Three weekends ago, I was walking on the beach with my mother, talking about history, which means we were talking about politics.
I’d just read an article about a team from women’s college Agnes Scott pulling off a trivia bowl upset against Princeton in 1966. It wasn’t the buzzer-beater upset that stayed with me (though you should read about it, because it’s enthralling) – it was a pair of lines about Princeton’s admissions policy:
“In 1966, Princeton was still an all-male institution. It would take another three years before the university opened its doors to women.”
So. 1969. My mother was in junior high. Schools were being ordered to desegregate “at once” after ten years of basically just getting to it whenever they felt like it. African Americans had only fully received the right to vote four years earlier. The statistic also made me think about Ruby Bridges, who was 15 in 1969.
We’re walking along the tide line, my mom and I. “Someone had to push to get Princeton to admit women,” I say. “It wasn’t just going to happen on its own.”
It’s a gorgeous, sunny morning on the coast, the kind you’re unlikely to get in July, let alone October. I’m trying to mesh my thoughts with the still-running algorithm in my brain that’s forever seeking an answer to the 2016 election. I’m trying to reconcile this beautiful day with how much I feel like screaming.
“Those black-and-white photos of Ruby Bridges going to school, they’re in all our history books, and they made it feel so set in stone.” The sun is shining on the waves. Lots of people are out walking, collecting shells, sipping their morning coffee. Do any of them feel like screaming? “But Ruby Bridges is only in her 60s. It wasn’t that long ago.”
I would never have said my mom was politically active, though she was involved in women’s organizations before I was born. But my sister has been volunteering with Nashville candidates while she’s getting a master’s in some kind of field that will help save the world, and I called myself a feminist from the minute I first heard the word, so whatever my mom did raising us, it worked.
“The women my age are all horrified at what’s going on,” she says as we walk. “We never got to take it for granted. We saw the marches. I thought we’d have taught you better.”
“You taught us just fine!” And I try to tell her we don’t take their work for granted, that we do vote – and that may be true for me and my sister, but we, collectively, have taken it for granted. Otherwise we wouldn’t have a president who doesn’t mind being endorsed by the KKK. Otherwise the record turnout for 18- to 29-year-old midterm voters would be something less miserable than 30%.
In an episode of “Parts Unknown,” Anthony Bourdain says, “Democracy, as it turns out, requires regular maintenance.” Forty-nine percent of eligible voters participated in yesterday’s midterm election, the highest turnout since the 1960s. (Around 60% vote in presidential elections.) Maybe we’ve finally had a wake-up call; maybe we slowed the sled down. But it’s so much easier to look at the black-and-white photos in our history books and tell ourselves the fight was already won, by other people, so it’s nothing we need to worry about. Conversely, it’s also easy to watch the news and doubt that one voice can make a difference.
I’m still learning to see my privilege. I know that my tendency to see civil rights movements as relics from before I was born is because I’ve never had to live those struggles myself. Everything from the job I work to the birth control I can use to the bank account I manage to the clothing I feel free to wear has been fought for me by women who came before.
But history doesn’t end when the textbook closes. Ruby Bridges is still alive. Three of the four women on that trivia bowl team are still alive. John Lewis is still alive. Ruth Bader Ginsberg is still alive.
Democracy is living, and the opposite isn’t death – it’s stagnancy. The ocean I walked beside never goes still, and neither can we. There’s no buzzer-beater, once-and-for-all victory – not even on the Supreme Court. We can find solace and strength in history, but we can’t close the book, because it’s still in progress.
We’re just history that hasn’t been written down yet.