When the last of the Black Lives Matter signs scattered across lawns are finally laid to rest, Americans should celebrate, for that day might actually merit a celebration. It might. But not yet.
I’m not a person of color, but I humbly imagine that if I were, I’d be experiencing some fairly intense cognitive dissonance. White people marched alongside Black Americans to protest police brutality against minorities? Great. But shouldn’t they have been marching and protesting for this eons ago?
C At best, the signs offer advertising to our neighbors how woke and progressive we are — a show to our Black brothers and sisters that we would never think or behave the way those other people do.
I can only imagine how those of color feel, but I do imagine it is a mixture of hopefulness but also annoyance. It must be exhausting and disappointing that in 2020 this is the best white Americans can do: acknowledge that those whose skin is a different hue than theirs’ are finally worthy of acknowledgement. And they stuck signs in their yards to prove it.
I don’t consider myself woke, and it would be a gross lie to suggest that no fumes of bigotry or prejudice ever polluted my thoughts or actions. At university in the 90′s, “Women’s Voices,” “Contemporary Multicultural Visions,” and “Third World Feminism(s)” were just a few courses in which I was enrolled. I swelled with my newly minted enlightenment and scoffed at my blinkered dorm mates who had damned themselves to the dimly-lit engineering or business department. My course titles alone signified how progressive the liberal arts department, and I because of it, had become. I soon began peppering conversations with the progressive terminology I’d appropriated from the week’s lectures. I even lorded my newly minted quotes from Cornell West, Jean Rhys, and Henry Louis Gates over my provincial parents who simply “didn’t get it,” though they themselves had graduate degrees.
But where have we pseudo-intellectuals of the 90s actually gotten? Our intentions were there: we categorized and affirmed loudly and self-consciously. We, too, were hammering our own signs into lawns.
The Black Lives Matters movement certainly does matter, as do recent gestures of solidarity, but the now-familiar lawn signs shouldn’t be where it ends and shouldn’t be where it began. We must not rest on our good intentions and proverbial laurels. We must put an end to self-satisfied sighs as we gaze onto those lawns dotted with those marvelous signs and recall some line from an old Sly & the Family Stone song or Toni Morrison novel. May we resist self-parody: the community servant who ladles soup (bi-annually) at the homeless shelter or stocks shelves at the food pantry, returning home with warm fuzzies as the systemic social-institutional ills rooted beneath the very persistence of soup kitchens and food pantries remains.
James Baldwin said, “I don’t know what most white people in this country feel. But I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions.” Baldwin understood that in America, people of color feel affirmed, dismissed, or entirely ignored — not necessarily by what white people say but by what they do.
Perhaps the end of the Black Lives Matter signs will be the harbinger signaling a better time has finally arrived: a sign bigger than words on a placard, on a media post, in a course of studies, or in this essay. A sign that we have begun to affirm, appreciate — and apprehend — with a singular spirit. A sign that the state of our institutions has been altered, not just our front lawns.
Andrew Dorr, West Hartford