Sunday, January 15, 2017

Brace yourself

Back in July I got to see Hamilton. Kate wanted to treat herself (and us) to something special for her 50th, and I thought she'd found an excellent way to do that.

Throughout the show I had a growing sense of the tension between the stage and the world outside.

Onstage, a team of audacious artists had reconceived part of the story of the Founding Fathers, and presented those iconic white men as people of color, rapping.

Out in the wider world, we were at the start of a general election in which the Confederate flag was making a more prominent appearance than I remember in my 40 years of paying attention to politics. Citizens were organizing to protest against the insanely high odds of being shot for the color of their skin, and some portion of the populace looked at the phone videos and managed to find a way to say there was nothing wrong.

Signs of progress, next to unsettling reminders of how far we had still to go. The sickness in the population was evident, but I was confident the election would come out OK.

Tonight Kate and I went to Hidden Figures, about three African-American women working at NASA in 1961, as the U.S. was racing to get its first astronaut into space. Each of them was brilliant in her way - computer programming, engineering, mathematics - and each one had to work harder than should have been necessary to have her abilities recognized, because the white men in charge at NASA didn't expect (at first) a woman to be so good at technical subjects, never mind a woman of color.

And I had an echo of the feeling that grew on me while watching Hamilton. Only this time the election was behind is.

The good news is that almost 3 million more people gave their vote to the woman, rather than to the candidate who was somehow earning the endorsement of the KKK, the candidate who pretended he didn't really know who David Duke was, the candidate who incited his followers to violence during his rallies.

The bad news is that that other guy still won.

If you asked me the outlines of the civil indignities under which Blacks lived in the Jim-Crow South, I might be able to make a creditable list, but there's still something visceral in being shown it again in a well-done dramatic portrayal. And yet a large portion of my fellow citizens can somehow convince themselves that Blacks are making too big a deal out of our history - and out of our present.

The white administrators and engineers at NASA are creatures of their time. All of them start off assuming the "colored" women are useful in their limited roles, and that's it. They come around, at different speeds, to appreciating the women's abilities and according them the respect due to people.

It is a reminder of our ugly past, and the progress we've made, as imperfect as that progress remains.

And it's painful to walk out of the theater and have one's mind snap back to dwelling on how much we may be about to lose.

I lack any sense of how this will play out, the contradiction between the basic decency of many Americans and the rank indecency of the incoming government.

A Prague friend wrote the night of the election and passed along the Czech saying, " 'We shall see,' said the blind man - and he saw."

Then he switched to English and finished his note with, "Brace yourself."

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