GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas --
A quote on the murder of the 14-year-old African American boy Emmett Till:
“If we Americans are to survive it will have to be because we choose and elect and defend to be first of all Americans; to present to the world one homogeneous and unbroken front, whether of white Americans or black ones or purple or blue or green. Maybe the purpose of this sorry and tragic error committed in my native Mississippi by two white adults on an afflicted Negro child is to prove to us whether or not we deserve to survive. Because if we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive, and probably won’t.” – William Faulkner.
I’ll explain the quote in a minute.
I’m a millennial and like any good millennial, I take everything for granted. Basically everything. Okay, literally, everything. Once I was at my grandpa’s house, I took a shower and the hot water went to cold and it made me yelp. My grandpa asked what happened and I told him. Then like any good old-man, he told me, “Back in my day, we didn’t even have hot water.”
I don’t know if that was true (probably not, he’s a lawyer and he’s old but not that old), but it did hammer home a point: I’m cut off from a time when struggles like that were commonplace in America. I’ll never know what it’s like to NOT have hot water. To NOT have supermarkets. To NOT have fast-food restaurants of nearly every single type of food from sushi to cheeseburgers. To NOT have the internet. Even Netflix got popular when I was in high school, but to imagine a time before internet streaming TV shows and movies really is like the caveman remembering life before the time of the wheel.
It’s easy to realize we take a lot for granted in terms of technology, but what about race? In the 20th century alone, race relations have progressed from separate water fountains and bathrooms to where I can have coworkers of different color, and bosses too. And different genders.
That’s something I take for granted.
Growing up I started off in a heavily homogenous environment. Rich, mostly white, incredibly metropolitan. The first six grades were spent in a school system that didn’t have much in the way of diversity. Seventh grade was a massive switch. My dad deliberately moved me to another part of the city we lived in. A weird blend of urban developments and inner-city land, the schools there had every walk of life and my eyes were opened to demographics I, straight up, never saw or interacted with before. From here I realized how much I took for granted, and how a simple environmental change could radically shift one’s perception.
That was years ago, and until recently it didn’t hit me how much I take for granted. Like being able to have black friends. Or date anyone from any race on the planet and not have to worry about being seen in public with them.
It isn’t like this in other places. And we forget that. It hasn’t always been like that in America. We don’t forget that, per se, but we don’t carry it with us the same way.
One of my older coworkers, Gary Jenkins, pointed this out. He says the millennial generation is a benefactor of people who inherited the efforts of a previous generation. He said this isn’t bad, not at all, but there are problems—we take it for granted. We don’t realize what we have. What’s been done before our time. The struggles that took place to make it normal for a black man, Mr. Jenkins, to sit and talk to me. Then for people to walk by and see us and think nothing of it. Interracial interaction is now normal. We take this for granted.
We millennials aren’t stupid, but like any generation, we’re out of touch with the struggles of the previous generations.
Sorry, now we’re onto the quote. I opened with it because it’s always resonated with me. Faulkner is very aware of what makes a nation-state strong, that America was struggling in strife to achieve. Look at our civil war. At a glance, America stands apart in history. We were torn within over racial diversity. What makes one race less than the other? Why is it okay for one to be subjected to slavery and the others not?
Other nations faced civil strife for different reasons: ways of governance, religion, in France for the reign of reason itself. But we did it over racial inequality. An act that defines our culture as something “other” to the rest of the world. We weren’t perfect after that, and work still needs to be done, but between then and now America has come a long way in defining itself.
And what’s this have to do with African American history month? Well, everything. The division of black and whites in history is an American story. From the civil war to civil rights movement, every step of African American history is American history. It affects us all, whether someone is immigrating here, as I type this or someone who has family living here trailing back to the 1700s—that history affects you. It unites us together and solidifies our identity. It shows the rest of the world what is American.
Faulkner desired unity amongst the people. No matter the class, creed, religion, or race, countries need something that ties them together that makes them face the world and say, “We are who we are.” For America, identity has been our struggle. Faulkner makes it clear that he hopes the differences in skin color wouldn’t erode one thing: that we’re American.
I don’t think we’re close to finished, there’s still racial tension in many areas of America, but I think it’s good for us to look backwards and reflect on how far we’ve come. I can’t imagine what it would’ve felt like wanting racial equality in the early 1900s. It would’ve seemed hopeless. The mountain too tall to scale. But here we are.