A part of me wants to use this blog to work out my feelings about Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal. But it is too fresh, too close to the nerves in my right hand, the fist that is my heart. Perhaps, as essays do, I will arrive there, where a peaceful crowd of supporters of the Martin family waited into the night and then left quietly. Perhaps I will arrive at a place where I can think about a young black teenager being on trial for his own death or the part that stand your ground played in it all, the part that Sanford, Florida played, the part that a legal system with its flaws and weaknesses played.
For now, I want to write of the complexity of our time and times before us that has been replaced by mythology, by false simplicity, by a kind of rote acceptance of generalities. I have been doing research into World War II, and into the role of the French in forcing their citizens onto trains bound for Drancy, bound for Auchwitz. I have found myths revealed for what they are; stories told to re-imagine the events, the years, the complicity in evil, to make them palatable. I know myths serve a purpose: to make a chaotic world more ordered, to explain phenomena of nature or the gods, love and loss, to comfort us with a pattern of similarities so that we do not feel so utterly alone in the world. I have no quarrel with Zeus or Hera, with the gorgeous metaphor of Eurydice and her sojourn in the underworld for half the year to explain the seasons, the light and darkness on our planet.
But when mythologizing relegates the story of one generation or one historical period or even one war, to a series of platitudes that over-ride a deeper knowledge of what actually happened, we learn a false account. There are problems if we don’t explore what took place in alleyways of Paris or the countryside surrounding Germany in the 1940s or if we don’t study the burnt out towns along Sherman’s path during America’s civil war. It is when we decide on what we want to be true and then find only stories to bolster our chosen myth, that truth becomes obscured.
For instance, I know that American, British and French men and women did great and heroic things in World War II. I also know that citizens of these same countries participated in madness: some of them shipped off people to the death camps, some harassed black GIs after the war in the United States and in other places where they found themselves side by side. I know that British, French and American men raped women in larger numbers during and after that same war and that this has gone has unacknowledged until recently. (See the new book, What Soldiers Do, by Mary Louise Roberts, historian, University of Wisconsin).
This is not to comment on the importance of what was accomplished in this war, or to take away from acts, both small and large that showed great courage during that time. However, I am writing to ask us to challenge the oft-repeated myth of this being the time of the “Greatest Generation”. I believe it is important to complicate these years before and after the two wars in order to render them in all their complexity. After all, it was after WWII, when the same generation was in control of so much of what went on in the U.S., that lynching was a regular occurrence in the south, that blacks were denied the right to vote, that intimidation and discrimination formed pacts with the devil in many legislatures and courtrooms that allowed virtual slavery to continue in this country for many more years.
Perhaps we can untangle the components of this time without the need to slant our thinking toward “Greatest Generation” rhetoric. Perhaps we can accept the twin sides of good and evil that were part of the 30s, 40s and 50s and thus accept a more complex definition of those years. And if we do this, can we take the step toward acknowledging the good and evil that exists in our selves, in our individual characters? It seems to me, to face the wrong that we do inadvertently at times, even to those we love, work with, or care deeply about, then we can accept that each period in a country’s, a continent’s history, is also a prism of such moments of valor and wrong doing. We come to explore the myth of the Great British Empire, with its violence to whole continents of peoples of color. We come to explore the New Deal, which gave us a resurgence of jobs and an end to the depression at the price of promising not to interfere with Jim Crow laws and terrorism in the south. Each of these times has its dark side.
Myths still prevail of how we “conquered the frontier,” of the inalienable right of a “man and his castle”, of the importance of weaponry in preserving the American Way. And the deeper myth of what we define as “All American” has much to do with how we determine who is American at all. If you believe that young black men in hoodies do not fit your myth of who is a true American, then you believe these young black men are intruders wherever they are in this country. And you may be rewarded for keeping “them” away.
Ultimately, I believe it is myths, stories told to simplify and re define the truths of history, that will keep us from living our lives in a reality based world. If we perpetuate them, then false stories of our unalloyed greatness or innocence become mandatory. Our schools teach them, our media repeat them.
Perhaps, by examining all that led up to the verdict of not guilty for George Zimmerman (which is not the same as a declaration of his innocence), we may find the truth of what happened, what is happening, unhindered by myths. Perhaps if we critically examine the assumptions of the history books we pass on to our children, we will encourage the kind of fierce and necessary work of facing our history as it is, without insistence on grandeur or exceptionalism. Rather we may view a time or a place in our nation’s story with both sides, with all sides: with the prism of reality that encompasses that time.
We will not jump to the conclusion that there will be violence after the Zimmerman verdict, and will not be surprised when protesters, in their hoodies, with their signs of grief and rage, go quietly home in cities like New York and Philadelphia. We will not buy into the myth of the angry black man, a myth that is certainly disputed by Martin Luther King’s insistence on non-violence, one of the most peaceful men in our history.
So this does come back to Trayvon doesn’t it? How much of our history is bound up in a sixteen year old’s death? How many simplistic myths are part of the thinking that went through Zimmerman’s mind? How tragic that we, as a nation, perpetuate generalities and then build our laws, our rights, around them. Parse this case and you will see where this piece was leading all along: to the dangerous and uncertain lives led by those who are not included in a false mythology of American greatness.