The Difficulty of Holding Onto Hope

by Susan K. Williams Smith

When African American soldiers served in World War I, they were treated by the French like human beings – not as property – for the first time. Isabel Wilkerson writes in Castethat the French “…were “treating black soldiers as they would white soldiers, as they would treat other human beings, patting their shoulders for a job well done.” (p. 224-225)

The American military command was incensed and instructed the French on how they were to treat these Black men. Blacks were, they told the French, “inferior beings, no matter how well they performed on the front lines” and that “it was of utmost importance that they be treated as inferior.”

The French obliged. They drank the glass of kool-aid, sweetened with America’s racial hate.

Wilkerson wrote: “The French command gave this directive: We cannot deal with them on the same plane as with the white American officers without deeply wounding the latter. We must not eat with them, must not shake hands or seek to talk to or meet with them outside of the requirements of military service …we must not commend too highly the black American troops, particularly in the presence of white Americans.”

I can remember hearing stories from my granduncles about how racism followed them everywhere, “even when we were fighting to save this country.” They seldom said anything more, but I remember hearing the sadness and heaviness in their voices and seeing that same sadness in their eyes. They never said it, but in retrospect, I think they were wrestling with a decision to stop hoping for racism to get any better. In spite of all efforts to show their love for this country, they were still being rejected. And it hurt.

This country’s addiction to racism and to holding onto white power has never gotten better; America, in not owning her racism, has only gotten progressively worse. This country needs to undergo rehabilitation; the very documents that support racism need to be dug out of America’s foundation in order for there to be a chance for healing, but America will never do that. And, like an addiction eats away at the organs necessary for life in a human body, racism is eating away the defective foundation that was laid hundreds of years ago.

We wondered what my granduncles had experienced, the details. They did not share those. Was that because those memories were too painful to share? We did not know; we were not told, but in spite of their pain, the wrestling they did with whether or not they should still dare to hope resulted in the decision to hold onto it. Without hope, they knew, it was a sure thing that things would never get better, so they chose not only to continue to hope but to teach us all to do the same.

Choosing to hope is making the decision to wrestle with the powers and principalities. They buzz around us like angry mosquitoes, stinging us enough to remind us of their presence and their power. They not only sting the oppressed but also the oppressors, reminding the latter of the work they must do to keep things “in order,” – like instructing the French on how to treat Black people.

Hope is what keeps us going, in spite of the constant stings. Hope makes us push on in spite of knowing that laws passed cannot change the hearts of people who have a vested interest in remaining infected with racial hatred. During the recent confirmation hearings of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, I cringed as I listened to the vitriol coming from white men whose hearts are so infected that they have lost the capacity to be fair. Their hearts and spirits itch from the venom of their mosquito bites, and their rhetoric is an attempt to make the itching stop. It will not.

Last week, the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Bill was signed into law, 67 years after Till was lynched, and time will tell how that law will be sidestepped or interpreted in order to keep things as they have always been, “the law” notwithstanding. The assault on voting rights is still going on; the drive to keep Black people “in our place” is getting stronger.

We can all see it. We are being stung – again.

But we still have hope. Black people have always had hope. It has fed us; it is the antidote to the venom of racial oppression. Hope makes us get up, one more time, and press on. My prayer is that our hope increases exponentially, in spite of the efforts being made to make us give up, singing, “this hope I have – the world didn’t give it and the world…can’t take it away.”

Amen and amen.