It’s turning into “where were you when you heard?”
It’s turning into “what was life like, before the war?”
It’s turning into the biggest change, the biggest alteration, and it only took a decade.
Except it didn’t. It took a hundred lifetimes.
I think we have this idea, in America. We have this idea, because our stories are still largely written by a past generation, that before 1960 everybody was okay with black people being subjected to Jim Crow and gay people being arrested for dancing in a club and women being felt up in the elevator. And after 1960 all that got fixed and suddenly gays were out of the closet and women were free to do whatever and black people were full citizens everywhere.
We have this idea of a stark dividing line: a before, and an after, and we think we know when it was.
(White people, generally, and men. White women, too, a lot, especially if we’re middle-upper class and kind of sheltered.)
And then a week like this one comes roaring down from the mountaintop and we realize we weren’t in the after.
We were in the before.
Many, many people prior to the Civil War were not okay with owning slaves. Many, many people prior to the Voting Rights Act were not okay with continuing to punish black people for the North winning that war, either.
Many, many people were living lives worthy of respect and dignity at risks to themselves that I can only shudder at today. If Mr. A were Mrs. A and this was 1815, the authorities could take my family away. How do you feel about your family? I will Red Wedding you, I swear, you come near mine. Despite that, the people in these photographs held one another tight.
We don’t know their names. We never will. We don’t know when this fight — the private, quiet one, preceding the public ones — began; probably around the time feminism began, or racial disparities, ie around the time the first person stood up on hind legs and uttered words.
They didn’t know they were living in their before, until they saw their after. Until Stonewall and Selma and Seneca Falls, until property laws and the Voting Rights Act and the fight Harvey Milk picked with the whole damn world.
(Many of them didn’t see it, lived and died in silence, their courage unknown. It’s things like that, make me wish I believed in a literal heaven.)
It will be amazing to my daughter that we once cared who you married. If she grows up to like girls, I could still be the mother of the bride and she will think nothing of it. She will say, “I can’t believe you used to live this way.”
Which is what every new thing says to the old. What every after says to every before. We hear it as condemnation, and it is. We hear it as repudiation, and it is. The old world is rapidly aging. A young woman scaled the flagpole outside the South Carolina statehouse Saturday morning, in the dawn’s early light, and tore the Confederate battle flag down.
They can raise it again, but they can’t erase the sight. They can’t erase that it happened.
And every act of courage, as large as scaling a flagpole and as small as holding a hand, brings us just a little farther forward. Every lifetime has a before, and an after. We only know it when we cross the line.
Where were you when you heard? I was at my computer at work, and the news came over Twitter. I can’t believe we used to live the way we did — in fear, in inequality, in being so threatened by the happiness of others that we would demean the very existence of love.