We Were Promised Jetpacks
“2018 wasn’t supposed to be this way. Fuck. Fuck. FUCK!” — Children of Baby Boomers
Prelude to the promise of jetpacks
The United States began because European colonists (primarily men, but not just the men) weren’t happy with the terms of engagement with their Royal overlords, and they figured that Native people weren’t shit so they could just make a new country on their land, primarily using labor that was violently extracted from kidnapped Africans and their children and their children’s children, the children that Black women were forced to produce. Slavery and rape go hand in hand. After that a lot of bad shit happened, not just to Indigenous folks and Black folks but also Asian folks who arrived in the wake of the end of slavery and the absence of slavery. There was war, more colonialism that went as far as Hawaii and the Marshall Islands, and imperialism that went as far as the southern tip of South America. The United States dealt with Hitler until it had no choice but to beat him. They turned boat after boat of Jewish children away. Jews died. We talk about the Jews who died. The Romani, not so much. Through all of this, Native Americans experienced dispossession after dispossession and genocidal maniacs like President Andrew Jackson, Trump’s favorite. And Black Americans were beaten, raped, lynched, beaten raped and then lynched all in one day sometimes, and then when hanging wasn’t okay, there were other ways. The Nazis made it illegal to be Jewish and human, and they learned this from the way that Americans had done the same to Black and Indigenous people. There was the Reconstruction, but then the Republicans (the 1870s equivalent of the 2010s Democrats) lost their heart for doing the right thing and capitulated to white supremacy. So eventually Jim Crow, then the Civil Rights movement. And somewhere in there a wise person said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
We were promised justice jetpacks
I was born in 1982, and Reagan was president and in the 90s we remembered that period as being kind of bleak, even if it did give us Duran Duran, a sober David Bowie, more Michael Jackson and a-ha’s “Take On Me.” But the good news was that the moral universe was bending toward justice. Crack was racing through Black communities, and a serial killer was murdering Black women in South (Central) Los Angeles and mass incarceration was just taking off. The work was not finished. But it was being done. I grew up in a family of activists, and I saw that every day. Suffered with it, in fact. My family was sometimes not there for me in the ways they should have been. But I get that their hearts were in the right places.
When I was 4 and wanted to play baseball professionally and had figured out that girls couldn’t play professionally, my grandfather promised me that by the time I was old enough to play, I would be allowed to. He was a mensch, my Grandpa Norman, and I’m really sorry he didn’t get to live to see me grow up to become what he wanted to be, a professional scientist. My mom tells me his dreams for me stopped at CalTech because Harvard was beyond what a poor Ashkenazi Jew from Brooklyn who never finished high school and spent his life in factories could ever imagine for his little granddaughter.
My grandfather promised me equality jetpacks. I can’t be mad at him about it though because the fact that he was on Medicare meant that they didn’t catch the cancer until it had infested his body, and I was left on my own to grapple with the juxtaposition between his hope and my reality.
We were told the world was getting better. We were told we would get rights like the ones rich white people had.
It’s easy to pause, to yell at me now and say I grew up in a liberal pipe dream. But I grew up in east Los Angeles, where ICE regularly kidnaps people now. I grew up looking up to the Zapatistas and believing Marx had insights to offer, even if he didn’t have a great plan for how to change the world with them. I spent the last two years of high school writing furious screeds in the high school paper about Kosovo. Why won’t Clinton save them, I naively but furiously wrote. Aren’t they like the Jews, I thought.
I went home every day to a neighborhood where the police chased people through my backyard and there were shootings and people died, although luckily for me never anyone I knew. My mom very carefully managed who I was around and when because when you’re a single Black mom in the ghetto, well, hey, that’s one of the strategies for saving your kid from how white supremacy shapes our communities. But death was normal. Police violence was how things were. I also knew it wasn’t like that for everyone.
I also knew I wanted to be scientist. I thought I would go and come back one day, a hero for the community, a professor at a local university. That’s not how it works. I went, and I wasn’t able to come back again. Now I read the news from home in the comfort of my nice condo, near the fancy university I went to for college — on the other side of the country. It was a miserable place, but it also means I know people who can make calls when a call needs to be made to help someone out. I have that kind of power in my hands.
This jetpack doesn’t fly the way I want it to though
But even if I can chew him out in the Harvard red book, I can’t stop Jared Kushner. Not by myself. I haven’t forgotten where I came from, and I suppose there is much for me to be proud of about the life I have lived in the 19 years since I left home. But I was forced to come of age with 9/11 and here’s the thing.
I never thought things were great for Black people and Native Americans and Latinx people because I’m a Black kid from east L.A. who grew up spending time in Los Angeles and South Dakota Lakota communities. But I believed that better was coming. Things were good for many white folks, and that meant things could be good for all of us, right?
Now it’s 2018 and things are definitely getting worse for white folks. There’s a lot of blame to go around on that front although a very big all caps reason is WHITE PEOPLE DID NOT LISTEN TO US WHEN WE WARNED THEM THAT WHITE SUPREMACY WOULD GET OUT OF HAND AND CONSUME THEM TOO. So, even though I kind of knew this, it feels like a shitty kick to the gut to watch it and know that it means even more suffering for people of color and . . . the promise of that metaphorical jetpack to freedom seems to be dying. Maybe the promise was never real. But I hoped, and now it is harder to hang onto hope, even if my hope was always tied to a cynical analysis of how a society built on the morally decrepit actions of violent, racist colonizers could never come to any good.
I believed even when my white former Catholic nun teacher sat my fourth grade class down after the school re-opened post 1992 Los Angeles Uprising and said, “If you don’t like it here go back to Africa.” I mindlessly repeated this to my mom, at age nine not really understanding how bad it was. But I remember the look on my mother’s face when I repeated this to her while she drove me to track practice in the park that sometimes we had to leave early because the Bloods and Crips were going to get into it. (So yeah, the ghetto has a logic. People do care if other people live and die. But the economic logic that makes ghettoes ensures that we are always feeling like we have to choose between ourselves and everyone else.)
I believed even when a white math student (who I wasn’t even interested in dating) told me freshman year that we could be friends but he would never consider someone like me to be girlfriend material because he doesn’t see Black women as romantic partners. I quite like his white wife, who I helped him ask out, by the way.
I believed and now it is harder to believe, and I think it has to be okay to say that we feel lied to, even as we knew the world was bad that we didn’t think it would get so much worse. Or at least we had faith it wouldn’t. And now our faith is on fire. And many white people are also experiencing fear for the first time and don’t really know how to handle it like adults, which is kind of irritating for the rest of us who have always been afraid. But it’s also true that I am afraid of more things now. Charlottesville wouldn’t have happened in 1999. But it happened in 2017, and it’s going to be bigger and worse on the National Mall in 2018.
Trump really might manage to take the Department of Education and the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services (which its Refugee office aside actually does great work) and fucking ruin them and the mess is already hurting even more people than the mess under the presidents before him did. There is a down hill from here. It’s true the Democrats didn’t do enough to protect us or even anything to protect some of us. But there’s a down hill from here. We’re on it. We’re not flying.
Can we build our own jetpacks?
I don’t know how to deal with the grief and the fact that my faith has burned to a crisp. I know that I am grateful that some people have taken seriously the fact that now is the time to get it together. Now is the time to confront colonialism and anti-Blackness and xenophobia and how these are foundational to what is America even all about and why it even exists. Now is the time to confront the history of gender and misogyny and how enforcing a gender/sex binary in an essentialist manner was part of the violent colonial project. We must accept the truth about ableism and its connection to our fierce belief that some people are disposable and worth less. All of these things are tied together under the tent of white supremacy. We must somehow hold all of these actual truths about America to be self-evident and then make choices about what we do next.
I don’t have answers but here is what I am grateful for, and that seems like a good place to start:
— Antifa. I am a pacifist but I believe in self-defense, and I believe antifa is defending humanity from what Kiese Laymon has called “the worst of white folks.”
— People who use their imagination and refuse to stop using their imaginations. More than ever we need the arts to keep us on course as actual humane humans. We also need the sciences that enliven our relationship with the world, and here I use science expansively to include knowledge systems that are often not acknowledged within academic spaces.
— Everyone who understands that “civility” is relative and cries for civility are often how people in power try to shut down cries for justice.
— The helpers who are more interested in justice than protecting their egos. Look for the helpers, Mr. Rogers said.
I’m going to try and protect these people that I am grateful for, including the children who may grow up to be them some day, whether they are currently in an immigrant internment camp or mass incarceration internment camp, being trafficked in the foster system, or being threatened by the existence of racist policing. I’m going to try. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to fly free. But I plan to die on my feet, rather than live on my knees.
And I’m going to listen to a lot of We Were Promised Jetpacks along the way, because they’re great:
Sorry for the bad writing. I’m really tired and there’s a lot going on. Here are some twitter threads I wrote that other people seemed to think are useful: