Being Thankful for Clarity and Focused Rage

Thanksgiving has always been among my least favorite holidays.

Not merely because of the mendacity of the traditional narrative regarding its origins — you know, the whole “Indians and Pilgrims living in harmony” nonsense that conveniently ignores the genocide being planned even then by the latter — but because confining gratitude to one day of the year always seemed rather ungrateful. It always felt to me the way Yom Kippur did as a young Jewish kid: one day of atonement meant to paper over the really lousy stuff you had done the other 364 days.

Nonetheless, because it is the time of year when we’re asked to reflect on that for which we are grateful, I’ll play along just this once.

Unoriginal though it may be, I am thankful for my wife, our daughters, close family, good friends, strong coffee and great wine, in that order. But if that were all, it would hardly be worth commenting upon. Such sentiment has been voiced before, and more elaborately by others.

So as I sat at my desk, contemplating what I might offer that would differ from the traditional boilerplate, I happened to glance up at my wall, at which point I fixed upon a photograph that has long inspired me, and which I came to own last year: a gift from my wife. This, I thought, is something for which I am grateful. Not the gift itself, but the message conveyed by the photo, an iconic image from the civil rights era: a photo of Dave Dennis — at that time an organizer with the Congress of Racial Equality — speaking at the funeral of James Chaney, one of three civil rights workers murdered in June 1964 in Philadelphia, Miss.

Dave Dennis

The photo, taken by George Ballis, captures Dennis at the height of his eulogy: a piece of oratorical honesty so raw, so pained, so real, that it has rarely been matched, before or since. With Chaney’s little brother Ben weeping before him, Dennis poured forth his soul, and the visceral truth of the freedom struggle in that church. That Ballis could capture it as he did was nothing short of an artistic miracle.

It is a shot that reminds me of why we who continue to labor for justice and equity do what we do, and which graphically conveys the message about what America has long been, and certainly was back at a time that some would now call the “good old days.” When millions of voices insist they seek to take the country “back” to a better time, I know that for many, this time is the time about which they speak. A time that may have seemed quite innocent and which, for them, might trigger the pangs of nostalgia. But a time that, for those of us who have studied history, and can see it daily etched in the face of a hero such as Dave Dennis, was a time of daily terror for people of color.

I am grateful for all those who fought to break the back of formal apartheid in this nation. Grateful for their anger, and their clarity. We have much of the former, nearly half a century later, but precious little of the latter.

I am grateful for the lack of sentimentality in Ballis’ photo and Dennis’ face. This is no picture of a victim, but rather, the image of a warrior, on fire for justice and prepared to lay down his life for it if need be, as others had, and still more would in the years to come.

For many who would look upon this image today, they would see little more than an angry black man. And in an era where black men are supposed to be cool, calm and collected — and God forbid show anger of any kind, lest they trigger white fear and loathing — it is refreshing. For even as the overt hatred that claimed James Chaney’s life that summer has abated somewhat today, the death of black men at the hands of whites who see them as less than fully human is still far too common. That we do not, collectively, show as much anger at the death of Oscar Grant, shot by a white transit cop in Oakland, or Amadou Diallo, felled by 41 shots courtesy of the NYPD, tells us a lot about how far backward we’ve come in our quest for justice and human dignity.

On this day, I am grateful for a picture that reminds me of how much further we have to go, and how, no matter what some may desire, we can never, must never, go back.

Comments are closed.