Essay by Anja Tyson
Show this to your daughter, read a text message from my father. Typically these sorts of messages, to be passed to my 7-year old, are links to articles about women inventors in history or girls in S.T.E.M., and, once, a YouTube link about Homer Plessy, of Plessy vs. Ferguson, because he, too, was an ‘octoroon’, just like my daughter, who fought for the equal rights of Black citizens, just as my daughter is expected to do. This particular attachment though, is a black and white photo of a crowd fighting outside Madison Square Garden in 1939.
Six months before they invaded Poland, and well into the beginning of internment of European Jews in concentration camps, the Nazi Party held a rally at Madison Square Garden, right here in New York, marqueed as a “Pro America Rally”, to gather and galvanize the already well-organized American Bund.
Tell her that her great-great grandparents were in this crowd, beating up the Nazis, is the next message.
There is a law of parsimony called Occam’s Razor that says the simplest explanation is generally the right one. I have never found this more true than when explaining history to a child, particularly a small child, where the temptation to weave loads of context and emotion into explanations can be overwhelming, but in fact the truest and fairest thing to do is tell them the simple truth.
In the months leading up to the election, in the midst of a pandemic, on the wave of an uprising in the name of racial justice, I have been a veritable vending machine of simple truths. My daughter is a constant source of questions, and I am to be held accountable for my on-the-spot answers to those questions for the remainder of her time on earth.
My reprieve is that the defense of simple truths is, in my family, one of the richest traditions we have. My great-grandparents, Jewish immigrants beating up Nazis on American soil, begat my grandmother, a communist activist and organizer famous for teaching her children to topple aggressive mounted policemen at protests using a bag of ball bearings. One of those children, my father, spent his teenage years in the rank and file of the BPP, and raised children who, when making their choices on how to give back and defend, do so in the shadows of their ancestors, with the goal in mind to cast their own shadows tall enough to be felt by many generations to come.
Shadows may sound foreboding when they are so tall, but these shadows are not shade, they are shelter.
These simple truths they built for us are more than traditions, in fact, they are expectations, so when my daughter passes a gaggle of police officers on the way to the park in June and shouts BLACK LIVES MATTER, I send a message to my father that just says I wish grandma could have met Matilda.
My hope always is that I can honor my child by raising her with consciousness, so that she sets out into the world and sees her own potential for impact. Babygirl, the fight for justice, equity, truth: you won’t fix this today. You don’t fix something you just arrived at yesterday, today. Many, many generations before you have pushed the line as far as they could take it, that’s how we got here, where we are now. That is, in fact, the only reason we got here, where we are now.
And your lifelong job is to push progress to the outer limits of possibility every day, where you are, whatever you’re doing, in whatever power you have. This is how change is made. When you pin the stakes of one win or one loss as the verdict to the rest of the movement, you are not here for real, lasting change. There is no win or lose, there is only momentum toward Truth.
Your job is to not give up with any loss, and certainly not to give up after any win.
So live your life radically for the truth, and challenge the world to join you there. Create the momentum, cast your ballot. Help your neighbor. Protect people you have never heard of, just as your ancestors protect you, who they could only have ever dreamed of. If you are wondering how that torch got in your hand, it’s because someone else lit it for you.
Early this morning, my close friend messages me to talk about the boarded up stores along Atlantic Avenue, the news, the uneasy feeling we all have.
I’m freaking out, she says.
I respond, When you’re getting sea sick, keep your eyes on the horizon.