I grew up in the Deep South, so the events in Charlottesville on Aug. 12 set off not only a clangor of alarm bells, but also a deep tolling of sorrow.
And I grew up in a family of scientists and artists. So viewing the total eclipse of the sun on Aug. 21 was akin to a sacrament.
I couldn’t help noticing the bizarre reversal of the dates:
Aug. 21, transcendence and awe.
As a child in Louisiana and South Carolina, I was often surrounded by white kids (and adults) who believed things I didn’t believe, who casually used words for black people that infuriated me. I was also surrounded by black kids who (mostly) viewed me with suspicion and distrust because of the color of my skin. The perhaps-inevitable fate of a timid white kid raised Quaker in the South in the 1960s.
Until this month, the only solar eclipse I had seen was the partial one visible from my hometown in 1970. To tell the truth, it didn’t make near the impression that my problems with my classmates at Schneider Elementary School did.
But it serves to bracket these two experiences:
- Reading the news of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville that started despicable and turned violent – then deadly.
- Witnessing the heavenly dance of moon and sun.
My heart was lifted up by the people pouring into the streets of Charlottesville to say “NO” to Nazism and white supremacy. In fact, I took part in a similar outpouring in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1981. That time, the white supremacists left without marching. They could see from the windows of their bus, thousands of people of many colors, many ages, in chorus saying: “Not here. We don’t want to hear your sermons of division, hate, and blame.” I envisioned surrounding them with song, had they gotten out. I hope that’s what would have happened.
But in Charlottesville this month, they didn’t go away. Empowered and encouraged by a political attitude nurtured on Pennsylvania Avenue and elsewhere, fueled by resentment of the economic hard times many people (of all races) have suffered since 2008, they marched. But they didn’t just march. They swung. People came armed and ready to lash out. I am heartsick at the fist-fighting and name-calling, by the car attack that killed Heather Heyer and wounded nineteen others, by the flood of racism and bitterness that swept over the city and onto the Internet. So are many who marched for love and equality, and were subjected to rage and destruction.
Between growing up in the South, and moving out to the Pacific Northwest, I lived two years in Washington, D.C., where my white roommate and I belonged to the minority race in our Capitol Hill neighborhood. It took a combination of courage and humility to reach out to my black neighbors and try to extend the kind of olive branch that says, “I know people who look like me have done wrong to you and yours, and still are. I’m sorry. I want things to be different.” It’s hard to cultivate that kind of olive branch. Looking back, my attempts were inept, and too few.
As a nation, we have a steep hill to climb, to get out of the canyon of distrust, angst, and fear that racism has dug. But we must persist. For a long time, white Americans have wanted to pretend that this was a black problem, or a Latino problem, or something that happened so long ago it had no import today. “Not our fault, not our fault, not our fault,” the chant rose. But fault is not even the point; although apologies are called for, they are inadequate. The point is that white people benefit from racial bias, insidious and ongoing — however unasked-for or unnoticed. We have to learn to see it, admit it, remedy it.
Incidents like Charlottesville drag us backward. Watching news and social media since Aug. 12, I felt the muck sliding under my feet, felt myself wanting to churn faster and faster. Miserable, blind, unable to see a way forward.
And then. Then the moon stepped between us and the sun. As if to shake us out of our preoccupation with all things human, all things petty, heedless, misled.
As I watched the eclipse from my perch on a hillside in rural Oregon, I saw something eerie and mysterious, like a blessing so inexplicable I was half afraid to receive it.
As the daylight dimmed, it might have been sunset or dawn … except the shadows were wrong, and the quality of light neither gold nor rose, but harsh, like the flash of a neon light. Birds and insects quieted. The sun went away.
Unearthly, shimmering, the blue-white corona flared out around the black disc of the moon. The air got cool, and a few stars came out in a minute-long night sky. The hair stood up all over my body.
Until … a sparkle appeared along one edge of that black moon – and in another second, spilled out, too bright to look at.
Just like that, the sky was blue again. The birds chirped and took flight. The buzz of insects and of human voices … everything was back.
But not quite the same.
I was shaken out of my fear and despair. I was reminded that all of us are specks, tiny parts of one planet, all swept up together – whether we are hopeful and awed, or angry and fearful, as many thousands of us must have been, for thousands of years, during similar celestial displays. (In the latter case, they no doubt cast about for someone to blame.)
And I remembered that the vast majority of the people in Charlottesville – and everywhere – love peace, feel compassion, and want to live and let live. Most of us, given a chance, will stand around the coffeepot (or open up Facebook) and hear the grievances, the pain, the needs of others. We listen. We nod, we empathize. We ask about the kids, the parents, the pets. We want our turn to be heard, to be comforted. By this grace, our species has overcome incredible odds. We still can.
And so the month ends … with Hurricane Harvey sweeping over Texas and into Louisiana. Already, boaters and truck owners of every race and creed have showed up in response to frantic cries for help on Twitter and Facebook. https://www.wsj.com/articles/hurricane-harvey-victims-turn-to-social-media-for-assistance-1503999001 While a few sad people misused social media for mischief or notoriety, many more gallant souls got into their vehicles and vessels and tried to help if they could. They took to the wet roads, they took to the rushing water, and they saved people. I haven’t heard yet of a good Samaritan who stopped to ask the race or political views of the person they helped. As the storm passes, and we turn to cleaning up, Americans everywhere – athletes and politicians, secretaries and truckers, Republicans and Democrats, sales clerks and CEOS – are turning out their pockets, and giving what they can.* As a species, such a crisis may be our finest hour. It is our turn to shine.
*Want to help rebuild after the storm? Here are some tips on how to make sure your donations get to those in need: https://www.consumerreports.org/charitable-donations/best-ways-to-help-victims-of-hurricane-harvey/