: joining the NAACP.
“We’re a diverse organization,” he said. “We have whites and all races in our membership. It’s not just for African Americans.” Most impactfully for me, he stressed that the NAACP is an organization dedicated to ensuring equal protection under the law for all. To me that rings deep. When I’m in a group that is reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, I am silent until the last phrase and then I shout: “AND Liberty and Justice for all.”
I’ve been in this fight for a long time. So, I joined the NAACP, glad that I still had a few bucks left over from my $1,200 stimulus check I received at the end of April.
After I sent off the fifty bucks, I went to the NAACP’s website so I could purchase some merchandise proclaiming my membership, such as a bumper sticker. I figured sporting a “Proud Member of the NAACP” on the rear of my Camry would enhance my drive to the grocery store in Eatonville. Over the past few months, I’ve squirmed driving past the growing throng of Trump signage adorning my neighbors’ fences. It’s so bad that I call the road to town, “Trump Alley.”
Now, I figured, I’d have an answer. However, no such merchandise was available from the NAACP. Not even a baseball cap or coffee mug, let alone a bumper sticker. In fact, most of the merch was low-key and very unprovocative. I guess that is the biggest proof of the insidious nature of racism in America. Even the NAACP has to be careful what its members wear in public.
After failing to procure my kind of signage, I returned to the notion of evolving my black acquaintanceships into black friendships. It boiled down to two women – former schoolmates at Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment – for whom I actually had an email or a phone number. One did not respond to my email, and I chickened-out on calling her.
However, the second gal, whom I know better and have worked with in theater projects, responded to my phone calls by sending me Facebook messages. I told her I was looking to develop a dialogue on race, as touted by Mr. Johnson on the Fallon show.
My Fb friend was circumspect. To date, she has never directly responded to my questions or entreaties for a dialogue, but she sends me videos, pix, and memes on a daily basis. From these I have learned more deeply how systemic racism actually is, and how profoundly dangerous life in America is for a black person.
In the broad sense, none of these learnings are new to me. But what is new is the accumulative impact of the details, the scope of discrimination. I see the behavior of the police in a more penetrating focus – now I see that many cops are actively participating in exterminating black people: one protester, one looter, one drunk-guy-like-George-Floyd-buying-a-cartoon-of-cigarettes-with-a-phony-twenty-dollar-bill at a time.
So, I applaud the criminal charges against the cops who killed George Floyd. I applaud the protestors who have kept marching by the thousands in hundreds of cities and towns for the past month. That has kept the pressure on the Powers-That-Be.
Now the argument goes beyond justice for Mr. Floyd and obvious policing reforms, such as banning choke holds, to something more systemic. Most cities are grappling with fundamental and structural changes best described as “Defund the Police.” Some, such as the protestors in the Capitol Hill of Seattle, have carved out a cop-free zone to experiment in self-policing and experiencing a new level of community control – and responsibility.
I am amazed how so much is happening without any apparent or declared leaders. Who is in charge of the CHOP zone in Seattle? I have no idea. Nor does the media, it seems.
I consider this dynamic to be a beautiful, wonderful development – the organic, ground-up, community-based decision making. I am excited by it. It’s perhaps the greatest manifestation of a society maturing and demanding real change – certainly an end to racism – but more importantly calling for a new society where African Americans are truly equal to me and my white brethren and sistren.
Dave Chappelle’s searing new video titled, “8:46” illuminates many of these issues:
Further, people worldwide have expanded that call to include a repudiation of imperialists and old slave trade icons. Locally, protesters are tearing down Confederate statures, and officials are removing pictures of former Confederates from Congress.
Ironically, the protests may be fueled in part by Covid. Protesting began as the states chomped on the bit to re-open. Everyone burst out of quarantine as if we had escaped from prison. First, we had the protests to “Liberate Wisconsin” and “Re-Open California.” Then, a couple weeks later we responded to the death of George Floyd.
Since 40 million Americans are out of work and most schools are still closed, folks had the time to protest. Now, we using that freedom to transform our country. To me, it is finally “Morning in America.”
Staying alive is still important, obviously. Yet, many protesters don’t wear masks, and none keep themselves at a distance – how could they when they are so angry?
Further, Covid has become fully politicized. Red-Staters and Trump supporters don’t wear masks. Dems and libs do. I wear an N-95 mask when I’m in a grocery store, but I don’t when I just run into the post office to mail a letter.
Yet, I may have Covid. I got tested with nasal and throat swabs two days ago. I get the results tomorrow or the next day. For the past five days I’ve had a combination of fevers and chills, which were followed by days of diarrhea and abdominal cramps. My doc doesn’t think it’s Covid, as I have not had any prolonged contact with anyone with known symptoms, and I’m careful in the world.
Over the past month I have made dates with friends to meet for an hour in a park to share lunch and talk, or go for a walk. These have been vital moments to me. We don’t wear masks, but we don’t touch and we sit about 2-3 feet apart, like on opposite sides of a picnic table.
Quarantine has been tough for me, especially losing performing opportunities, such as storytelling at open mics, or the cancellation of my musical destined for Seattle and possibly Broadway. These have left my soul bereft. As a result, I began slipping back into a depression at the beginning of May. I went back on my anti-depressants, which I had left eighteen months ago when I relaunched my performance career. But my body rejected the meds vigorously, so I called my old therapist. We had our first session together last week, thank Gawd.
Today, I feel okay emotionally. Over the past six weeks, as the states re-open and folks move back into the world, I’ve become more alive, my creative juices flowing once again. I re-visited my novel, The Men of Honor of Unity House, and fully edited it, getting it ready for a literary agent or publisher.
The same, too, for my book, DB Cooper and the FBI – A Case Study of America’s Only Unsolved Skyjacking. The 3rd Edition is now ready for publication and I’m seeking a publisher, or I will just self-pub it as I did the first two versions in 2014 and 2015.
I’ve also re-visited a number of my personal stories, as found in Stories from the Journey – From the Suburbs of New York to Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment. Several of these stories have been re-shaped and sent off to magazines for consideration, such as Sun Magazine.
And my garden is in good shape. All my potatoes are up, and I finally got my kale seeds to germinate – so I should have a good crop of greens in case the food supply gets wonky in a 2nd Wave of Covid.
On the family front, Mom turned 96 two weeks ago, and I took another fifty bucks from my stim stash to send her a bouquet. My sister, her kids and their kids, plus me and BJ tried to Zoom, but failed. So we got on a huge conference call that was utterly chaotic, but soulfully memorable – and that is what is most important these days – creating meaningful memories that sustain us through the dark times.
In fact, the quarantine has allowed a new Smith family tradition to develop. My sister, Mom, and I spend at least two hours on the phone every Sunday afternoon. I call at 2 pm my time – after I get up at my usual time of noon and then have a few cups of coffee and take my meds – then I call New York, which is 5 pm their time.
For the first time in our lives, we just hang out and chat. Sometimes it’s a stroll down memory lane, or venting about Trump. Sometimes it’s catching up on family news, especially getting a report from Mom’s klatch of friends from around the world that still keep in touch. She’s been a world traveler for much of her life, and makes friends everywhere she goes, even in rehab. She’s a marvel that way, really.
Sometimes we just talk about the weather, or Mom gives me a report on what her caregivers cooked that week that was particularly delicious. Sis often chimes in with a report on what Covid life is like in Brooklyn, such as how her Whole Foods store has one-way aisles, thirty-minute waits to approach the produce section, or twenty-minute waits to enter the store due to restrictions on how many shoppers can be inside at any particular time.
Mom, who is generally the epitome of stoicism, has also expressed some real sadness these past few weeks. She had Sis arrange for St. Vincent de Paul to pick up her 1992 240-DL Volvo as a donation. No one drives it anymore due to its many little issues, like a a faulty heating system or windows that either don’t roll up or down, so it has sat in her garage unused for the past year. Due to her health, she has never driven it, either, but it was perhaps her last, most tangible link to my father, who drove Mom everywhere in it. He’s been gone over ten years, and now, so too, is his ol’ green Volvo.
As always, I hope y’all are well, and feel free to comment below.
Update, Tuesday, June 23, 2020:
I don’t have Covid. My doc just informed me that my tests came back “negative.”
Yours truly. Photo courtesy of Luby Missov.