By Beverly George, ACE Founder
“When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry. A sea we must wade.
We braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what ‘just’ is isn’t always justice.”
— Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb” written for and recited at the inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on January 20, 2021.
That’s what Amanda Gorman said. However, this is what I heard.
“. . . and the norms and notions of what ‘just is’ isn’t always justice.”
Just a small change in punctuation and meaning, yet that tiny difference triggered a memory for me from about 70 years ago.
I was born in 1946 and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, before it was the big cosmopolitan city it was becoming when we moved away in 1977. The first house I remember was a small red-brick home in an area called Morningside, which was mostly comprised of houses built by and for veterans just after World War II under the GI Bill. It was—and still is—a pretty residential area of the city. I had an older brother, Mike, and my parents owned one car, a 1948 Nash. We had a good life, and we lived securely in early suburban white privilege in a very southern city.
I recall going downtown on the city bus with my mother when I was very young, maybe five years old. I watched black riders get on the bus, pay their fares, and walk directly to the back of the bus to take their seats, even when empty places were available near the front. I asked my mother why they did that, and her answer was something like, “That’s just the way things are.” The Jim Crow laws had been the bedrock of southern life for decades by the time she was born, so her answer was tragically accurate.
What I heard in Amanda Gorman’s poem, “ . . . what just is,” brought back that memory so clearly. “Just” in this thought is an adverb, and it means “exactly.” What exactly is.
Looking back at Jim Crow laws in the early 1950s, “what just is” was horribly unjust.
Look again at what Amanda Gorman wrote and said:
“We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what ‘just’ is isn’t always justice.“
Gorman is speaking in the present about our 400-year history of justice applied so consistently and yet so unequally and inequitably—in every era—to our Black and Brown brothers and sisters, and today it still ends tragically in the death of another George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or Trayvon Martin. Furthermore, and too often, no one is held accountable in our criminal justice system for these deaths.
Isabel Wilkerson came to the College of DuPage (COD) several years ago to talk about her first book, The Warmth of Other Suns. It is her story of the Great Migration of Black Americans from the Jim Crow South beginning just after World War I and ending in the early 1970s. In her presentation at COD, she said something that I found jarringly clear and true. I’m paraphrasing her here, so bear with me. I remember her saying something to the effect of when “one group works so hard to hold another group ‘down in a ditch’ socially, economically, and legally, the first group has to climb down into the ditch to hold the subordinate group there.”
I’ve just finished reading Wilkerson’s second book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. In it, she lays out a convincing argument that America, India, and Nazi Germany all have had distinct caste systems during their national histories, and the only country “in recovery” is Germany. The United States and India are still mired in the suffocating, toxic, lasting effects of their caste systems.
Cast: in a play, portraying characters to deliver the same story over and over.
Cast: of plaster of Paris, to heal a broken bone.
Caste: legally defined social strata we’ve seen—and still see—in societies.
Cast. Cast. Caste. They all have an unchanging quality, a stifling rigidity.
Our history from 1619 to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement to George Floyd and Black Lives Matter—it’s exhausting, dark, and dirty living in that damned ditch, and it’s time for all of us to climb out.
Illinois HB 3653, the criminal justice reform bill, is a start, written to lift us and our criminal justice system out of this American ditch. The story of what we do today will become the history we read about and reflect on tomorrow. Let’s turn the page.
ACE Founder Beverly George also is a member of Indivisible, the Naperville League of Women Voters, and the Citizens Climate Lobby. She also volunteers with her parish PADS group. A former chemist, George worked in clinical chemistry and hematology research at the Centers for Disease Control for six years and taught chemistry and freshman science at Naperville North High School for 20 years.
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