By Dr. Kaye Whitehead
2020 has changed us. It has broken us, transmogrified us and challenged us. It has been a year where we have learned who we are and what we are willing to do to survive. There are days when I wake up, and I am so disappointed with my elected officials, fellow Americans and myself. How have we allowed this to become our here and now? I used to laugh when people talked about making America great again, and now I find myself just wanting us to aspire to be mediocre. Greatness, at least in the near future, is no longer within our reach. Any country that would put a man in office and support him as he lied, obfuscated and deceived people and then watched as millions of them tested positive for COVID-19 and thousands of them died from it, cannot lay claim to greatness again. America is tragically flawed because of our long history of classism and racism, because of White supremacy and White privilege and because we dare to ask God to bless us while we curse one another.
In 1967, in a speech to the Hungry Club Forum in Atlanta, Dr. King talked about how America was wrestling with three major evils: racism, poverty and war. He urged us to confront these evils and dismantle them. He said we must continue to fight to keep the pressure on until America changes. One year later, in Memphis, Tenn., one day before he would be assassinated, Dr. King sent ahead the title of his Sunday sermon, “Why America May Go to Hell.” Fifty-two years later, I believe that the dark days that Dr. King had tried to warn us about have finally come to pass. 2020 has been the year, under this president, while we are in a global pandemic and national, racial awakening, that America has gone to hell. We are in the Ninth Circle, screaming and crying out for relief. We are watching as our elected officials, many of whom are millionaires in their own right and all of whom are making more than three times the average salary, fail to get over themselves and their petty politics so that they can come together and provide us with some relief. Every country seems to be leaning in to help their citizens except us. We have received one stimulus check as an eviction crisis is happening, as small businesses are closing, as our children are being educated from our kitchen tables, as our positive case numbers are rising, and as incomes are falling. Our politicians are playing politics as millions of us struggle to pay our bills. I have never been so disgusted and frankly embarrassed to be an American.
My father says that there have been moments when he thought America was standing on the edge of the abyss, and he watched as it slowly redeemed itself. He believes that the swinging pendulum always finds a way to level off. “The 16th Street Baptist, the assassination of Dr. King, the 1968 riots, Reaganomics, the Three Strikes Rule,” he slowly ticked through a list, “All moments when I thought we were not going to be able to come back, but we did because America, as racist and classist as she is, just keeps surviving.” My father, I realized, is more hopeful than I am. Perhaps it is because he is a Baptist minister, or maybe it is because he has seen this country at its worst and was still able to pray for it to be better. I used to have a lot of hope for and in America. I believed that the moral arc of the universe, as Dr. King would say, was bending toward justice and that it was my responsibility to keep bending it until it got there. I thought it would get there and that justice would soon come. 2020 has shown me differently. I have watched the battle over mask-wearing, voter suppression tactics, killing of Black men and women and blatant disregard for our pain and suffering, and I am not convinced that we are moving toward anything better.
I recognize that we are in the last days of the Trump era, but the damage that he and his supporters have done to the soul of our nation will not be healed for years to come. President-elect Joe Biden and Madame Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris will spend the next four years trying to get us out of this abyss, trying to stop the bleeding, trying to end the suffering, trying to get us out of hell. 2020 has been that year: the one that nightmares and scary movies are made of, the one that feels like it will never end. Dr. King said there are times when you must take a stand simply because it is right. It may not be political or safe or popular, but it is the one that is right. In this moment, as I look out across the landscape of America, the only thing that feels right is making a decision to survive, to get up, throw my shoulders back, put on my facemask, lean into the wind that is sure to come, and just survive. After 11 months of COVID-19, four years of Donald Trump and 401 years of racism and White supremacy, making the decision to survive the best that I can do at this moment.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (email@example.com; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is an associate professor of African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the Founding Director of The Karson Institute for Race, Peace, and Social Justice and the award-winning host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons. Her book, Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America, was just re-released.
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