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two moments from 2016

Two moments from the summer and fall of 2016 keep coming back to me.


I went to Atlanta in late July for the Society of American Archivists conference. I arrived a day early so I could visit the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. The conference reception was going to be held there but I wasn't planning to stay for the whole conference; plus, it's not the kind of museum I wanted to visit as part of a professional conference event. I wanted to be able to take as much time as I felt I needed, and I wanted to be there as part of a diverse public.

As an historian, I will sheepishly admit that exhibits in history museums often don't stay with me like exhibits in art museums. That's not to say they're ineffective, but what I learn from history museums I tend to incorporate into my general understanding of history, while I rarely disconnect my perception of art from how I experienced it. The lunch counter sit-in exhibit, which you can preview online, was different.

It's a demonstration of what it would have been like to attend a sit-in, and it takes as an example the training and preparation a demonstrator would have gone through before an actual sit-in. You put on headphones, close your eyes, and put your hands on a counter. A voice asks you to try to remain calm. Then a growing tide of voices yells at you for the next minute or so with increasing intensity, mimicking the type of abuse and intimidation you'd be likely to experience at a real lunch counter sit-in. I thought it was more effective than any photo or footage of protests could have been on their own.

Another thing I remember about my experience there is that they had a supply of tissues in the section about the funeral for Martin Luther King, Jr.

I visited the museum only a few days after the Democratic and Republican parties held their nominating conventions; I did not have only history on my mind. In one of the early galleries, about the 1950s, I remember listening to the voices of the so-called respectable politicians who opposed civil rights, and I thought about how much they sounded like the modern Republican party as expressed during the Trump campaign, and how in 2016 civil rights issues were still very much on the ballot. And how all the contemporary euphemism and obfuscation about "racially tinged" language and purely economic motivations made it hard to see that reality clearly.1


Later that fall, I was at the Great Mall in Milpitas, CA, probably to buy some new clothes. Milpitas is a community just north of San Jose, which puts it somewhere between the south bay and the east bay. It's a suburban area and the Great Mall is one of those suburban malls where everything is on one floor and you walk in a large circle to reach it all. Many Bay Area suburbs, especially in the east and south bay regions, are quite diverse, far more diverse than you'd expect if you haven't updated your perceptions of what a suburb is from the time when suburbs were seen as synonymous with white.

As I walked around the circle, I was struck by how few white people I saw - not because this was an unusual experience for me, but because I'd been thinking about the white nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric that was such a prominent feature of the Trump campaign, then in full swing. I remember thinking, if you take them at their word, if you think about the kind of country they say they want to have, then you have to account for the very real diversity that already exists here. There's only so much they could do within the law, or their interpretation of the law, to try to turn the country into what they envisioned it to be; ultimately, if that was not enough for them, they'd turn to outright violence. I didn't - and still don't - think they would win, but I never thought they'd be beyond trying.

  1. Recently, I read Farai Chideya's "The Call-to-Whiteness," originally written in 2016. I have to agree with the numerous people who have pointed out then and since that we'd be much better off if major journalism outlets centered more voices of Black people and people of color.