1992 approached with announcements from official bodies of plans to celebrate the Quincentennial of the date when Columbus set foot on an island in the Caribbean. It was clear that the year would be crowded with expensive, lavishly-orchestrated events. In true entrepreneurial spirit, corporate entities and ad agencies began using themes of “discovery” to sell their products.
Then came the counter-campaigns. Indigenous groups united in anger, naming the beginning of genocide and racism in our hemisphere as the true legacy of Columbus, and announcing that they would use the occasion to celebrate 500 years of resistance to oppression. Activists from a spectrum of groups joined in coalitions, progressive cartoonists portrayed the political truth, historians set the record straight, and individuals joined the cry for an Alternative Quincentenary.
Four months into the year came the Rodney King trial, the verdict, and the uprisings of protest. Our phones rang and our doors opened to people who had found new motivation to respond to such blatant racism. Many were asking questions such as “What can I do?… ” “How can I get involved?…” “Where should I begin?…” “What group shall I work with?”
Responding to the questions of what to do is not as easy as one would like it to be. The levels of acquaintance with the issues among the newly-motivated are different, the place for each person to begin is not nearly as clear as you might think, and the depth of the motivation is often muddy. So I try to reply with sensitivity both to the questioner and to the questions. Finding the time and energy to adequately respond leaves me frequently feeling frustrated, wondering how to better use the opportunity.
One of the nagging questions I find beating in my heart when approached by someone who wonders what to “do” is, “Where will you be in ‘93?” Usually I stifle the question before it becomes audible, because it is my job to encourage motivation, to help find the place for people to become involved. Still, the question lingers…
Where will you be in ‘93? or in 2003? Or, for that matter, in 2013? I ask out of the experience of watching people come to the issues, stay briefly, then disappear from the movement. I ask it not in arrogance, and I always address it to myself first. “Where will I be… Where will we be… Where will you be in ‘93?”
My question is rooted in a conviction about the intransigence of the problems of social injustice. What began in our hemisphere in 1492 is deeply enculturated, institutionalized, and systematized in this nation, particularly in white heads and hearts. It is not going to fade quickly. There are no “fixes” for an immediate tomorrow. There are no easy answers about what to “do” absent a dedication to the long haul from the questioner.
So, where will you be in 1993? Experience leads me to an expectation that many of those who crowd to be involved in 1992 Alternative Quincentenary actions will be absent from the scene in ‘93. The issues that dominate the concerns of native peoples will still be with us. James Bay, Leonard Peltier, re-naming Columbus Day, issues of land rights, public stereotyping of native peoples, desecrations of native burial grounds, curriculum revisions about Indians, revision of traditional historical lies about native Peoples – all will need constant attention way beyond 1992. The need for folks to organize, mobilize and become active will continue. Where will you (I) be when called for action then?
In a recent conversation with a native person whom I greatly respect, he said he has lots of ideas about what to do to continue the momentum of 1992. His fear also is that most people active now may not be active next year. That fear is not born of unfounded cynicism, but in the reality of how few of us have been involved in the struggles of native peoples in the past. The sudden attention of’ ‘92 is welcome, but the challenge now is to maintain the momentum.
The issues rooted in racism today will be with us. Increased hate crimes, the failure of our major systems to deliver health care, jobs, education, housing, and justice for people of color, the challenges to bilingual and multi-cultural education, the harassment of black officials, the attacks on the modest programs of affirmative action — these and more point us to concerns about racism.
In a talk recently with one fine young man who approached me about what he could do, I outlined a number of places for him to take action. He seemed interested, and as he left my office he asked me to give him a call. “No,” I said, “You call me. I want to know how motivated you really are. If after our talk today, you are not even ready to take the initiative of a phone call, then I’m sure not going to follow-up. When you’re ready, I’m ready. The next move is up to you!”
That might have been harsh, perhaps even arrogant, possibly dead wrong. Still, it puts the issue clearly on the line. The challenge of’ ‘92 is about our staying power. Where will we be in ‘93?