Y2K Forces us to face the rising sun
By Mel Tardy
"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line — the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea." — W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903.
W.E.B. DuBois' prophetic statement aptly captures the essence of our century, as if he'd had the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. In a sense, he did. No doubt, he reflected upon the previous era in order to predict the upcoming one. Often, historically, the writing is on the wall, even though we may not want to read it.
Clearly, our inability to look across color lines into the eyes of friends have created many of our 20th century problems. Arguably, the same holds true for the latter half of this millennium, ever since Columbus got lost in 1492 and "discovered" so-called "Indians." Perhaps the genius of DuBois' statement arises from his ability to simply look at history and the world around him and recognize that the dawn of a new century in and of itself wasn't enough to "fix" prevalent race relation problems.
Now we, like Dubois, have the privilege to witness the birth of a new century and, moreover, a new millennium. We sit poised to turn the page on our Y2K calendar books. Yet, turning that page at the stroke of midnight is not like waving a magic wand to find — POOF — all our problems are gone.
Malcolm X often pointed out that "those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it."
No doubt, once we reach Y2K, any year that began with a digit other than the number two will be considered ancient history. Even the youngest of us will soon be shocked by exclamations like: "You were born in the 1900s!? Dang, you're old!" We'll immediately start to wax on about the good old days. There will be a tendency to leave anything reflective of the 20th century in the 20th century. That may be our temptation regarding race relations as well, but we cannot simply sweep our sordid racial past under a carpet as if it didn't happen.
Like cosmic relay runners, the Y2Kers will look to us for the 20th century baton. What will we pass on to them? What kind of time portals will we be? Will we be imperfect windows to the past for those to come? Perhaps it depends on how honest we want to be.
For example, what are the good ol' days? 1901, when George White, a Negro, was in Congress, or the 28 years it would take to get the next one in? The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s or, that same period, when 60-80 "recorded" lynchings occurred per year? The generation that cheered Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, or the next one that jeered the unchecked growth of gangs and drugs in the still-segregated schools of its children? The days of African Americans at prestigious universities like Notre Dame or those when they were dragged to death from pick-up trucks while the beneficiaries of "blue-blood" affirmative action systematically kept African Americans from board rooms, coaching ranks and TV sit-coms?
How honest, indeed.
Without knowing the stony road trod by my forefathers, I wouldn't fully appreciate the oppressed: African American, Jew, Pole, Irish, Italian, Native American or Chinese. I am a free, educated, African American male, a homeowner, with two cars and a garage, during a period of relative peace and economic prosperity. I am the dream of generations who died without ever seeing me. Yet, am I worthy of that dream if I forget their struggles? Foggy window that I am, what if my children, through me, cannot see history! Then, Dr. King ... whose dream am I?
We are the only superpower with great diversity. Surely, it isn't coincidence that a nation of diversity values a United Nations, with its peace-keeping response to world conflicts. After all, nowadays, where on earth could a conflict erupt without somehow touching brethren in America? We are the middle child, patching up the conflicts of our feuding relatives. Yet, we still battle the infighting of our own demons inside. That is our unique history.
Odd it is that we so quickly claim inherent superiority to those who came before us (by virtue of time, we say.) Better diets, superior technology, ergo: better us?! Yet, at the same time, we rationalize immorality by saying "get with it, it's the '70s! ... the '80s! ... the '90s," as if growing more immoral by decades is a pre-destined Christian fate. We worship the vain beauty of our young adults, yet disdain the wisdom of our elders. Is this evolution? No. Maybe it's reality, though ... you know, that writing on the wall we don't want to read? Ahh, the good ol' days, eh mate!
My first day at 21 felt no different than my last day at 20. Really, how much distinction then can come between 1999 and Y2K? Yes, a new day brings the enthusiasm of new expectations, but WHY will we be better in the, er, 2000s ... simply because it follows the 1900s?
The danger of the dawn is the amnesia it spawns. We admire the ready rays of sun and conclude that our day can be run sans guard. "Captain, no need for sentries, no need for walls! It's tomorrow, after all!" We forget that the lion is only yonder, or that the wolf too has had time to rest from the run. So much for the sun. Don't drop the sword! We must still march on.
Sure, it will seem odd fighting for civil and human rights in a new millennium. But, just as in DuBois' day, the writing is indeed on the wall and we must resist the temptation to whisk it under a rug. The fight did not end with Dr. King. Every day of this "final year," African American males have been stopped by police for "looking suspicious," drugs and AIDS have ravaged our neighborhoods, even while many African Americans (DuBois' so-called "talented tenth") still do not know why they are in school, nor who died to pave the way for it!
While we rejoice in the promise of a new millennium, what credible programs are in place to make the year 2016 any different than 17 years ago when I started at Notre Dame? The writing on the wall tells me that, in the year 2016, most Americans will still fear Black males; police will have sophisticated patrol cars, but still stop people on the basis of race; the race card will be played in elections; glass ceilings will still exist and, sadly, Notre Dame will still be 3 percent African American (or lower, if we lose affirmative action).
Hope is important, but the hope of the present is brought more from a growing economy than anything else. Come a downturn, and we're back to finger-pointing. Vigilance, discussion and education are important, to eradicate ignorance and truly change attitudes. However, fair laws with teeth are every bit as important! A better tomorrow won't evolve without better steps today. If we can feel good about anything at the close of this century, let it be because we know better where we are and where we need to go.
Nearly a century ago, in 1900, James Weldon Johnson and James Rosamond Johnson composed the song, "Lift Every Voice And Sing," now often referred to as the "Black National Anthem." Approaching 2000, we, too, are — as the lyrics say —"full of the faith that the dark past has taught us." Yes, and there is even "hope that the present has brought us." However, "facing the rising sun of our new day begun," let us not walk blindly into the light of ignorance.
Rest assured, the problem of the 21st century will, again, be the color line. DuBois' words still ring as sharply as any bugle reveille. This time, let the generations heed his message. So, let us march on with our ark before us, filled with wisdom gleaned from the wall writings of our elders and ancestors. Let us bring history's mistake-filled baton to our children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Most importantly, let's use our collective pasts to teach our younger generations how and why to look across the color line ... into the eyes of friendship. Then, and only then, will true victory be won, for all.
Mel Tardy '86, '90, is an academic advisor for the First Year of Studies.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Wednesday, October 27, 1999