In one of my classes last week, we saw Marlon Riggs’s documentary Ethnic Notions. This documentary displays some of the disturbing stereotypes and exaggerated images of African Americans that permeated popular media in the age of Reconstruction. The film was painful to watch – in an important way.
The ending was incredibly powerful. Riggs cut clips of Ethel Waters singing “Darkies Never Dream” from the film Bubbling Over over a clip of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. These two, juxtaposed, said more than any statistics about social progress ever could have said.
I was relieved that as I watched, fifty years after the March on Washington, the words that were familiar to me were not the powerful, but haunting lyrics:
Darkies never dream – Wouldn’t help to live that way
We must walk a weary road that never seems to turn
What good would it do to yearn?
But what was familiar to me were the words:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Looking at these two separate snippets of time in the fight for civil rights, I don’t think there’s any way to postulate that this nation has not progressed. Things got better.
But I’m impatient – and I know I’m not alone here. I can’t say, “Yay, this nation is not horribly racist anymore! Everyone give yourself a pat on the back!” I can’t. When an Indian-American wins the Miss America crown, people had no difficulty making their awful opinions known. When an eleven-year-old Mexican boy sings our national anthem, he is verbally attacked by masses of people. There are many young racists who feel no shame in their closed-mindedness. Racism, sexism, and homophobia still exist.
I want to get past all of this already. I believe the times are changing, but I want to skip to where the times are changed already. I know this is naive. I know that I have to be an instrument of change to make this happen. I know progress happens slowly.
I became an aunt this summer. I was overjoyed at the birth of my nephew, but I was incredibly worried, too. He was born three months early, just past the age of possible viability outside the womb. The first few days that he was in the N-ICU, the entire family was on edge. The doctor asked my brother one day if he had any questions, and all he could come up with, knowing that he and his fiancée just have to take it day-by-day, was: “Is there any way to make this go any faster?”
The doctor laughed and said, “If anything happens too fast in here, that’s when we run into trouble.”
If the progress is too fast, we run into trouble. When we were talking about my little nephew’s life, this made perfect sense to me. Suddenly, it was: hey buddy, slow and steady. Take your time. We’ll be here, waiting, hoping, rooting for you – for the rest of your life.
And truly, he won’t stop progressing. He’ll pass his full term, he’ll go home, he’ll learn to crawl and walk and breathe and talk. He’ll go to school, he’ll make friends and learn and dream. He will fall in and out and back in love. Maybe he’ll go to college and maybe he’ll itch for progress at the hand of his own generation. But his whole life, he will be a progression of the tiny child I met this July.
Maybe progress doesn’t have an end point. Maybe it just has checkpoints. Impatient as I am, I will try to look forward to each little step of growth. I’ll learn to be glad that we reached the last one, and look forward to the next.