Decade: June 2020By Steven Arcieri
June 30, 2020
This isn’t a history textbook but history is happening. It was convenient weaving COVID-19 into the narrative of my day-to-day as a universally relatable backdrop but this isn’t like that. The pandemic was and remains tragic but it’s the result of microscopic pathogens that cannot make logical decisions for themselves; what’s happening now in America is the result of millennia of horrors by way of the brains and hearts and hands of humans who have had millennia to witness the harm wrought and vow not to pass the hateful torch on to their offspring. But no such thing happened, the horrors so ingrained they remained fabric, breaking point after breaking point. I was raised in an overwhelmingly white part of a suburb, where parents accused Black kids of infiltrating from an abutting neighborhood to parasitically suckle from the teat of our top notch public school system paid for with our hard-earned tax dollars. I can only recall a single African-American student from elementary school; his house burned down from some appliance gone awry in the garage and everyone knew, even the librarian, who in front of our whole class, treated him with disproportionate cruelty over unreturned Goosebumps. All four elementary schools streamlined into a single middle school and I became friends with Marlon, the funniest kid I’d ever met, so capable of making my gut bust our Geography teacher had to alter the seating arrangement so we’d be as far away from each other as possible, but that was useless, all it took was a single backwards glance, him pulling down his eyelids with his fingers and puffing his cheeks, and I’d once again disrupt the lesson; toward the end of sixth grade, we signed ourselves up to perform improv in the talent show; per audience suggestion, we got on our hands and knees and became cows, we pantomimed chewing some cud, then I made the low-hanging joke that he produced chocolate milk; our peers laughed, shouted more suggestions, and we went on with our act–I’m not sure whether I felt off about it then, or if its offness only comes now, over a decade later, superimposing itself over the memory, but the joke had no basis other than me viewing my friend as my “Black friend.” Undergrad thrust me into an echo-chamber of white neoliberalism and while intentions were good, people would go out of their way to affix labels to the front of the word “friend” whenever they could, as if their non-white and/or non-straight friends were trophies–a way to accrue social capital off the backs of the identities of people they associated with. Diplomaless, I moved back to my parents’ house, then quickly into the city; this was the mid-2010’s. I’d get piss drunk in local basements and watch bands play. The basements hailed themselves as “safe spaces” where any sort of racism was strictly enforced as unallowed. The disclaimer that you’d be booted if you were an asshole gave these spaces a pretense of inclusivity, an acceptance of any kind of identity, but showing up weekend after weekend, cramped in the heat and humidity of predominantly white-skinned bodies leaking IPAs through their pores, it became clear which identity got the invite, which identity was asked to perform. Their edict revealed itself as, at best, a self-congratulatory pat on the back, at worst, a Trojan Horse. Vile behavior would, more often than not, go completely unchecked. I became jaded with this circle touting themselves as politically-correct angels to smokescreen the fact they were breaking their own rules. The scene stopped being fun and I wanted whatever its opposite was. I dismissed slurs as “just words” and used them freely. I can now see the complete lack of logic there but certainly didn’t then. I convinced myself that what I said and the person I was were unconnected, I made excuses, I tried to explain myself off the hook saying it was all irony. Destroyed friendships weren’t enough, it took a synapse firing a genuinely racist thought through my brain on the bus for me to fully understand how the rhetoric I’d surrounded myself with had taken root. The first thing I thought after that thought was: “Wait, why did I think that? This isn’t what I think,” but I did think it, so it was something I’d need to unlearn. It’s difficult coming to terms with the fact that who I am today and who I was then are the same person, because we aren’t, but it’s just as true we are. In the grand scheme, that version of me existed not long ago at all; the same way a timeline charting America’s invasive inception into chattel slavery into emancipation into segregation into civil rights will display how criminally we’ve been misled to believe the horrors were stamped out and buried deep in the past. In high school, I bonded with Aaron over the emo band t-shirts we both wore; he was super into skateboarding, I was super into the idea of skateboarding, but I sucked; he tried to teach me how to ollie with extreme patience, but still, I sucked; after graduation, he was one of very few people with whom I kept in touch, we drank many beers, went to many concerts, and toyed with the idea of starting a band; I said I wasn’t even remotely good enough at music for that to work, he didn’t care; he was there when I shoved people out of my life with my flagrant inconsideration, he was one of the people I burned; it was only much later that I truly understood why he’d said he didn’t think we could remain friends; when I felt I’d sufficiently worked on myself, I tried to patch things up, but a rift remains; I don’t begrudge him his wanting to keep his distance, I get it. Just as I get why every United State is erupting with citizens protesting the ceaseless suppression of basic human rights in the midst of a worldwide health crisis. Redlining is the racist act of city planning where a community is cast out of sight and cut off from the wealth of resources the rest of the city is entitled to; the financial neglect makes it impossible for families, most of which are Black, to get ahead; Redlining is an insidious tactic used to maintain segregation–the beating heart at the center of Boston public transport is a subway named The Red Line. In my parents’ youth, the city was rife with racial tensions in response to the decision to desegregate its schools by bussing Black children into white districts and white children into Black districts. Roxbury is the redlined neighborhood here and it’s where I catch the bus to get home from work. The Monday following George Floyd’s murder going viral, the bus station was so thick with exhaustion and grief, you could chew on it; as the month went on, we saw more and more images, more and more names were said: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, Rayshard Brooks, David McAtee…..and the names reverberated alongside the names of the past because they are the names of the present: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Elijah McClain, Alton Sterling…..and the names of all the others who slipped through the cracks of media coverage were sung and more properly memorialized and the exhaustion and grief didn’t dissipate, but with the first tiny steps being taken toward uprooting harmful institutions that even a month ago seemed permanent, the fact that the people in power were finally put into a position where they were forced to listen, the exhaustion and grief now had a faint aftertaste of hope. A man stepped too close on the platform and I sidestepped out of impulse to lessen my risk of exposure to the virus—I looked at him and smiled behind my mask, hoping to communicate without words and without mouth the reason for my flight.
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