She sang of a world that operated outside of the arithmetic of “It gets better.” The end of that song is not a belief in progress, but a call for a shift of power. “But the world is big,” she sings in the next breath. “Big and bright and round/And it’s full of other folks like me/Who are black, yellow, beige and brown.”
But that doesn’t seem to be entirely the right direction in which to point my niece. Righteous rage doesn’t fully provide comfort in this time. What we are facing requires more fortitude than quick burning anger.
So I look to the visionaries, the ones who tried to see forward. I consider giving my niece a link to Octavia Butler’s “A Few Rules for Predicting the Future.” It is an essay she wrote in Essence magazine 20 years ago, at the dawn of this millennium, when she had already predicted in her own novels the rise of an American president who uses the slogan “Make America Great Again” and promotes an idealized, white nationalist past to a multiethnic nation facing unprecedented challenges.
In the essay, Ms. Butler says: “Of course, writing novels about the future doesn’t give me any special ability to foretell the future. But it does encourage me to use our past and present behaviors as guides to the kind of world we seem to be creating. The past, for example, is filled with repeating cycles of strength and weakness, wisdom and stupidity, empire and ashes.”
That, maybe, is getting closer to what I want to say, though it does not contain anything as reassuring, as placid, as “This, too, shall pass.” So I look a bit further, and I find these words, from Alondra Nelson, a historian, in a recent interview: “The great mythos of American life is the idea that we’re always improving, always moving forward. And the great story of science and technology is that it is also always leaping forward to good ends.”
She notes that we have “an overinvestment in a progress narrative — particularly with regards to racial politics, issues of gender equality and equity — without sufficient attention to the fact that there’s the falling backward as much as there are leaps forward” and that “this political moment should be one of humility, of paying attention to looping back, and of acknowledging that sometimes looping back means failure, means going back to the woodshed, means throwing out what we thought we knew and thinking again.”
It’s a hard lesson for a middle schooler. It is a lesson that a majority of adults I know would reject. But I wonder how much further we could get, how much wider we could imagine solutions to this crisis, if we set aside the false belief that time always moves us toward a better tomorrow.
A picture of my niece, mid-dance routine, is my phone’s screen saver. In the photo, she is mid-leap, her whole body arcing through the air. I used to look at the photo and think that she is the definition of propulsion, of progress. But in these new times, I look at it less as an avatar of moving forward and more as an example of what human will and ingenuity can do in a single, given moment. We do not know, cannot know, how our efforts will ultimately land. But we can make them anyway, for their momentary sliver of grace.
Kaitlyn Greenidge (@surlybassey) is the author of the novel “We Love You, Charlie Freeman” and a contributing Opinion writer.
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By Kaitlyn Greenidge
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