Lessons With Covid-19, Part 2
Well, perhaps that’s being a bit dramatic. I didn’t waste 25 years of my life (and I definitely did not spend those years wasted.) But, by making the very unscientific estimation that professional “writers” hone in on their passion during their high school or college years, I’d say that I’ve missed out on 25 or so years of my writing career. I was doing other things. I did make a living during that time, so perhaps not choosing writing way back then saved me some years of financial hardship.
Now that I’ve committed to being a writer, I have some major catching up to do if I ever want to be counted among the good writers — however that may be defined.
Unfortunately for me, I’ve noticed that I’m also behind when it comes to reading.
In the past, I might have read a book which interested me from time to time. But I wouldn’t call it a hobby or past-time. At most I might slog through a book on a topic I wanted to learn about, but I didn’t make a habit of reading. I was far more likely to take in a movie than read a book. It’s one of those areas I feel guilty about, but probably shouldn’t. There are a lot of people like that.
I’ve never even heard of a writer who didn’t also read as a matter of habit. Nor am I familiar with many world-changing personalities who aren’t avid readers. Just ask Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis, or scores of other successful people.
In Part 1 of this series, I talked about how the COVID-19 stay-at-home order (quarantine, if you will) provided me with an easier life than I’ve experienced this side of adulthood. I consider myself an extrovert, so there are some things I miss, but for the most part, I’ve enjoyed the easier daily schedule.
With all this extra time, I was able to multi-task and check off a few daily items off my list. Specifically: 1) use up our new puppies endless amounts of energy by taking him for a walk, 2) use up some of my endless amounts of fat cells by taking the dog for a walk, and 3) catch up on classic books I’d never read by listening to audio-books while engaged in numbers 1 and 2.
I know that there’s a certain amount of discussion as to whether listening to audio books is, well, cheating, but I’ve no time for quibbling here, folks. I’ll not accomplish the above mentioned personal COVID-goals by sitting down with a good book. So audio books and 5.4 mile walks around my neighborhood it is. (I’m down 5 lbs this week. So there.)
When trying to figure out what to read, I decided I’d devote much of the listening time to classics I’d never read. I’m two books into my list of classics. I began with To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) before moving on to The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck). While I don’t know anyone would consider it a classic, I’m also about a third of the way through We Were 8 Years in Power, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. As a result of my current listening binge, I’m at a state of heightened awareness to the privilege I’ve experienced in life.
I tried to read Mockingbird two other times in the past. I just couldn’t get into it.
There were probably a myriad of reasons for this, but high on the list was that I couldn’t identify with the point of view from which it was written (that of a young girl), and I couldn’t identify with the southern lexicon.
Make no mistake — these are “me” problems. I own them, and they were to my detriment. When I finally forced myself to get past my chauvinistic, northern snobbery, I came to understand that the elements I found challenging were essential to the story.
If you are unfamiliar with Mockingbird, I’ll provide you with a brief synopsis without spoiling the book, which you should definitely read. The story is narrated by Jean Louise Finch. Finch, who is called “Scout” as a young girl, recalls her experience growing up with her 10-year old brother in Alabama in the 1930’s. They are raised by their father, Atticus Finch, a widower. Atticus is a defense attorney who has been assigned to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. Atticus Finch, while not infallible, is one of the most upstanding characters you might ever encounter. He’s the voice of reason in the book, and is working to teach his children progressive values in the American south during the 1930’s. As you can imagine, Atticus has his legal and paternal work cut out for him.
As I read the book there was an uncomfortable sense of familiarity with the story.
About midway through, Atticus is forced to stand guard outside a jail to prevent a group of people from taking the accused for what I felt like would be a lynching. As the story unfolded through my earbuds, it sounded grotesquely similar to real-life events near where I live.
I live about 5 miles from the site of a lynching in 1931, the same decade when Mockingbird takes place. In the month prior to beginning Mockingbird, I’d learned a bit about lynchings having attended a meeting to establish a lynching memorial coalition. As part of the meeting, a local historical center had displayed a significant amount of historical documents in regards to lynchings on the Delmarva peninsula. We were given about 30 or so minutes to peruse the materials before coming back to discuss business matters.
As it turns out, I didn’t really understand what a lynching is. Learning what I did in that brief 30 minutes, I grew embarrassed by how little I understood about lynchings.
I thought lynchings were limited to the activities of the Klu Klux Klan and occurred when they hung a black person. I never thought hanging a black person was ok, no matter how it occured. But as I read the real-life stories of the lynchings I grew to new levels of disgust.
Here are some things I didn’t understand about lynchings:
- While hanging usually occurred, there was far more involved than “simply” hanging the victim. For instance, in the case of the 1931 lynching in my town the victim, Matthew Williams, was pulled from his hospital bed and thrown from the second story window of his hospital room. While in a straight jacket he was tied to the back of a car and dragged through town before being hung from a tree for 20 minutes. After that Williams was strung up on a street light, dowsed with gasoline and lighted on fire. A lynching wasn’t just a hanging. It was torture. Often times the hanging wasn’t what killed the victim.
- The victim was most often accused of a crime. Those alleged crimes were usually against a white person. Often the alleged crime was raping a white woman (as were the charges in To Kill a Mockingbird). In the case of Williams, he had been accused of shooting his boss.
- All it took was an accusation. The victim was killed without a trial. It wasn’t justice. It was vigilantism.
- The only thing the victim was proven guilty of at the time of their death was being born black. The criminal charges against the person were the excuse to give life to racist desires.
- Lynchings seldom, if ever, resulted in any charges of murder. Even though there were people present — usually hundreds — “nobody ever saw anybody do anything.”
But lynchings don’t happen now. Right? I mean, as I described the above, I spoke about them in the past tense. So I must believe they’re all in the past.
The killing of Ahmaud Arbery on February 23, 2020 looms large on my conscience.
Let’s compare Arbery’s death to the five characteristics I listed above:
- No, Arbery wasn’t hung. But again, hanging wasn’t the point.
- The men who hunted down Arbery did so because he had entered a house that didn’t belong to him. They believed a burglary had occured.
- Arbery was killed without a trial. For crying out loud, it seems like Arbery was killed without a conversation.
- Arbery was black.
- No arrest was made until the video surfaced.
Was his skin color just a coincidence? Perhaps, but I think not. Especially when I juxtaposition Arbery’s experience with my experiences in my neighborhood.
While I was on my dog walk today, I strolled by the home of a very good friend as I usually do. As I did, I noticed there was a package sitting right on top of his mailbox. For some reason I still can’t figure out, I decided to look at the address label to see if it was his. So I stretched my neck to see the top of the 6-foot brick mailbox. What do you know? The parckage was for him. Duh.
As I looked at the package, his neighbor drove by and pulled into their own driveway. It immediately hit me how odd my behavior must have looked to them. They don’t know me, and here I am inspecting someone else’s mail. I’m pretty sure that’s even illegal. Add to that, our neighborhood has had recent issues with porch pirates. But guess what…
No one called the police. No one chased me down with a shot gun. No one killed me. I wasn’t even concerned that those things might happen.
The only concern I had was that someone might ask me what the hell I was doing, and I’d have to explain. I had no idea what I would have said. As it turns out, it didn’t matter. No one questioned me.
No one ever questions me. Even when my behavior is flat out weird.
My neighborhood also has houses under construction. I have white friends who have entered those homes to see what they are going to look like. They were literally doing exactly what it looks like Arbery did. Nobody called the police, and for sure nobody grabbed two guns, chased them down, exited their vehicle, and shot them out of “self-defense.”
Nope. No one even questioned it.
Ahmaud Arbery didn’t have that luxury when he was jogging. He didn’t even have it after he was killed. Christian Christensen speaks to this in this piece. And right on cue, the first “story” (formerly known as comment) proved his point as they tried to explain there’s a chance the gunman — who again, chased down Arbery, exited his vehicle, and ended up shooting and killing a man — could have done it out of self defense. Non-whites are under constant scrutiny.
Is it possible that if it was me running instead of Arbery that day, that I’d be the one that was hunted down and eventually shot dead? I suppose it’s possible.
But it’s not something I fear.
My social media feeds are full of tributes to Arbery.
I’m glad people aren’t looking past it like nothing happened. That is a good thing. I’d wonder about my friends if I didn’t see these tributes.
I have several friends who ran 2.23 miles “in solidarity” with him. (2.23 miles representing February 23, the day of the killing.) I didn’t. I didn’t run 2.23 miles because that doesn’t feel like solidarity to me. I haven’t posted anything on my Facebook feed about the incident. It feels like lip-service. Running 2.23 miles won’t bring back Arbery, it won’t convict the killers, and it won’t prevent the next murder.
Honestly, I don’t know what will. I expect within the next few months there will be another story about a white person with a gun shooting a black person who doesn’t have a gun.
But not knowing what will prevent the next death doesn’t let me off the hook for trying to be a part of figuring out what will.
I’m not going to pretend like this isn’t happening in my country. I’m not going to sit behind the veil of history and be content that it wasn’t me. I’m not going to stand in solidarity unless the solidarity is an action that might prevent another death.
I’m not going to let my ego post something emotional on my facebook feed to show how sad a death makes me. Maybe if I was black that would be enough. Because if I was black, I could literally say I regularly faced skepticism due to the color of my skin.
I’m white. I’ll need to do more. Somehow I’ll need to move to action.
I haven’t heard anything from the lynching memorial task force I attended since the meeting back in March. Truth be told, I was a little late to the movement, and there’s a chance I’ve been left out of the loop.
I don’t even know if placing a memorial where a lynching occurred will stop another in the future. But I know I learned some things simply by going to one meeting. I learned some things that disturbed me. Some things that made me want to prevent future lynchings.
So I looked up the group’s leader. I sent a message.
I want in.
I guess that’s the first small step I’ll take. I do it for Ahmaud. I do it for the Mockingbird. I do it to remember Williams and others like him. And I do it to be a catalyst for change in our community.
All made possible by some extra time due to COVID-19.