Brief Notes on American Heroes
April 29, 2021
As I left my old college campus today, I got to thinking about the last time I’d made that drive in March of 2020, before I really knew who John Lewis was and before “pandemic,” had reshaped the everyday lexicon of American English. I was there to judge at a speech tournament. At the time we all thought Covid would hit a few people that weren’t us and then fade off into memory. Like we were immune because of the Democracy we weren’t sure we could hold onto. Joe Biden was the “you’re late to the game, man, step off,” Presidential candidate no one quite believed in but our parents. White people weren’t wearing Black Lives Matter shirts because George Floyd hadn’t been murdered for eight minutes and forty-six seconds on national television yet. And I was sitting in my Prius with this existential struggle of wanting Bernie Sanders to be the President but not wanting to join the team of volunteers working to make that happen; of wanting to do something for racial justice and the environment but too afraid to leave the screened-in box of a YouTube video on some kid’s phone screen in Canada, or the Facebook posts my friends of color would “love,” and provide me with serotonin while Bolsonaro burned the rain forest as black as the futures of minority kids in defunded school districts.
So many of us were unhappy but too afraid to speak to anyone that disagreed with us. And then at some point we jumped from hashtagging activism on social media, to cold calling strangers begging them to vote for a man some of us had spent months trash talking to our parents. By the Spring of the first year of the new decade we’d really been too excited about, a nuclear centrifuge had opened up and was swallowing America, slowly but surely enriching a weary populous into a force to be reckoned with.
By May the streets were filled with black bodies not yet killed by police and determined never to be. By August John Lewis had died and high school kids were being suspended for filming the lack of masks in their school hallways and calling it Good Trouble. By September, with the loss of the Notorious RBG, Americans were realizing as these gods of our culture died mortal, that they had only ever been as human as us, but with more awareness of the power that brings. #2020sucks tagged to the end of an Instagram post was, by November, the sixteen-year-old not yet able to vote but running a voting precinct in Atlanta. It was the Republican man marching alongside his children for racial justice and it was the thank-you card and flowers sent from relative strangers to the woman in a nursing home phone banking harder than any of us, from the bed she was quarantined to.
I remember sitting in our kitchen watching Barack Obama’s eulogy for John Lewis, a Civil Rights icon who’d worked not far from where I lived. He’d seemed larger than life, this man who had marched with Martin Luther King Jr., spoken at the March on Washington in ’63 when he was younger than I was, and had his skull fractured for the right to vote, and then gotten up and continued working. But Obama spoke of a pretty small kid from Troy, Alabama, with the belief that he’d done nothing more than what any of us was capable of doing. “What a radical idea,” Obama noted. “This idea that any of us ordinary people…can stand up to the powers and principalities and say no, this isn’t right, this isn’t true. This isn’t just…America was built by John Lewises.” And as Summer led into Fall, more and more of us were getting in Good Trouble, getting in the way, becoming John Lewises. I had set aside fear and become a volunteer leader for the Democratic Party of Georgia, drafting policy responses and fielding questions from the seven million voters across the state because I realized no one was going to do it for me. We fought voter suppression, registered those who had been purged from the voter rolls, knocked on doors, made phone calls, and above all else, we spoke to those that disagreed with us. And in November our state, John Lewis’s state, turned blue for the first time in my lifetime. John Legend sang “Georgia On My Mind,” and his wife posted it to Twitter, saying they’d been waiting all week to do it. Newscasters on NBC, CNN, CBS, even FOX, were talking about us. And volunteers from forty-nine other states were flooding in to help us do the impossible two more times with our Senatorial runoffs that would decide the fate of the Senate. Latitia Stephens, a friend of mine on the campaign, and I were both pictured in the December issue of Time Magazine, our group from Georgia part of a piece on the ordinary people all across America who changed history, who stood up, who got in Good Trouble.
As bone-crushingly exhausting as 2020 was, activism in isolation and masked in the streets of America as our leader knelt on the neck of our nation, it also feels, now, like a bizarrely disguised blessing. By the time I was making that drive again, it had made us into our own heroes.
Kathleen Minor is an out and proud asexual and aromantic woman who lives with her family in Dalton, Georgia. She graduated in May 2019 from Berry College with a B.A. in creative writing and now volunteers as an assistant coach for the Berry College speech and debate team and as a volunteer leader for the Democratic Party of Georgia. Her work has been published in Ramifications Magazine, Riggwelter Press, and Writers Resist, and she received the Alice Wingo Essay Award and won two national speech championships for her nonfiction. She has spent the past two years giving workshops to North Georgians on how to increase voter turnout and bring civility and kindness back to politics. She’s been told the latter is near impossible, but so is any fight until you persevere and make it happen.