Did you know that John Lewis forgave George Wallace?
That George Wallace — one of the most vile racists in American history. The man who, during his 1963 inaugural address after being elected governor of Alabama, proclaimed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The man who sent the guard dogs and armed police that beat marchers, John Lewis among them, in Selma in 1965.
Starting in the 1970s, Wallace began seeking forgiveness, engaging with African American organizations and trying to reckon with his own past. Following Wallace’s death in 1998, Lewis wrote in The New York Times about his decision to accept the man’s apologies. “I had to forgive him,” he wrote, “because to do otherwise — to hate him — would only perpetuate the evil system we sought to destroy.”
John Lewis’ ability to forgive, to find optimism despite the America he lived in, confounded me for most of my adult life. He could put his life on the line, bear the consequences of his quests for freedom, stare down batons and K-9s, and still go through his life with the conviction that things will be better.
That’s…hard to wrap my brain around.
I don’t see myself ever forgiving someone like George Wallace. I don’t forgive the men who killed Medgar Evers, or Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman, or any of the other friends my dad lost during his time in the Civil Rights Movement. I don’t think I’ll ever find it in my spirit to get over the tormenters who have kept my father awake at night for all these years, consumed by guilt or trauma or whatever happens to survivors of American hate. I haven’t forgiven the police who pulled me over or the teacher who called me into the hallway and called me racist against White people or the principal who called me a gang member. My entire life, deep in my soul, I’ve felt the Baldwinian idea that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” But to follow up on Baldwin’s statement, if I may: To be Black in this country is to have to hold our righteous rage at bay at all times, simply for our own survival.
Letting the rage take over is literally life-threatening. Either it manifests in violence against a country that needs no reason to fire back with deadly force, or we turn it inward, and it exacts a crushing toll on our bodies and souls. I know that letting rage take over is futile, but knowing and feeling are two vastly different things.
These past few months have widened that gap to a chasm. Covid-19 mismanagement intermingling with more unending videos of Black Death has put my rage at the forefront of my emotions — ahead of anxiety, ahead of fear, ahead of frustration. There’s only rage. And I don’t know what to do with it.
I’ve spent the last two weeks grappling with the fear of my family having to go back to school in Georgia without a classroom mask mandate (last week our school district opted for the wiser decision to go virtual, thank God). I didn’t sleep for days. I couldn’t think about solutions — just how much I hated and wanted to hurt anyone who would put my family in danger. Every day brought a more tightly clenched fist.
Recently, I dreamed that a politician had a heart attack on the 18th hole of a golf course on national TV — and I brought my family in the living room to enjoy the footage. The base instincts of wanting harm to befall others had infiltrated my subconsciousness. It felt like losing.
And every day brings a new reason for anger. When I watch a White supremacist president botch a pandemic response so badly, ignoring obvious paths to a solution, that America is among the most devastated in the world — and Black folks feel the worst of the blunder. When I see that President refuse to condemn White supremacy. When I see that President spend more time talking about preserving racist statues than he does speaking about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. When I see that President’s supporters rebel against the idea that wearing masks saves lives. When I know that President was elected by the same racism that pelted John Lewis in Selma and tormented my father. When I’m governed by a man in Georgia who stole his election with what was essentially a 21st-century version of asking Black voters how many bubbles are in a bar of soap. When I know the alternative to that governor would be a Black woman who would save lives. When I see the ever-mounting death toll. When I can’t hug my family. When. When. When.
All I have is rage.
I’ve spent most of my summer writing about the 1964 Freedom Summer and the violence White America inflicted on people who just wanted equality, all while being inundated with requests to write about the ever-updating list of Black bodies falling. It’s been too easy to sink into the dark place, to become entangled in the hopelessness of it all. Recently, I dreamed that a politician had a heart attack on the 18th hole of a golf course on national TV — and I brought my family in the living room to enjoy the footage. The base instincts of wanting harm to befall others had infiltrated my subconsciousness. It felt like losing.
Because to let the rage consume you is to lose. I’m of the belief that a certain level of rage is necessary for us to be free, as Baldwin indicated. Rage can be the oil that keeps an engine running, but an overflow ruins the entire vehicle. I have spent too much time in these last few weeks drowning in my own anger. It’s debilitating. Blocking my drive to freedom. Veering me into medians that stop me from doing anything but breathing in the fumes of my own unrest.
Earlier this summer, in The Atlantic, Imani Perry issued a call for getting out of the darkness; her essay challenges us to celebrate the resilience, strength, and beauty of Blackness, and not be paralyzed by the trauma from which we have fought to emerge. “Joy is not found in the absence of pain and suffering,” she writes. “It exists through it.” Her words were like a sound far off in the mountains, guiding me through the fog. I’d hear it as I fought back the rage, often failing with every bit of apocalyptic news that fell on my lap.
Then John Lewis died.
His passing made me revisit his legacy and all he stood for. The unwavering faith. The forgiveness. The times he cosplayed as himself to encourage children to march. I realized that all the things about him I’ve found so difficult to grasp revolve around the fact that existential oppression can make optimism feel not like resistance, but capitulation. Lewis didn’t succumb to that feeling. So with Perry’s words at the back of my mind and Lewis’ legacy at the fore, I started making a conscious effort to see the release from rage as a revolutionary act of defiance in itself. Lewis saw what I’m trying to remind myself of: I can’t be my full, actualized agent of freedom if I can only see the rage, if I can only be a reflection of the terror inflicted on my body.
I don’t have answers yet. There are days when all I can think about is the hatred that caused November 2016 to happen, or the cyclical nature of all of this, and I go into that dark place where functionality stops and I just want to pound my fist into a wall. If I knew how to undo visceral reactions to generations of hurt, I’d sell the secret to the world. All I can do is try. Resist and be stronger. It’s a way of carrying on the legacy of one of the bravest Americans to ever live — and forging new ways to get free.