Old Man, Look at My Life*

Literary Themes Subconsciously Rooted in Childhood

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My father and his “Mama” on the family farm, early 1940s.

Insecurity and salvation.

These two themes recur often, yet unplanned, in the fiction and poetry I write. They usually emerge from a character’s self-doubt, countered by an unrealistic belief that situations, no matter how awful or threatening, will eventually turn out okay, that adversity will ultimately surrender to peace. But why do these particular themes keep showing up?

A few years ago, a political disagreement with my father ignited in him a firestorm of condemnation of other cultures and races—never mind the mixed racial heritage of my spouse and our daughter. Communication ended abruptly in mutual expletives. After more than five decades, he and I were finally done. I figured I’d never hear from him again, that the next time I visited him would be at his graveside.

The relationship with my father has always been tenuous at best. I felt safe with him only once—in 1958 as he carried me through the hospital parking lot on my way to a tonsillectomy. I was two. Fear soon obliterated that initial sense of safety, thanks to repeated episodes of rage, from verbal abuse and an eagerness to fight, to animal cruelty and domestic violence, a few incidents recounted in my published fiction.

My parents separated when I was twelve. I’d spent that summer of 1968 working in my father’s Phillips 66 service station in Crestview, Florida—sometimes alone and always under order to wear a “Wallace for President” Dixieland hat and campaign necktie. Dad’s small, two-pump station had three restrooms in back, designated as “Men,” “Women,” and “Restroom,” the third to which he directed people of color.

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My father, age 18, holding me, mid-1956.

In the station’s front window, he’d hung a hand-drawn recreation of an auto tag that read “Put your (heart symbol) in Dixie, or get your (donkey symbol) out.” One hot day, a traveller from a northern state noticed the sign after I’d gassed his car. “If I’d seen that damn thing,” he snarled, “I wouldn’t have stopped.” I was glad my father was away at the time. Otherwise, a fight would have certainly ensued.

Bizarrely hot-tempered, my father was quick to violence. I witnessed such fury that crippled and killed animals and bruised and broke people both emotionally and physically. I felt a flood of relief and freedom when my parents split and I ended up in Pensacola, Florida, fifty miles from Crestview and my father. Marrying his second wife shortly after the divorce finalized the following year, he moved some forty-five miles north to his hometown, Andalusia, Alabama. With his wife’s deft support, he established a used car dealership that provided a good income, even though he faced legal problems at one point for buying and selling stolen cars. Due more to his wife’s business savvy than his public charm or honesty, he skirted prosecution and became wealthier than he’d ever imagined he would, though it had no effect on his refusal to pay child support, doling out only small portions when I visited him.

During my visits that never exceeded two days, he appeared to have mellowed since the divorce—specifically, his propensity to violence had apparently evaporated. I became jealous of his wife’s two sons whom he’d adopted. They, I believed, enjoyed the father I craved, a reasonable man who respected them enough to do what a parent should do. The emotional distance between us increased while the frequency of my visits decreased. Only after his death did I become aware of the psychological and physical violence he waged against his new family.

Fast forward four-and-a-half decades.

My father’s wife died in April 2015, succumbing to cancer. During her decline, her children visited her at home, but not without consequence. When his wife’s daughter said she would not move into my father’s home to take care of him after her mother’s death, he became so livid he threatened to kill her if she ever returned for any reason. She didn’t. When his oldest adopted son visited his mother a few days before she died, my father accused the son of plotting to steal his money and slugged him. The son responded instinctively, knocking my father to the floor.

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The Phillips 66 station where I worked summers, afternoons, and Saturdays when I was age 9 to 12.

“Get out!” my father raged. “Get out before I kill you! I’ll put you in the ground you ever come here again!”

Increased paranoia followed his wife’s death and led to rabid accusations that relatives were constantly plotting to steal his land and money. He threatened to kill many and alienated all but one, a cousin whose tolerance ensured the care he needed.

Already receiving thrice-weekly dialysis treatment before his wife’s death, my father had developed a notorious reputation among Andalusia’s medical workers for verbally abusing doctors and dialysis personnel. In early August 2016, he suffered a mild heart attack that placed him in a hospital where doctors determined he’d require rehabilitation center placement upon release. Facilities in his hometown, thanks to his reputation, refused to take him, necessitating placement in a Crestview facility where he required sedation most of the time. Shortly after placement, my cousin informed me that his condition had begun to deteriorate rapidly, that he suffered from advanced diabetes, kidney disease, and increasing dementia.

Living in New Mexico, I decided not to visit him. Any possibility of reconciliation, no matter how remote, had surely vanished within sedation and the distortions of dementia. Then my wife’s brother in Pensacola died unexpectedly, and we made the 1,350-mile drive to attend his memorial, placing us within forty minutes of the Crestview rehab facility.

On a rainy Wednesday morning in a town that’s grown unrecognizably large since my childhood, the nurse in the rehab facility’s locked wing pointed out my father at the end of a line of wheelchair-bound patients parked along one wall. The greasy pompadour he’d worn most of his adult life had been replaced by shorter hair, brushed into a faux mohawk, the result of a nurse’s playfulness. He stared blankly toward the opposite wall, murmuring. I knelt before his chair and took his hand.

“Dad?”

He slowly turned his gaze.

“You know me?”

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My father in his prime.

After a moment, he nodded almost imperceptibly.

“Who am I?”

He smiled slightly. “Ray,” he whispered.

“No, not Ray.” I have no idea who Ray is. “Try again.”

Something clicked. His face tightened, his lips parted slightly, and he began to cry. “Chris…”

Just as quickly, his expression muddled, and the stare returned. He nodded. And nodded.

I engaged him in talk as best as possible and took a few photographs.

He held my hand off and on, muttering things like, “I used to have lots of money. No more. It’s okay, it’s okay. Madelyn [his deceased wife] is coming soon.”

Aides began wheeling patients to the dining room for lunch.

“You seen Mama?” he asked. His mother had died some forty years earlier. “She ain’t been by.”

“No, but you’ll see her soon,” I said. “She’s waiting.”

A shadow of a smile played on his lips. He nodded once. “I love everybody.” He nodded again. “Everybody loves me.”

“I’m sure they do.”

He leaned slightly forward. “I’m proud…”

My breath caught with hope that, at last, he’d express something he’d never before expressed.

“I’m proud,” he whispered again, “real proud of my life.”

I let the breath go. “Yes, you should be.”

He sat back.

An African-American nurse arrived to take him to the dining room. My father, whose racist rants were legendary, reached for her hand and grinned.

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My father (right) discussing one of his used cars with a potential customer.

“She’s nice,” he said. “People…people’s the same everywhere.”

The nurse positioned herself behind the chair.

“We need to go,” I said. “Time for you to get some lunch.”

He raised a hand toward my wife—that unsuitable, racially-diverse person who married me thirty-eight years ago.

“I love you,” he whispered.

She hugged him.

He then held his hand out to me. His face twisted momentarily as though he might cry again.

“I love you,” he said. And he nodded.

“Yeah, I love you, too, Dad.”

His eyes glazed.

I lowered his hand to his lap and let go.

The nurse said, “Y’all can wait or come back after lunch if you’d like.”

We thanked her and stepped aside, and she wheeled him away.

Six days later, the day after our return to New Mexico, he died. My cousin said that he had been en route from dialysis to the rehabilitation center when he went to sleep for the last time.

I didn’t travel to Andalusia for the funeral, but my cousin filled me in. The preacher of the church my father attended—designated as a primary recipient of Dad’s estate after he disinherited his wife’s children and me—delivered a glowing tribute that had some attendees wondering who the hell the preacher was talking about.

That’s fine.

Southern preachers consider eulogies sacred opportunities to exploit insecurity and harvest souls by lobbing sizable chunks of fire and brimstone while praising the exceptional life of the dearly departed, now cozied up in heaven with Jesus.

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My father six days before his death. (May 11, 1938 – August 16, 2016)

What does it hurt?

Most of us—kind or cruel—reach for higher standards at some point. And we all fail in different degrees. It’s okay to remember people as better than they were. It’s okay to grant a little salvation.

At some point, I’ll stand at my father’s graveside, keenly aware of how he influenced me to strive to be his opposite, of how he will always affect the characters and themes in my fiction and poetry.

Perhaps I’ll thank him.

Perhaps not.

 

* from Neil Young’s “Old Man”

 

Common Sense Be Damned

As a writer of fiction and creator of characters, I’ve advocated for the use of common sense as saving grace, the obvious right way to function in the world, to react to situations, to make things better, to succeed. Boy, was I wrong.

Common sense, as defined by Dictionary.com, is “sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like; normal native intelligence.”

How can any judgment, if independent of knowledge and training, be sound or practical? How can it be called intelligence?

I’ve reexamined stories I’ve written, and it’s obvious that successful characters employ something more than what I once considered to be common sense, their actions, instead, based on knowledge, training, and a cultivation of ability and understanding. Those characters who employ actual common sense end up filling the bellies of zombies.

Let’s stroll down Common Sense Lane to one of its most popular houses, Science Denial. Global warming, despite what you’ve heard in media laughingly calling themselves news services, is not scientific fantasy, and it’s not a hoax. Scientists leave fantasy to science fiction writers and hoaxes to pundits. Politicians and corporate persons, however, have cynically refined misinformation to convince many purveyors of common sense that global warming does not exist. Even if it does exist, members of the U.S. Senate majority sneer, humans are completely guilt free and in no way cause changes in climate. These senators quickly point out that they’re not scientists. But why let that get in the way? What do scientists really know when it comes to science?

North Alabama’s congressional rep, Mo Brooks, a proud and vocal resident at Science Denial, posed this question in 2011: “[W]ould it be fair to say then that there has been a cooling of global temperatures at least over the last 13 years compared to 1998?” The answer is, of course, no, it would not be fair, nor would it be accurate or anywhere near factual. The last decade was the hottest on record since record keeping began, with 2014 the hottest year on record. But Mo’s sisters and brothers in denial in the Senate didn’t let such indisputable data get in the way of being independent of specialized knowledge. Instead, the majority tapped Ted Cruz, a vocal science and climate change denier, to head the Senate’s Subcommittee on Science and Space and James Inhofe, one of the most notorious climate change deniers in government, to chair the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee.

Leadership! But nothing more than a reflection of the electorate.

We Americans pride ourselves in our smarts, and we elect politicians who reflect our astounding acumen. Want more examples of our prodigious common sense? According to a 2006 McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum survey, more than half of us can name two or more Simpson cartoon family members, but only one in four can name more than one of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. Our constitutional prowess gets even better. According to a 2007 survey by The First Amendment Center, 55 percent of us (75 percent of Republicans and evangelicals, 50 percent of Democrats) believe the Founding Fathers wrote Christianity into the Constitution, establishing the U.S. as a Christian nation (pssst…they did not). Despite specific constitutional language ensuring freedom of worship to citizens of any religion—Christian, Muslim, Spaghetti Flying Monster, none at all—people are far less willing to extend to religious groups they consider extreme the freedom they enjoy in exercising their own beliefs.

In that same survey, nearly half of the respondents said teachers in private and public schools should be allowed to use the Christian bible as a factual text in history class. Further, some 60 percent of us Americans believe the biblical story of Noah’s Ark to be literal. Fifty percent believe a biblical rapture is in the near offing, with Jesus himself leading the faithful into heaven from an Earth that 50 percent of us claim to be only 6,000 to 10,000 years old, despite fossils, carbon dating—well, despite scientific fact. A good 10 percent believe that Barack Obama is Muslim, except during those moments when they’re condemning him for his membership in Trinity United Church of Christ of Chicago. Then they say he’s a radical.

More than a decade after we destroyed Iraq and ensured generations of hatred toward the U.S., 30 percent of Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks (he had nothing to do with the attacks). In a 2003 National Geographic survey, only one in seven respondents between ages 18 and 24 could identify Iraq on a map even though we invaded it because Saddam Hussein purportedly possessed weapons of mass destruction (he did not). Only 29 percent could identify the Pacific Ocean, that big ol’ blue pond off the California coast (Cali-what?). And up from 20 percent in a 1999 survey, a full 26 percent of Americans in a 2014 National Science Foundation survey said that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Yes, they truly did.

That’s our common sense in a nutshell. When it comes to the politicians we elect, we have nothing but “sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like” to blame. Politicians understand we Americans aren’t adept in government operation any more than we are in science, history, or geography. Take our inability to interpret the annual budget. A 2010 World Pacific Opinion survey found that most American voters want to cut foreign aid because they believe such aid comprises at least 27 percent of the budget. It’s less than one percent. Seventy-one percent of us, according to a 2010 CNN poll, also want to cut the size of government, and we want to do it by at least 50 percent, according to a 2009 Gallup poll—never mind that such drastic reductions would slash Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid, cuts that 70 percent of us oppose. Politicians thus pander to our fears, stoke our prejudices, and keep us ignorant, in line, and reliant upon common sense.

I once believed common sense to be a higher level of logic and reason common to all but accessed by few. But I’ve learned that common sense is nothing more than the collective stupidity of a culture or people, utilized as standard operating procedure and erroneously promoted as extraordinary and desirable. Denying responsibility, rejecting fact, perpetuating ignorance, operating out of hate and fear—that’s  common sense and the foundation for stagnation, regression, and deterioration. It’s uncommon sense that takes a society forward. We advance only when we disengage “judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like,” and embrace a higher level of reasoning reliant upon fact and truth to benefit the common good.

Now that’s good common sense.

The Willful Ignorance Factor: Denial in Fiction and Reality

He stands on the tracks.

“There is no train.”

The rails tremble.

“There is no train.”

The whistle blasts.

“There is no…”

Tick.

Characters in the fiction I write reflect qualities and values of people I’ve met along the way. One quality I find intriguing to explore is the ability to deny reality. Whether failing or frailty, we humans exhibit a propensity for choosing fancy over reason, the mystical over reality. That’s why I base so many of my stories in dark fantasy to explore real-world problems, views, and reactions, creating a speculative world that seems possible even though it isn’t. Through dark fantasy’s hocus-pocus, the negative quality of denial occasionally spawns positive results, and everyone lives happily ever after. But real life isn’t hocus-pocus.

As a species, we’ve advanced rapidly via science and are well on the way to verifying and observing the Higgs boson*, the so-called “God particle,” and yet many of us believe the Earth is no older than 6,000 years, that planetary alignment will initiate Armageddon, that God speaks directly to Billy Graham or Pat Robertson or Pope Benedict XVI or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Aunt Gerdie or Brother Jimbo because the great creator obviously supports our particular political and social agendas—whatever side we’re on; their god is always wrong—while shunning the rest of the world as it descends further into chaos, starvation, war, and environmental peril. Our television programming reflects our values in so-called “reality shows,” elevating the worst traits of our species into goals supposedly worth attaining. We’re a simple, narcissistic lot, and repeatedly we gleefully employ willful ignorance over rational thought and education. As long as we have our iPhones, a good connection, and Facebook, we’re content to exist in a virtual life and be led by liars who pander to our personal prejudices, even as we follow them off the cliff into the abyss.

Tick.

Time and again, like people you and I know, the characters in my stories deny the truth, even when it’s overwhelmingly indisputable, but how can a character deny facts? More important, how can we deny facts, especially when denial is against our best interests and will ultimately cause us pain and loss?

The U.S. in 2012 experienced its warmest spring on record. That’s a small fact in a sea of alarming scientific data. And yet many of us—perhaps a majority—are convinced that global warming is something one can choose to or not to believe. We can thank organizations like the conservative policy group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and fair-and-balanced news media for convincing so many of us that scientific theory—for example, gravity—is faith based rather than built upon empirical scientific data. While ALEC has convinced many state lawmakers to curtail air pollution rules and to teach climate change skepticism in schools, various news media highlight freak spring snowstorms as “evidence” that, if anything, Earth is cooling instead of warming, even though those freak storms are direct results of the very reality talking heads deny. Some states have even targeted renewable energy mandates for elimination, insisting on the continuation of wasteful, environmentally destructive policies that only exacerbate a rapidly growing quandary.

Do we really harbor a planetary death wish?

Tick.

Like those of fictional characters, our reactions to problems have severe consequences. The denial of global warming, for instance, has pushed the planet to a tipping point. Based on increasingly reliable data, 22 internationally known and respected scientists warn in a paper in the June 7 issue of Nature that climate change, coupled with explosive population growth and widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, is pushing Earth dangerously close to an irreversible change in the biosphere that will result in destructive consequences without adequate preparation and palliation. Even the recent Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, funded in part by the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation, a source for backing conservative organizations and initiatives to dispute global warming science and fuel denial, confirmed to the Koch foundation’s chagrin that global warming is indeed a rapidly worsening situation, primarily the result of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. The project confirmed findings highlighted in previous accounts such as the 2007 report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report compiled data from work by 2,500 scientists from more than 130 countries, concluding humans have caused most of the current planetary warming, with industrialization, deforestation, and pollution the greatest human-made culprits in altering the planet’s natural cycles.

The past two decades have been the planet’s warmest in the last 400 years, with 11 of the past 12 years among the dozen warmest since 1850. The average global temperature since 1880 has risen 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degree Celsius), primarily in recent decades, according to the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The rise in the average Arctic temperature, however, is double the global average. And as Arctic temperatures rise, ice-melt increases, unlocking even more greenhouse gases now trapped in sea ice, permafrost, and undersea deposits. As a result of rising temperatures, glaciers and mountain snows are vanishing rapidly. Glacier National Park in Montana, for example, had 150 glaciers in 1910; now it has 27. Shorelines are retreating as waters rise. In one case soon to be followed by others, the populated island of Lohachara, where the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal, has vanished under rising water levels caused by global warming. And each year, increasingly bizarre and extreme weather worldwide makes headlines, from major snowstorms to vast outbreaks of tornadoes, from extreme droughts to massive typhoons and flooding. More than a million species already face extinction from current climate change effects. And yet, our political leaders conduct us in a chorus of denial that anything is wrong as they delay or prohibit action to remedy the situation because it might adversely affect corporate profits.

In a dying world, when does survival outweigh the bottom line?

Tick.

Willful ignorance is a considerable impediment for fictional characters to overcome. A few of the characters in my stories prevail, but most accept the truth only after it’s too late. The problem is the decisions we make in real life are little better than those made by characters in fiction. To make better decisions, we’ll have to discard the arrogant belief that we own this planet when, in fact, it owns us and we are simply squatters in time.

Like characters rapidly approaching the climax of a story, we have a quickly vanishing window of opportunity to act. We’ve arrived at the moment we must decide whether this planet is worth saving, whether the generations that could follow deserve the same shot at existence that we’ve had.

Tick.

The rails shudder.

The whistle wails.

Tock.

A Long Way to Go

A giant Rebel flag—the Stars and Bars battle flag, not the official Confederate flag—has been flying high beside I-65 between Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama, since 2005. Although it’s the most recognizable Rebel symbol today, the battle flag was used on the battlefield like other flags that displayed various Confederate states’ regimental colors, never earning official recognition by the Confederate government. Still, according to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the group that erected the huge version beside the interstate, the battle flag is the perfect symbol to celebrate Southern “heritage” in its stated campaign to insure “that a true history of the 1861-1865 period is preserved,” in part, by asserting that Confederate soldiers “personified the best qualities of America,” that the war was the result of the South’s determination to preserve “liberty and freedom,” underscoring its “belief in the rights guaranteed by the Constitution,” despite the fact that Confederate states completely disavowed the U.S. Constitution by seceding from the Union and going to war.

In Texas, the school board recently decided that the state’s history schoolbooks require updating, that the term “slave trade” is outdated and needs to be changed to the “Atlantic triangular trade,” that Thomas Jefferson has no place on the list of great Americans, that Senator Joe McCarthy was an American hero rather than the paranoid, communism-obsessed lunatic whose witch hunts ruined countless lives, that Confederate president and slave-owner Jefferson Davis must be taught favorably alongside Abraham Lincoln. There’s more, but you get the gist.

In several countries including the U.S., some groups assert that Nazi Germany never waged war to exterminate Jews. These groups insist that no gas chambers, no mass executions, no experimentation, no torture, no starvation—that nothing against the Jews was ever perpetrated by the Nazis, that the Holocaust is myth.

For decades in Japan, nationalist groups have portrayed the country as the primary victim of World War II because of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings while maintaining that the country’s invasion of China and involvement in the war were justified reactions to Western imperialism. During his term in office, Japan’s recent prime minister, Shinzo Abe, rejected claims that the Japanese military had forced Korean women into sexual slavery even as legislators denied the six-week massacre conducted by the Japanese military in Nanking, China, in 1937-’38. Observers have long condemned the Japanese government and educational system for not addressing these and other issues in Japanese textbooks.

Of course, historical revision like these examples is nothing new, in part because so many of us are unwilling to question authority even when we know something is wrong. In my short story, “Contrition,”  Eiichi Takada, a WWII Japanese veteran, is struck by a car as he crosses the street to visit Yasukuni Shrine, which honors as heroes Japanese military men who committed heinous acts during the war, including those in China and Korea. Eiichi is unsurprised that he’s uninjured. He’s grown used to surviving otherwise fatal injuries. Having served in a unit that enslaved and tortured women during the war, Eiichi has since forced himself to forget, succumbing to popular revised accounts of history, but fate refuses to allow him to die until he accepts responsibility and atones for his actions. As he visits the shrine, fate sends him a stark reminder of his crimes, the vengeful ghost of a woman he tortured and killed. Of course, that’s fiction. Fate isn’t so proactive in real life.

After the invention of the cotton gin, the American South moved increasingly toward a one-crop economy, relying heavily on slave labor, solidifying a stratified class system that had little interaction between the classes, while the North progressed into a society in which cultures and classes worked increasingly together. As the federal government asserted more power over states, Southern states promoted the view that state’s rights superseded federal power. With America’s expansion, especially after the Louisiana Purchase, a political battle erupted over whether new states admitted to the Union would be slave or free. Then came the Dred Scott Case, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, all fueling the Abolition Movement, and Southern leaders grew increasingly defiant and afraid that the federal government would attempt to outlaw the very thing on which the Southern economy so heavily relied. The election of Abraham Lincoln, whom Southern leaders feared would free the slaves in preference of “northern interests,” spurred seven states to secede from the Union even before he took office, while four others seceded after the Battle of Fort Sumter in 1861. Alexander H. Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States, declared that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.” The Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865. More than 600,000 people lost their lives.

Perhaps groups or individuals who fly the battle flag truly believe the Civil War had little or nothing to do with slavery. Perhaps some Japanese believe the country never invaded Nanking and never enslaved Korean women. Perhaps Texas politicians believe that rewriting textbooks can change historical fact. Perhaps Joseph Goebbels was right when he said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it,” echoing Lenin’s more concise declaration, “A lie told often enough becomes truth.”

Perhaps.

Reality isn’t privy to the ghosts of fate found in fiction, but real life conjures up its own ominous specters to remind us of mistakes past. That shrine in Japan, those altered books in Texas, the campaign to deny the Jewish holocaust, and that flag flying beside I-65—no matter their stated or perceived reason or justification—symbols and acts like these serve as stark reminders that authority must always be questioned, that truth must be sought and its lessons learned to avoid the mistakes of the past, that movements and their symbols purported to celebrate heritage instead serve most starkly as testaments of how far we still have to go.