Finding Hope in Despair By Keri Leigh Merritt & Yohuru Williams

As Franklin Delano Roosevelt observed about the people who lived through the Great Depression, “This
generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.” The truth is, given the historical events of the
past several years, we now do, too.

The long shadow of loss during these years raises important questions about how Americans historically
have dealt with the isolation, despair, and mourning that accompany periods of mass death. The early
2020s are unquestionably those kinds of years: years that will change lives—define lives—forever. For
most people, this precious timing only occurs once in a lifetime, if at all. Some never get to experience it.
It is not just the chance to replace the establishment—the decaying political, economic, and social
structure of our nation. It is also the chance to rebuild a better world.

Perhaps more than anything, the 2020s turned the concept of American exceptionalism upside down. In
stark contrast with many other wealthy nations, the US utterly failed to contain or combat COVID-19,
leaving our poorest citizens with virtually no help from the government. The deadly, highly contagious
virus and no universal healthcare, coupled with the racial reckoning growing out of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, exposed significant problems within our nation. Adding fuel to the fire, Donald Trump emboldened and encouraged white supremacists; he reversed decades, even centuries, of international relationships and diplomacy; he turned the federal government into a mob organization of grift, greed, and fraud; and he flagrantly attempted to undermine the democratic process, contributing significantly to a loss of faith in government – not just abroad but at home, too.

What does it do to the soul of a nation to withstand so much needless suffering? At times like this, it is best to remember Abraham Lincoln’s warning that “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” We have the ability, as well as the power, to help drag America firmly into the twenty-first century. The 2020s, thus far, has been a terrifying time. It is a time of great uncertainty and great anxiety. But it is also an exhilarating time—a time of deep contemplation, of historical reckoning, and psychological healing. It is a time when many people are willing to think and to feel beyond themselves—beyond the interests of the individual, and instead, focus on what’s best for the collective, the community.

It is a time that often only occurs once in a human being’s life: a time where great, important changes are, for a brief moment, possible. It is a time that will emotionally and intellectually cripple some but will strengthen and motivate others. It is a time of inspiration and greatness—of creation and muses. Today, America is at a crossroads. As wealth inequality deepens due to a prolonged pandemic, so too does political disenfranchisement—partly through voter suppression and partly as increasing numbers of people no longer see the point in participating in a political process that never serves their needs. Rampant, systemic racism, the persistence of poverty, and a deep division between poor and working- class people of different races have made us one of the most unequal societies in the industrialized world.

We must ask ourselves: Why do we let the worst parts of our history continue to dictate the future? We
have a solemn and morally righteous task ahead: to help lead the charge against the sins of the present, as they are so intricately and intimately bound to the past. To affect any kind of real change, to get politicians to support reparations and a Third Reconstruction, we need a massive interracial grassroots social movement—a movement of the people—the likes of which no one from even our generation, has ever seen. But to create this movement, we need leaders. We need revolutionary change agents. We need doers. And we need knowledge keepers—the activists, the intellectuals, the academics, the teachers—to light the path and lead the way.

It’s time—in fact, it’s past time—to turn our outrage, anger, and deep, disheartening sadness into action. We’ve now been on the defense—in resistance—for years. It’s time to step back and rethink strategy. Don’t wait on time. Time is not on our side here. Instead, spend the precious borrowed time we have left on this earth turning your anger into power, your mourning into passion. We have been given life once again: we have survived one of the deadliest pandemics in history, and in so doing, we have realized the vast importance of every single moment we have on this earth. Now is a time of rebirth, of renaissance, of seventh and seventieth and seven-hundredth chances. Use this incredible gift to kindle the flames of hope by sparking little flints of joy and love, connection
and community.

Grief can be generative, loss inspirational. Our call to action in these borrowed years—in this life after life—is quite clear: the path forward is one of uplift and radical hope and loving kindness. In the names of the dead, in honor of their legacies, we have beautifully challenging work to do, a limitless future of opportunity to create. Let us re-dedicate ourselves to humanity. Let us begin again – but this time, together.

Keri Leigh Merritt & Yohuru Williams

***Adapted from Rhae Lynn Barnes, Keri Leigh Merritt, and Yohuru Williams, eds., After Life: A
Collective History of Loss and Redemption in Pandemic America (Haymarket Books: October 2022)

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