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Historically Speaking: A Change in the Air

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

By Will Bellaimey with Elizabeth Gracen:

Who would have ever thought that the world would keep changing at such a rapid clip? It has been relentless. We are stressed beyond measure since Covid-19 ushered in its merciless spread of a disease that has both separated us through social distancing and united us during a restrictive lockdown. Glued to our screens for news about the pandemic and the economic crunch that has ensued, we have waited for signs of hope. Instead, as we watched, we witnessed the horrific murder of George Floyd on March 25, 2020. The video's harsh reality pulled back the surface of another deadly "disease" that has run rampant in the United States since the colonial era—systemic racism.

Our citizens take to the streets now on a daily basis as the powerful wave of the Black Lives Matter movement leads us toward a chance for true change. The outcry has moved the needle every so slightly in a contentious election year where race and equity draw the battle lines in party politics in a country much in need of strong leadership.

I recently sat down for a bi-monthly Zoom conversation with my friend Will Bellaimey to talk about world events and the history that has brought us to this pivotal moment in time. Will is a high school history teacher in Southern California and star of the informative and highly entertaining podcast All The President's, Man.

Elizabeth Gracen: Well, friend, the world has taken quite a turn since the last time we spoke. It’s been exciting to watch the Black Lives Matter movement gain momentum. Change is in the air. It’s also been a hard realization for many of us to know that we really don’t know our American history.

Will Bellaimey: Well, I've heard a lot of people—mostly white people, especially people of generations before mine—feeling frustrated about their history education. They were simply not taught about some of the kinds of things that now feel so relevant—about structural racism, about redlining. I’m curious: what kind of history teaching did you get growing up in Arkansas?

Image: Overlapping maps of five boroughs of New York were combined to show redlining across the entire city.

EG: Well, we certainly were never told what “Juneteenth” was, and I never heard about the Tulsa Race Massacre—and Tulsa was just three hours away from where I lived! We were vaguely taught about the Little Rock Nine and Central High School, but the violence against Black people—the horrible mob lynching mentality that occurred in the state—none of that was ever dwelled on or taught. My father was an overt racist. I mean, it was what I grew up with in the South. I’m from a smallish town, and there was a section of town that all African Americans lived in.

WB: Most towns in America have the Black part of town, because of laws. Also, because of just prejudice. Part of what I think people have felt in recent days is that they didn't learn in school the extent to which these kind of things aren't just about personal prejudice. They are actually about things that were built into the housing code. Northwest Minneapolis, called the Northside, has for a long time been the neighborhood that's predominantly Black. Then the neighborhood where I grew up was almost entirely white folks. That affects how people feel and think about one another.

EG: What kind of history were you taught in Minnesota?

WB: It's something that I’ve been thinking about. I don't think that I was taught a lot of the things that I talk about now. I don't think I was taught a myth. I don't think I was taught Birth of a Nation. My American History class, I remember well. We watched a film about the 1968 Chicago Eight trial that sticks in my mind. I think there were bits and pieces of glimpses of the story. We talked about slavery in some depth. I had some pretty radical teachers in my senior year who taught Latin American history. I think they, at least, got me thinking in a more critical way. I think a lot of my learning about history has come since I’ve been an adult.

EG: I just recently rewatched the Ava Duvernay documentary 13TH the other night. It is such a comprehensive timeline of race in America. For anyone who wasn’t taught the true history of Black America, it is a great film, a great resource. After screening it again, in light of everything that has happened since the murder of George Floyd, I was just left thinking, Well, so what do we do? How do we fix this? What are we going to make of this important moment in time? I mean, I try not to be pessimistic, but looking at history, it's hard to feel incredibly optimistic about real change in our country.

WB: I've been doing a lot of thinking about optimism and pessimism and what they mean, because I hear a lot of people feeling both hope and pessimism and cynicism. I think they're appropriate responses to the moment. I do think that we have to understand that there will never be a final victory over racism in our lifetime. I think we all know that, intellectually. Somehow, emotionally speaking for my generation, the Millennials, there is something about growing up in the 1990s, where the Cold War had ended and the attitude around race at that time was very much like, "Cool. We fixed that pretty much. Let's make one Power Ranger Black and one Power Ranger Asian. Then, we'll just let it be." Even though most Millennials would, I hope, recognize that electing the first Black president was not the end of racism, I do think there's still this internalized narrative in a lot of our generation and, probably, in white people of an older generation too that's like, "Well, cool, we're going to finish dealing with this racism thing." This is where it's helpful for us to look at Black leadership at different moments. I don't think Martin Luther King, Jr., for all his "I Have a Dream" heights, ever believed that he was going to, in his lifetime, be able to move on from the struggle. I don't think anybody who fought to abolish slavery thought that abolishing slavery was going to end the struggle. If you don't believe that in your lifetime the struggle will ever end, does that make you a pessimist?

EG: It makes you a realist.

WB: I think that is just part of being alive in a democracy. If we could all start from the place of "so we're going to spend our entire lives fighting against oppression, then, we will die, and some other people will pick up the fight," then once you accept that, there's a lot of space for great hope. People right now are demanding change. Even if the change that happens doesn't solve all the problems, we're paying attention to the problems in a way that we haven't. It really takes moments of crisis, it seems, to shake white America out of its complacency around these kinds of issues. I think we haven't seen white people paying as much attention to race as they are right now in a very long time.

EG: It's been the perfect storm of people being locked in a contentious, highly charged election year and then this horrific murder. In such a horrible year, it’s been a surprise to see such collective passion for change come out of these circumstances.

WB: Well, it's bringing attention to it. Attention is not in quite as short of supply. Time is not in quite as short of supply. I think, on some level, empathy is not in quite as short of supply. There's something that's been unifying about all of us going through this struggle together, even as the people who are most severely affected with so many issues, as we talked about last time, are Black and brown people. There's something in the consciousness right now that's a little bit more—