What is it you want me to reconcile myself to? I was born here almost 60 years ago.
I’m not going to live another 60 years.
You’ve always told me it takes time.
It’s taken my father’s time. My mother’s time. My brother’s and my sister’s time. My niece’s and my nephew’s time.
How much time do you want for your “progress”?
— Famous agnostic James Baldwin, major and hard-working civil rights leader, especially during the days of MLK and Malcolm X (although he was active his entire life). Quote is from the mid 1980s.
He died of stomach cancer in 1987.
Last weekend, on Saturday, August 12th, the day of the Charlottesville, Virginia incident, I “celebrated” my 34th birthday.
The last birthday I ever looked forward to was thirty. Ever since then, it’s been a matter of getting older and realizing that my time is going to run out. Experientially speaking, I’ve lived more than half of my life, already — the second half is going to seem much faster than the first half. And if I’m going to be honest, this first half hasn’t seemed all that long.
My mortality has mattered less on earlier birthdays, because until I was 28, I believed in God. I thought that when I died I would spend eternity in paradise, and everything would work out perfectly. So I could plug on here, patiently, as long as I knew that after my death everything was going to be relieved in a happy-ever-after.
When I stopped believing in God, I had to give up heaven. Yes, it was more than worth it, because I also no longer had to convince people that they deserved eternity in hell. But I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t hard. At first it was difficult to figure out what my life meant — to even figure out how to get out of bed in the morning — when I found out that I would never see the heaven I had intended to spend my whole life pursuing. I would never hear a “well-done” at the end of my life, and the problems in this world wouldn’t be resolved in a Great Beyond…they would keep going long after I had lived and become a rotted corpse.
That’s a tough reality. But it also gives me a truth — I’m not working to be in the Great Beyond. I’m working for the here and now. And when I die, that’s it.
And here, I’m going to be selfish a bit because, as the old saying goes, at some level each of us have to live and die alone.
I’m not being normative here. I’m not telling you what you should or shouldn’t do.
I’m saying that something that’s been on my mind ever since I saw the cruel and harsh reminders of racism on my 34th Birthday, and then the tragedy of Trump’s defense of that racism on that day and a few days later, is that I can’t sit around waiting expectantly for something that’s never going to come.
I did that as a Christian — I spent nearly half of my projected life span waiting for a happy-ever-after that I’ll never get to experience, and that makes me angry. I’m done with that. A big part of me doesn’t want to spend the rest of my life waiting for an equality that will never happen.
“But,” you say, “that’s kinda selfish. It’s not about you. It’s about the people who came after you. Just be patient.”
Here’s the thing…
My ancestors have been saying that for hundreds of years. During the days of slavery, abolitionists were told, “Slow down. The slavery problem will take care of itself. Naturally. Just let it run its course.”
Same with voting rights, desegregation, etc. I’m not going to say that things haven’t got better…but what I saw on my 34th birthday is that we haven’t gotten nearly as far as we thought we’d get. Was all the hope worth it, if it brought us to a Donald Trump?
I know these aren’t the best questions. I’m supposed to be hopeful. But, in addition to being an atheist, I’m a skeptic about heavens and hells and utopias. Time does not guarantee that things will get better. And the other side is waiting, too, for their own utopia. Why would I think my utopia would just naturally supercede theirs? I don’t believe there’s a God. I don’t really believe that goodness has an inherent advantage, and history doesn’t indicate that it necessarily does. WE have to make it happen. And I don’t really believe in faith these days, but…try as I might, I don’t have a ton of faith in us.
Anyways…back to being selfish. Not talking about the big movement, not talking about huge political movements or grand rallies or front-page stories.
Just like two people sipping on drinks in the quiet corner at the back of the bar, being honest with each other, like old friends.
From me to you:
I can’t wait, man.
I can’t wait.
I can’t spend the next 34 years of my life yearning for a Utopia that will never come. I know what the facts are. I’m not going to go over all the stats here; I’ve given a bit of it elsewhere. But I’m talking to you as a friend; I’m not trying to start an argument with you here. I’ve spent 34 years black in America. I know something about what it’s like.
How long am I supposed to sit around and wait?
How long am I going to have to sit in endless dialogue on race, fighting the white supremacists and Nazis and Confederates who can’t let 150 years ago and a slave era go? How much patience am I supposed to have while endless and pointless debate sucks away the rest of my lifespan, and I die with the problem still intact.
And to be honest, that’s made me rethink my morality. Before, I was content to be more patient; there was, after all, a happy-ever-after waiting for me. But now that I know that’s not there…patience is starting to look less and less like a virtue, and more and more like a waste of the precious time I have.
Fight or flight is starting to kick in.
And honestly…sometimes I don’t want to fight. I know something about black history, and I’ve read hundreds of pages on the great plans and utopias blacks in the past thought would be realized today. To say this hasn’t happened as of August 12th seems something of an understatement. So maybe, I think sometimes, fighting for the utopia is a waste of time.
But it does anger me to be a second class citizen when I have absolutely no business being one. I want equal rights — I just don’t want to waste the rest of my life fighting for something that will never come. And this impacts my morality, and gives me a sense of urgency, because my life is happening NOW. Not just tomorrow, not a year from now, not thirty years from now. RIGHT NOW.
I wanted to be treated equally NOW.
There is no heaven. There is no happy-ever-after save what I make of this current life span. And so I’d like to be treated equally, now, and the urgency I feel in the face of the fact that I have lived half my life already is that I want it through methods that will ensure that I actually get it.
And sometimes I suspect there is no way that will work, given the failed attempts in history, and I honestly don’t want to try. Maybe that’s unpopular. But I can’t work for something that’s never going to happen.
It’s not like I’m picking one option or the other and sticking to it. These two positions are constantly warring with each other. Sometimes I want to give up and just enjoy my life. And sometimes racism makes it so that I can’t enjoy my life, and I realize how urgently I want it gone.
I know that sounds really selfish. But it’s the honest truth. And I think that getting a clear picture of the problem in a “grand scheme” type of way requires looking at the way the problem is embodied in the individual people who are affected by it. To give them a right to speak freely from their position.
Maybe that insistence that we black people always connect our narrative to something larger than ourselves as individuals is a way to delegitimize our experiences, in favor of crafting us into concepts to be pitied, sensualized, or exotified instead of real, individual, flesh-and-blood people who react to racism in a myriad of deeply complex but individually felt and profoundly unique ways. And so, in that sense, to be a human being, to speak your unique individual experience of what it feels for YOU to be assigned blackness in America is an act of rebellion that clarifies the fact that we are not talking about types. We are not talking about an undifferentiated group of “blacks.” We are talking about individual, unique people with real lives that are disrupted, individually, uniquely, and complexly, by ideas forced onto their identities that have no place there.
At any rate…it’s just…when I see Charlottesville, Virginia, on my birthday…it gets really discouraging, and I also get a sense of desperation when I glimpse at the hourglass that is my life. But I also know that I am equal — and that’s part of the sense of urgency in the despair. I largely know what I deserve, and a big part of me wants to simply claim it. To see the pride in myself and what I am due and not compromise. Because I can’t wait for you to see me as equal. I can’t wait for you to recognize that I have equal rights. I will have to take them; I can’t simply wait in a Neverland for you to give them to me.
That’s my attitude. Of course, the process of taking those rights is hard and frustrating. I’ve been through several conversations on whether racism existed in which the person I was arguing with was in denial although they seemed to KNOW, underneath it all, that racism is real, and this gives me doubt that the new debates are coming from a genuine place.
It’s also why I don’t want to waste time giving anyone cookies. I did not ask to be born a second-class citizens. Anything you give me to make me equal is merely recognizing who I am supposed to be. Because I am not claiming my rights later, and waiting for you to politely give them to me. I am claiming them for myself now, and so when you recognize them — as far as I’m concerned, you’re recognizing something I already have.
And if I speak strongly or engage in strong action, realize that it comes from the simple fact that I am aware that I can’t wait; if I am going to experience more equality, I have to do it now, in this life, and it depends on people. God isn’t going to do anything about it; He doesn’t exist. It’s all us. And either the White Supremacists will win, or we will. Either I’ll experience more or less discrimination. Either I’ll get get treated fairly by employers and law enforcement, or I will not be — which can have severe consequences for my actual life.
And if I decide to take time out to simply enjoy my life and forget about racism for awhile, that’s part of my decision to live my best life now. I’m not asking for your advice on how to live my best life in this regard; this is my life, not yours. I’m simply writing down my thoughts. I’m simply recognizing the reality that there will be no heaven for me.
This is my last chance to live my best life. I can’t afford to sit around patiently for white America to straighten out its own issues. I need to go after the life of equality I want in the here and now because, as an a black atheist, after I die I won’t be able to do it anymore.
This is my only chance, and it’s nearly halfway over.
It’s a side effect, I guess, of being a black atheist:
I can’t wait.
Thanks for reading.
PS: I want to thank all 33 of my Patrons for helping me write. You’re awesome.