There were 500 people in Warren when I grew up. Little white two-room schoolhouse, a few grades downstairs and a few up. We built forts with hay bales during recess. We skied and rode snow machines, rode bikes and horses, played baseball, swam and fished in cold streams, had the best Fourth of July parade ever before crowds crushed it. For those short years of youth, it was an idyll.
In our small town, we were cut off from the Big Picture, but of course we saw the strife on Walter Cronkite’s screen each night. One friend’s older brother was killed in Vietnam, but the CBS news and distal death were as close as the world came to us.
When I was in law school in Boston, I used to invite a particular childhood friend to visit me. We’ve been close since we were 5 years old. I’d call him now and then to try to get him to visit Boston for a ballgame, to listen to some music, to meet some friends. He always mumbled an excuse or said he’d come and then wouldn’t show. This went on for years.
One time, when I asked him to come to a Sox game, he mumbled about needing to fix a boiler, and I blurted out a version of ‘you-never-visit-it’s-always-me-going-to-see you-what’s-that-all-about’ kind of thing. He responded in a flat, observational tone, “You are not a black man in Boston.” We never talked about it after that.
Today, I watched a video on Instagram of a young child talking about her fear and frustration at being treated differently because she is black. I will guess she is 8 years old. It is hard to watch. A little kid — the age of my idyll time in Warren — and she is crying, asking. She is petrified, scared, mortified. Why, she asks, “does being black target me for a different life?” There is no comfort for her in youth, just fear, and that is just wrong.
Maybe George Floyd’s tragic death will lead to meaningful change and the salvation of this republic. I hope we will each look inward and around us and speak up when we see the idiocy of racism. I would think politicians would see the consequences of not taking a stand against racism are greater than the benefits of marshaling your bases for political gain. I hope for all these things, but I am not optimistic.
I’ll end this with the words of a better writer talking about the consequences of embracing the virus of racism, then called slavery. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is a powerful string of words. Speaking just at the end of the Civil War, only a month or so before he was shot and killed, Lincoln wrote how the war came because of slavery, that it was more costly and harder than anyone thought it would be, and why the war was so bloody. In doing so, he speaks in spiritual terms and opens our eyes to reaping what we sow:
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the union but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war, while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding.
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered — that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses, for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.”
If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which in the providence of God must needs come but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him?
Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds …
Maybe police departments can become truly introspective and do the work for hard change. The shocking, horrific treatment of George Floyd is an opportunity to see, feel and internalize the experience both what it means to be black in America and how it is just stupid and wrong to judge people or leverage people because of skin tone.
Maybe we will, as Lincoln wrote, “see the right” and “finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds.” Maybe this is the beginning of the end of a dark period in America. Or maybe not.
I will hope some good comes out of this time in America; some thoughtful voices will help us bend the world toward sane and bend people toward reason, but I would not bet on it.
At the very least I can lend my voice in favor of change, reason, and ask us all to “see the right,” “to strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
David M. Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe. Email letters to email@example.com.