T/W: racial violence, abuse
“Class, I am so proud of the enthusiasm with which you all have jumped at this Great American Time Capsule project. You have put maximum effort in both the item you plan to put in the capsule and the presentation for why you chose this item. You have all taken very seriously the preservation of our history to future generations.”
His tone changes slightly as he comes to stand right in front of me.
“You all have done well with the exception of one person.”
He looks down at me expectantly, and it’s not because I’m the only black guy in the class. And despite his anticipating my remorse I simply say, “You’re right. We haven’t seen what you’re going to put in that stupid capsule.”
That gets a laugh from the class. And a kindly shake of Mister Schumacher’s head.
“You consider giving our ancestors a snapshot of what America means to you to be stupid?”
“Given that I would be saving them the eyesore of a horrid dystopian shitshow,” I replied, “‘cruel’ would probably be a more apt descriptor. They can save themselves the headache by watching Idiocracy on Netflix.”
As always, he talks with the patience of Mister Rogers clone as he pushes back. It’s all very eerie.
“We are, Philby, considered to many to be one of the best and freest nations on earth. Certainly, you can find something good to say about 21st century America.”
“Freest nation in the world, huh? Then I should be free to pass on this stupid assignment.”
“No, if you pass on this assignment, you will fail. I expect you to have your assignment ready tomorrow.”
That night I sit at the dinner table with the same layer of tension surrounding the pot roast and peas.
“How’s school going?” my mother says out of ritual.
I try to change the subject to how tragic it is that the killers of Breonna Taylor now roam free, the only person facing charges is the one who missed and accidentally shot into the house next door. That if only he had shot into her dead corpse, then he would have gone free too. How fucked up that was.
My mother tells me this is impolite to discuss at the dinner table. And I scoff at a world where arguing for the humanity of individuals is “impolite” but minor things like whether someone will pass a history class is what the scholars discuss.
My father, for his part, does manage to squeeze in that her ex-boyfriend was a thug of some sort. I think to point out that our slave-owning founders would count as “thugs of some sort” but can already feel the stinging slap on my cheek. I forego the smart talk and leave the table to go work on my project.
While in my room the TV plays in the background.
There’s this episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation playing where Captain John-Luc Pricard is captured by an alien species known as the Cardassians. His captor Madred uses various methods of torture on the captain before asking him a simple question. He points to the four lights hanging on a lamp and asks, “How many lights are there?”
I stroll into the class the next day that episode on my mind.
“Where is your capsule item?” says Mr. Schumacher.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got it.” I say, taking my place at the front of the room.
“I thought about putting a piece of paper in it so people could just write their own story. That is what America is after all? A story written by the victors. Oh, some of the victims exist, but we beat them into submission with shamed looks, silence, and shunning. Maybe you called them ‘unamerican’ or deleted them on Facebook because of their ‘spicy’ posts, but we all have our way of shaping history through the violence of the crowd.”
“I also thought about putting a mirror because maybe America is what you make it. The black abolitionist Frederick A. Douglass, after all, saw in the constitution his freedom. The white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison saw a deal with the devil. Maybe America is like the blind men and the elephant. One feels a tree. The other a rope. The other a vaccuum cleaner.”
“But both of those versions would be a cop out to weaker minds. Because it would let America off the hook. America whose two biggest exports are our sex-filled movies and our guns. America who drone strikes civilians without flinching. America backs most of the world’s dictators. America who ravages the world’s climate just so we can have a bigger hummer than the jackass down the street. If I’m being honest, America can be summed up in one action.”
I open the capsule, make a big loogy, and spit in it.
“There are four lights,” Pricard says.
The entire room gasps. Afterwards, once the class has emptied, Mr. Schumacher reads me the riot act as best he can.
“What is it? This Black Lives Matter business has gotten you believing that the country was only built on slavery and racism.”
“Not only slavery and racism. There’s a dash of misogyny in there too. Along with a smidgen of genocide. And of course when I say dash and smidgen I mean a whole damned lot.”
“What are mad at?”
I smile, angry that he would even ask the question, “I don’t know. I guess I’ve got nothing to be mad at.”
The walk home has an eerie inevitability. I drag my feet the whole way knowing the news of my fiasco has made it to within my walls. At school, it’s almost like fiction. It’s bright. It’s bold. It’s nothing.
But when I get home, I slink through the door. Take off my shoes. Shower, and head off to bed.
When asked “How many lights are there?”
Pricard has rightly said, “Four.”
Madrid presses a button unleashing untold amounts of pain through Pricard’s body.
“No,” Madrid says, “there are five lights.”
I lay in bed not expecting sleep, thinking of Pricard. I close my eyes, the monster comes, and that’s when the torture begins.
The next day, I limp through the door with big-rimmed sunglasses.
“You’re late,” Mister Schumacher says, his voice producing a headache.
I can barely lift my arm to look at my watch, so I take his word for it.
“I’m sorry. I missed the weather forecast this morning. Was the forecast sunny with a five percent chance of rain in Mister Schumacher’s homeroom class?”
I turn to him, beating him to the punch, “You want me to take them off?”
He doesn’t dare. Instead he just says, “As long as you have your item, we can forget it.”
I stand in front of the crowd and produce a copy of Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham jail. I explain how in this letter, Martin Luther King set forward what would become a new America. An America where peaceful resistance toward a higher goal was something to be lauded.
“I was going to pick the constitution, but it’s my contention that this is the constitution. Anytime you get into an argument online about the racial foundations of our country? Who do people–both left and right-- usually cite. Those against affirmative action will scream that we should be judged by ‘the color of our skin and not the content of our character’. Or those who defend rioters and looters will say ‘riots are the voices of the unheard.’ Our constitution or declaration of independence are an ever-expanding philosophy which people of color add onto.
“So, do I have disagreements with history? Yes. But I still know that despite all its bruises, scrapes and nicks. America strives for perfection.”
Beneath my glasses, my eyes wander, struggling to say the final words.
“Despite our disagreements, I know America is great.”
I leave school a little defeated, knowing that’s not exactly the way I felt. But it was closer to what he wanted than my first going.
When I finally arrive at home, I drag myself into through the door. I barely notice “Mister Schumacher” is sitting in the living room. In the dark. This used to send chills down my spine, but I shrug today having gotten used to it. The show now over, I call him by his natural name.
I can tell from his posture he is in the second stage of the abuser: remorse. But as usual he doesn’t say it at first. It’s just, “You did a great job on your presentation today, son.”
I simply say, “Thanks dad.”
And then I’m about to head to my room when he finally adds, “I’m sorry I got a little bit out of control last night, son. You OK?”
“It’s alright dad. That’s what bandaids are for,” I have to say, for in these walls, there is no dissent.
And then I go to bed and think about that episode of Star Trek.
Madrid tortures him over and over trying to get him to admit that there are five lights instead of four. Pricard never does. Persisting to the end. Finally, he does escape when his crew comes to the rescue leading to Madrid’s own imprisonment.
But once back on his spaceship, Pricard is having lunch with friends and it’s then that he confesses that after all the torture. All the mind-games. At one point, he looked up the ceiling actually saw five lights instead of four.
Welcome to America.