There are men that have the epic power to create the global rules that govern my life. These men exist in the stillness above the turmoil of the street. I do not sense the economic levers they pull, only the gale force winds that bend my life from their having pull them. These few men can start the business cycle and they can end it. They can share the bounty of the collective efforts of hundreds of millions or they can hoard it. They can allow me to live in peace, or they can send my children to far off lands as instruments of American might. I acquiesce, as we all do, to their silent power and hope that my days on earth are relatively comforted by their will.
Yet they have the power to bend the atmosphere into a deathly nightmare if it meets their goals. It is this way now and it was this way in 1865. While I have contemplated why the macro-movements were chosen for my day and how the impacts have tossed about billions around the world, I cannot grasp the nightmare that the atmosphere benders chose for millions of common men, slaves and freedmen in the American 19th century. How could they have puppeteered such horrors?
I was a child in the era of Viet Nam, registered for the draft and somehow resolved my imaginations of my existence in a world of war. Yet, I was never forced to imagine how it must have felt to be born into oppression? How was it to be told that anything your skin touched was to be scorned by others as if the color of your skin was leprosy? How did it feel to know that even a grungy Woolworth lunch counter was above your station?
What must it have been like to be kept in an unjust paternal state? How could a man breathe when he could not even keep his kin from being ripped away from his protection at any moment. What must it have been like when the entire economic system would not even entertain allowing you to simply survive much less allow you to freely participate in it?
How could it be possible that simply being born, your entire existence would be found to be criminal, that your every movement was suspect? What could it possibly feel like to know that your father and your father’s father endured the same humiliation and hopelessness as you and that you would never be able to protect your son from the same torment.
Yet, at the tail of 200 years of such hopeless existence, imagine the hope that came from the rumors that Lincoln, this leader that supposedly was over all other leaders, had given you freedom with his words. I cannot conceive of the mixture of cautious hope and cynical disillusion that might bring. Yet freedmen soldiers were marching past you in uniform brandishing guns of emancipation. And your oppressors were desperate with fear. Could change be imminent?
I have seen a modern version of such change, witnessing those lifting ink-stained thumbs high from their first vote. I have seen spirits lifted in America when Barack Obama gave his first presidential victory speech. What must it have been like to see men that only a moment before had been slaves and children of slaves, now accepting the oaths of local office and even Congress? What would it have been like to be handed a plot of land and given the encouragement to toil on your newly owned land for your family’s posterity? I can only imagine the sheer joy and relief from pain those early days brought.
How then must it have been to have all this immediate progress be pulled back as if it never occurred? How must it have been to have men come to your door and tell you that the land you have improved for the past two years since the war ended must now be given back? What must have been the confused anguish to then be told that you must sign a year sharecropping contract under duress or face being sent to prison for vagrancy? What must it have felt like to be visited upon by local men under the cover of cowardly hoods that let you know that this temporary government would soon be gone and that you were under their thumb? What terror would it bring to witness neighbors regularly lynched by this terrorist group and to see that nothing was done by those in this temporary government to stop it?
How could it have been to then live the rest of your life having briefly tasted this freedom to then be thrust back into terror, submission, and hopelessness? Now seeing the Union Army leaving, the Freedman’s Bureau disbanding, and all semblances of support closing offices and agencies and returning North, what was it like to be left defenseless in the world created by these unseen men, these wealthy terrorists that designed the life that you must now endure?
Sitting here in my comfortable home, I still thought having endured the economic crisis of 2008, the world that our unseen atmosphere benders created for us, was a hardship. Yet, compared to the world that millions endured in America’s freedmen’s first tragic steps toward freedom, our inequitable world is all the more tolerable. Should it be now that we should continue to tolerate the aftermath of such terrorism as occurred in 1865? If we have the ability to at least imagine the multigenerational waves of aftermath that it wrought on our fellow citizens, and we have the will to end the blight, can we call on our modern silent atmosphere benders to finally resolve the destruction of the past in ways that benefit all?