Let us breathe

My reaction to President Trump‘s walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square was outrage. I know that historic church well. I was married there many years ago. It is called “the Church of the Presidents” because of its proximity to the White House, and frequent attendance by many past presidents. It is actually fairly small, and noted for its lack of a center aisle. 

The bridal couple instead have to make their happy exit down a side aisle. But what was so upsetting to me about Trump’s visit was that he didn’t go to pray or to seek solace. He, who had spent the previous Sunday playing golf, was going simply to pose outside for photographers, holding up a Bible handed to him by his daughter, Ivanka. 

That same weekend, Washington protesters surged up Wisconsin Avenue, close to my sister’s Georgetown house. There was violence, and neighborhood stores were broken into. She lives alone except for a sweet Labrador, Maeve. “The sky was full of helicopters, which kept flooding their lights into my bedroom,” she told me, “so I couldn’t even sleep.”In Martha’s Vineyard, I couldn’t sleep either, thinking of these images of police brutality, how COVID-19 has ravaged communities of color and illustrated that health disparities are related to racial inequality. Both these images were such a contrast from the past two months, where we had all been cocooned in our houses and apartments engaging in yoga, spiritual development, and much Zoom activity. Now we suddenly are glued to the television watching massive street demonstrations, most of which are peaceful. Protestors must choose between staying at home and practicing social distancing, or uniting in a movement to end the epidemic of social injustice.

Watching television, I was shocked by the destruction of small businesses, whose owners were already suffering from no business, no customers, and no income. Listening to the young African American men being interviewed, I was appalled that these young men have always been in danger of being pulled over or harassed by the uniformed men who are supposed to be protecting all of us. Now I realize that these abuses, which are part of people of color’s daily experiences, have been covered up by those in power. 

A friend, Kelly Smith, a woman of color, shared with me a letter she had written to her children: Here is a segment. 

”The walls of this country were built with the premise of freedom and equality for all; however, attached to this notion was the blatant agenda of severe brutality and bigotry … which was sewn with the threads of an infected society. It has broken the backs and has ripped the vibrant life of our forefathers. Their blood stains the very soil that we walk on … We will not give them another day, where we are engaged in sitting on the back of the bus because of the color of our skin. We will not allow another chokehold to kill our spirit and trample our soul. Your knee will not collapse the air passages that sustain us — because we are inferior to your evil ideology. We will deafen the sound of your systemic blow of hatred and brutality so that never again will we say, ‘I CAN’T BREATHE.’”

I was shocked. I have always had friends of different colors. In the years Kelly and I have known each other, however, we have never discussed race. Much has been left unsaid. Unspoken emotions and thoughts have been simmering beneath the surface. American history taught in our schools remains very white, while African American contributions appear negligible. 

Walking down to Main Street in Vineyard Haven, I noticed that Timeless Treasures and the Beach House, two stores owned by whites, had big signs in their display windows: “Black Lives Matter.” The next day I went by, and saw two young black women photographing each other standing beside one of the signs. This gave me hope. George Floyd’s death, followed by Rayshard Brooks’ shooting, has made a huge difference in our country and our culture by prompting civil discourse, demonstrations, and long-overdue reform. Now is the time to listen, learn, and lead each other toward the light of a new dawning of equality. 

Grace Kennan Warnecke is the former chairman of the board of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, and author of the memoir “Daughter of the Cold War.” She is a seasonal resident of Vineyard Haven.