Where was your mother, when?
I scrolled through my facebook home feed this past weekend. I love the graduations, vacations, babies, heartwarming or thought provoking videos. There is this feeling of connectedness to people I know deeply or casually, see all the time or hardly ever, have a direct relationship with or one through others. I curate carefully and mostly accept friends I know will share a steady stream of like-mindedness. This is my time to relax in a universe of my own making – virtual, superficial and affirming.
Then I saw a jarring photo and caption posted by an extended family member. A young black man had knocked down celebratory crosses and flags in a veteran’s cemetery. It was an awful thing to do. But the response around the article was far more horrifying to me than an act of vandalism. Violent, hateful, racist comments, calling to kick him out of the country, to lock him up, punctuated with inflammatory hashtags. One of which started my heart beating so fast I felt lightheaded. It was a hashtag supporting the confederate flag. A reference that only makes sense in the context of the perpetrator. This posted by a faithful Mormon, a suburban mom who also shares brownie recipes and pictures of puppies.
I felt the way I used to feel when I knew I was supposed to bear my testimony; that rush of adrenaline that says you you must stand up, you must speak up. Surely she didn’t mean this, she must have accidentally shared, right? If she understood how shameful, how hurtful this is, she would take it down and never post such an ugly thing again. I had to write an opposing reply. I began searching for quotes that might articulate my conviction. I started researching the number of soldiers who died in the Civil War, then Maya Angelou on forgiveness, then Jesus on everything, then every humanist writer I could think of, then I took a breath and stopped.
I was born with a desire to fight for what seems undeniably right. My heroines were Joan of Arc, Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart – women who led armies, saved people, did not take “no” for an answer. I played my parent’s protest music and sang along loud and strong, hoping they could hear my child’s voice beyond the confines of age and distance, in solidarity with the movements I knew were happening. I always wanted to be on the vanguard of big change, waving a flag on the front lines, but my reality has settled for demonstrating these values in daily behavior. Believing and trying to live as Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.”
What would I solve by responding to this post? Would I change anyone’s mind? This is just facebook, not a true dialogue. My husband reminds me that people with these opinions probably feel the same indignation when I post proud mama pictures of myself at the anti-DOMA rally, or add a rainbow filter on my profile picture, or publish an essay that is not “faith promoting.” No matter who initiates the offense, I could argue righteous wrath to wrath. I could wield rationality and irrationality with a dose of Sicilian passion and yell anyone’s hair back. Which would belie the exact values that I work to advocate. How can I believe in kindness and not show it, fight for freedom and get mad when someone uses it in a way I find repugnant? The battlefield for justice has become confusing and I worry at my own hubris.
Yet, there is a particular Pete Seeger song, called My Name is Lisa Kalvelage, that haunts me. The protagonist of the song reflects on her childhood and youth in Germany during the time of Hitler. When she is asked how she and her family could stand by and allow the atrocities to happen, she had no answer. In the current day, she is at a peace demonstration, speaking out against nuclear weapons, proclaiming “That at least in the future (her children) need not be silent when they are asked, “Where was your mother, when?” This refrain echoes in the song over and over, “where was your mother, when?” and I think what will my children say?
I remember of the second half of Eleanor’s quote: “… they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
My life is not on facebook. I need to find ways to combat the fear, warmongering, and hate-filled messages that permeate our national conversation face to face, my face to the face of another person who does not agree with me. My liberal education has taught me that many things are relative and there should be diverse points of view. But my belief system tells me that some rights are non-negotiable and human history proves story after story that some paths will only lead to evil. I am generally a hopeful person, but this single post has rocked my optimism. I can pretend that this type of ideology lives away, in the backwoods of somewhere far from me and my family. But this is my family. These are my neighbors. And unfriending this woman will not change her potential influence on others and ultimately our very real world.
I wonder if small acts are enough. Where am I? And when?