My motto was to always keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.
— Henry “Hank” Aaron,
Baseball legend, civil rights activist.
I ALMOST FORGOT HOW TO EXHALE.
For three days after the Biden inauguration, I nursed an emotional hangover. For me — and dear reader, since I’m hoping we might become friends, I want to be transparent about my own bias — the inauguration was a release from the pains that bind me, if only for a moment. And I gorged. For ten hours, I leaned into the words, images, and pageantry that are an expression of a democracy we are still dreaming. We are, as poet Amanda Gorman eloquently reminds us, unfinished. We must not, as CNN commentator Van Jones says, “let the pain have the last word.”
And so, it is appropriate that we choose our best to mark the occasion. Everyone was invited. But everyone did not come. And this is where I want to start our conversation, dear reader. For the past few weeks, I have been glued to the news — words and phrases like “insurrection” and “White supremacy” suddenly commonplace in our collective vocabulary, explaining, defining, and contradicting who we say we are and who we believe ourselves to be. But here’s the thing: I believe we have always held these truths to be self-evident. Our original sins, (stealing the land from Indigenous peoples and enslaving Africans to labor on the land as others saw fit) apparent and yet hidden behind the curtain of our potential, were suddenly exposed. Everyday.
For some, this assault on the memory of ourselves was revelation mixed with, dare we admit, familiarity. For others, it reflected the truths we have navigated and negotiated our entire lives. I hesitate to say this next thing, but I want to be honest with you. While I have felt anger, sadness, and sheer exhaustion at the enormity of the moment, I also feel relief. Because once upon a time I was that skinny Black girl that Amanda Gorman invoked in her inaugural poem.
I was born in New York City and adopted by Black parents who, as descendants of slaves, had moved North in the late 1950s and were hired as caretakers for a twelve-acre estate belonging to a wealthy, Jewish family. That land formed me in decisive ways, and that experience is fundamental to how I think about identity, power, privilege, and the environment (a story for another day).
I want to tell you about an experience I had when I was in the seventh grade. I attended the Hommocks Middle School in Larchmont, where the children of affluence mixed with working-class kids like myself and where race seemed to be a secret ingredient that only some acknowledged. For the most part, I loved my time there — I was part of a special program for those creatively inclined students where history and English came alive on our terms. The gym had a swimming pool and I still remember the hardest test I’ve ever taken where I had to tread water for 45 minutes. (I passed.)
The story I want to share is about when I was given an award by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), a conservative nonprofit organization that promotes historic preservation and patriotism. My parents received a letter letting them know that I was among a small group of girls who were to publicly receive a medal for showing a commitment to civic engagement. We showed up at the ceremony which took place at school so that I could receive my medal in person.
This was the 1970s — picture me with a fairly sizable afro, sitting in the audience with my parents, a Black family in a sea of Whiteness, waiting for my name to be called.
Now, my last name, Finney, is Irish. For many years, my parents would get an invitation from the Finney clan in Ireland inviting us to a gathering, and as a kid, I wondered if we were what they meant by “Black Irish.” I had had the experience, more than once, of meeting a White person (often the parent of a White student) who would register shock when they met me in person. One such individual blurted, “I thought you were going to have red hair and freckles!” So, when my name was called and I walked up to the table where three older White women sat, I was practiced at catching that moment of realization on their faces that I was not what they expected. They did not look happy about it. But they handed me my medal, and I walked back to my seat feeling a combination of discomfort, hurt, and righteousness. The dream of democracy was mine, too, no matter what they might think about me.
This week, still Black, not so skinny, and wearing my womanhood tentatively, reluctantly sometimes, and yes, proudly, I reflected on that moment in my childhood. The DAR could not imagine me — not in name, not in the flesh. But I believe others could. I sat up in my seat when Roy Blunt, the Republican Senator from Missouri, presented our newly minted President, Joe Biden, with a painting entitled Landscape with Rainbow by artist Robert S. Duncanson.
Exactly one hundred years before my birth, Duncanson, a man of African and European ancestry, whose brown body marked him as possible property at a time when our collective humanity was in question, made a painting of a landscape with a rainbow symbolizing promise, possibility, and the future. His rendering appears simple, borrowed even, from someone else’s idea of beauty that often ignored the realities non-White people faced on the daily. An imitation of life imagined. I’d like to believe that his paintings were extensions of his dreamlife — the possible world, the beautiful world he needed to paint to keep in check the day-to-day realities his skin provoked. When he painted Landscape with Rainbow in 1859, his dreams were given space to grow. His imagination could breathe. I became possible.
I think Duncanson was playing the long game. Thinking beyond himself and his time as defined by others. Reaching beyond the shadows of his present-day predicament, perhaps motivated by a need that he could not name. You know, that yearning for something both tangible and impossible that tugs at the recesses of your mind, like a dream almost found that you can’t prove exists, but you know is true. Your lifetime, no less important and length unknown, is simply a precursor, a preamble to a bigger story, not limited by skin, flesh, and the vagaries of time. So, you act beyond the limits of your own life to invest in something you may never fully get to stand in. You imagine. You dream. You act. You repeat.
I’ve been thinking a lot about baseball great Henry Aaron who died recently at the age of 86. About his achievements in spite of the humiliations, slights, and threats he endured throughout his time on Earth because the color of his skin reminded others about those memories behind the curtain. But no matter how hard it got both on and off the field, that man came to play every time.
So, here’s what I know for sure: We are in a moment of convergence where our past is present and our future is still in our grasp. And we are faced with ourselves and this planet we call home at every turn. With a shout-out to the ancestors (yours and mine) let us witness, work, and lean into this moment. We need to stay in the game. Stay committed. And yes, we tread water sometimes. But we keep on swinging.
In the coming months, I’d like to think out loud with you about some questions on my mind: Whose land is this anyway (reparations and Indigenous sovereignty)? Can a girl get a witness (hiking while Black in the Himalayas)? Are you my mother (blood relations, the practice of kinship, and the love of a cherry blossom tree)? And what might a Black Walden Pond look like?
I’m nervous, excited, and privileged to be in this conversation with you because the truth is, when I think about this Earth and my place in it, I’m still that skinny black girl believing in the possible and what might emerge when we come together with intention and open hearts. I am because you are, you know what I mean? We the people. Let’s do this.
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