We are now at the end of Women’s History Month after recognizing Black History Month in February. The United States Senate, appropriately, is now on the precipice of confirming the first Black woman to serve as an associate justice on the Supreme Court of the United States. When Senator Booker told Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson that he couldn’t help but look at her and see his own mother, I knew exactly what he meant. I saw my own mother, a Black woman, and I thought about her and what it might’ve meant to her as a little girl to have seen this moment.
Booker said “I’m not gonna let my joy be stolen, because I know – you and I – we appreciate something that we get that a lot of my colleagues don’t. I know Tim Scott does…And I want to tell you, when I look at you, this is why I get emotional. I’m sorry, you’re a person that is so much more than your race and gender. You’re a Christian, you’re a mom, you’re an intellect, you love books. But for me, I’m sorry, it’s hard for me not to look at you and not see my mom, not to see my cousins, one of them who had to come here and sit behind you. She had to have your back. I see my ancestors and yours. Nobody’s going to steal the joy of that woman in the street, or the calls that I’m getting, or the texts. Nobody’s going to steal that joy. You have earned this spot. You are worthy. You are a great American.”
Senator Booker cried, Judge Brown Jackson cried, I cried, and I imagine millions of Black people in America cried as well. This should be a moment of national solidarity and great celebration, as a Black twitter user said “If Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson gets confirmed she’ll be the first Black Supreme Court justice since Thurgood Marshall to serve. And before you try to correct me with your thinky thoughts, I know what I tweeted. Thanks for understanding in advance.”
So why doesn’t any of this feel celebratory? Why does it feel like some of my joy has been stolen?
Black History month is something like a dark joke (no pun intended) among many Black Americans. We’d gladly tell you that February is an opportunity for White people to learn about what we already know (and then promptly forget in time for next February). It’s become as commercialized and hollowed out as every other holiday in America and so we’ve even developed our own traditions, like the collective gritting of teeth when coworkers inevitably say something along the lines of “at least you get a whole month!” and of course the corporate apology for the ill-thought racist product. The curriculum offered to children in school (more on that later) is so reductive that it usually consists of a listing of inventors, a poem from Langston Hughes, watching the “I Have a Dream Speech”, and some discussion of the civil war but generally not it’s cause (slavery). There’s a Frederick Douglass speech titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” where he calls out the contradictions of a freedom centered holiday in a nation which at the time had over 3 million enslaved people. I’m reminded of that every year in February, and I’m reminded of it now with the President’s well-meaning gesture of nominating Judge Brown Jackson by the end of February.
I can’t say I’m as familiar with the dynamics surrounding Women’s History month, but I’m sure similar ironies and contradictions present themselves. What do I mean by contradictions? Consider the last several years which nonetheless has very public acknowledgements of Black History.
In 2005, many residents of almost entirely black neighborhoods in New Orleans were left scrambling after the worst Hurricane the region had seen in living memory. Many died without assistance during the flooding, and many of those who didn’t were met with silence from the federal government.
In 2012, Trayvon Martin was murdered in Florida and Barack Obama was pilloried for displaying a semblance of sympathy for an unarmed teenager who was killed by a racist.
In 2014, Ferguson Missouri was consumed by protests and police aggression after the shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer. A no-fly zone was instituted by the governor, to keep the cameras from showing the despair of the people on the ground. Eric Garner, another Black man, was strangled to death by police in New York City for allegedly selling individual cigarettes. Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old, was shot for holding a plastic toy rifle. Meanwhile in Nevada, a white rancher named Bundy claimed to “know a lot about the negroes” including how “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.” All while pointing dozens of actual loaded rifles at federal law enforcement.
In 2015, a white supremacist domestic terrorist killed 9 Black parishioners in South Carolina. He did it to start a “race war”. When he was captured, the police delivered him to burger king for a hot meal before delivering him to prison. A 5-year-old survived by laying in the blood on the floor pretending to be dead.
In 2016, the man who had popularized the racist myth that the first Black President was illegitimate because he wasn’t an American citizen was elected President himself and his party won a majority of the popular vote in Congress the same year, many of them not condemning the myth and others having trafficked in it themselves with no consequence from the voting public.
Then there’s everything that’s happened since. These past two years especially have made the contradictions clearer than they’ve ever been, beginning with the international outpouring of righteous indignation at the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But as time went on, the government’s resolve weakened and the patience of the white public which has since soured on the idea that Black Lives Matter with the media glad to write stories making imaginary links between a nonexistent defunding of police and crime. Now just 2 years shy of the anniversary of the murder and the outrage, we’re confronted nationally with a wave of white parents successfully lobbying government at all levels to erase Black people from history. To quote Senator Booker, God Bless America.
So, we arrive in February once again, the Judge is nominated, the kabuki begins and the insincere niceties are written everywhere that they can be read. Then we entered March, and that was forgotten. If you watched the confirmation, you know what I’m talking about. There’s only so many times you can see someone accused of being soft on child pornography and pedophiles. There’s only so many times you can see someone’s intelligence and credentials questioned. There’s only so many times you can watch someone be talked over, shouted down, disrespected, and condescended to. There is only so much one can withstand and still maintain their joy.
Judge Brown Jackson will become Justice Brown Jackson, and the swelling pride I feel because of her success is shared by many other Black Americans. But the joy that Sen. Booker feels I reckon still escapes most of us, it certainly has escaped me. Sen. Booker is known for being this generation’s happy warrior, it is in his nature to see our better angels first. There is a liberal tendency to cope with these moments by imagining the “end of history” and the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice or the increasing diversity or the passion of the next generation. It should be said this is a step forward and it speaks of the progress that might be possible, though not inevitable.
As Booker and Brown-Jackson and myself and the 40 million Black people living in America must know, this nomination changes the racial composition of the Supreme Court, but it does not change the soul of America.