Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions #53

Some Birthday Thoughts – 64th Annual Edition

By Chris M. Barkley: 

Chris M. Barkley. Photo by Juli Marr.

When I get older losing my hair
Many years from now
Will you still be sending me a Valentine
Birthday greetings bottle of wine
If I’d been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four

– John Lennon and Paul McCartney, circa 1967.

One of my earliest childhood memories occurred fifty-seven years ago this week; on Wednesday, August 28th 1963, I clearly remember parking myself in front of my grandmother’s Philco television for an afternoon of cartoons and silliness that I was accustomed to.

Instead, I saw a sea of faces. All gathered at that time by what I took to be a large lake. The faces, mostly of black people but with a sprinkling of others mixed in, all gathered near a domed building. I tried other channels. It was on all three major network stations. I was so mesmerized by this mass of humanity that was speaking and cheering that I gave up on seeing cartoons and watched for a while… 

What I was witnessing of course, was the March on Washington For Civil Rights, centered around the Lincoln Memorial, was one of the most galvanizing events of American history at that time. I had just turned seven years old.

When I was that small child, I was totally oblivious to the troubles of the world: racial prejudice and strife, lynchings (still a THING back then, people), stranger danger or pedophile priests, redlining, segregation and the ongoing Cold War with various Communist entities. 

I’ve been told that when I was a boy, I was very shy and often seeking solitude, either by myself or curled up with any of a number of Dr. Seuss books my parents bought for me. 

There’s also this: sometimes, I would inexplicably wake up in the middle of the night and wonder about the future. Would I be alive to see it? What would it be like? Where would my parents and siblings be? I spent countless nights wrestling with these existential questions…

Now, on this end of the timeline and on the occasion of my 64th birthday, I can stand back and recall all of those struggles and how I dealt with them, one by one. There was a steep learning curve as I navigated through life; with school, dealing with other people, raging hormones, the bullies, beatings, self-doubt and several bouts of deep depression.

And against all odds, I survived, alive, well and somewhat healthy for my age.

And as I sit and write this, I see history repeating itself. This past Thursday, August 28th 2020, I again saw a sea of faces, a glorious rainbow of skin color, in high definition, all calling out for justice, equality and peace. But this gathering was concerned with the same sorts of basic issues that could have been ripped from a mid-20th century newspaper; racial strife, gun violence, police brutality, rioting in the streets and voter suppression. 

America today seems more like the America of 1968, when we seemed to be a mess, politically, physically and socially divided to the point of militancy, with the added complication of a pandemic disease which has no known effective treatment, vaccine or cure.  

All this leaves me wondering, after nearly sixty years, why do a substantial number of American white people still loathe, discriminate and outright hate people of color such as myself, simply because we look different or have differing attitudes and opinions. We may not have originated on this continent but neither did they!

THIS is not the science fictional future I signed up for.

And the answer is this; we, collectively, have not had a reckoning with our past history of the illegal taking of land from Native Americans, the enslavement of African natives and the combination of systemic racism that on the surface,  promises an abundance of freedom and opportunity but, in fact, has created a de facto caste system of poverty and income inequality.

The ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic and the less than adequate response to the emergency (and other malicious missteps) by the current administration has shorn away the thin veneer of propaganda that the United States is a shining monument of freedom. 

And yet…

People, immigrants, illegal or otherwise, still want to come here. They want to come even though the President can’t string two coherent sentence together without the help of a teleprompter, the people he has chosen to guide governmental policies are incompetent or corrupt, the Majority Leader of the United States Senate deliberately subverts the process of democracy on a regular basis and a good portion of the white population doesn’t want them there.

Why? Because they have seen glimpses of how great we can be. 

We have enacted civil rights legislation. Our collective efforts put twelve men on the moon and returned them all safely to Earth. Our technological innovations are still admired to a certain extent. We continue to fight against climate change and environmental reforms even when the government refuses to acknowledge it. Our athletes are showing that they are politically aware and active. Our artists still have the right to express themselves freely, through books, paintings, sculptures, music and architecture.

And when black people, like Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, Atatianna Jefferson, Philando Castille and George Floyd and are murdered in their homes or in the street by the police, the collective outrage is felt by many more than just the Black Community alone.

And then, most notably, there are the visual arts: Star Trek. And Star Wars. The Marvel Universe of films. Babylon 5. The Expanse. The Good Place. Rick and Morty, And, yes, The Orville and Galaxy Quest as well.

These films and television shows are our true brand and main calling card; the possible futures that may not be pretty, desirable or very easy, but they are thrilling to experience and definitely show that we have some sort of future to look forward to and it is worth living for.

I still wake up in the middle of the night, moreso in the past six months. As I lie in bed, I still worry about the future. Although now I mostly wonder what will happen in the November elections, if I have taken enough precautions so I don’t become ill and what sort of future my grandchildren will inherit from us. And, more morbidly and with growing distress, how much time I may have left to live.

Somehow, some way, I still believe that there is hope for myself, our country and the world. That’s probably due to my lifelong love of science fiction and fantasy. 

That spark of optimism, buried deep within even the darkest of the novels, stories and films that I have loved and enjoyed all of these years, has kept my own spirits alive and well. I have chosen to embrace the future, not be consumed by it.

Because ready or not, the future is now. 

This column is dedicated to the memory of Chadwick Boseman, a splendid human being and an extraordinary actor. Best known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Black Panther, he spoke the following lines, which resonates, for America and the world at large, NOW, more than ever. Rest In Peace, My King; we will always be inspired by you and the many roles you played, to make this a better world…

6 thoughts on “Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions #53

  1. I don’t think this is the future any of us signed up for. And I lay a lot of the blame on one particular individual who will go down in history as (a) the worst president ever and (b) possibly the destroyer of our democracy.

  2. I remember the apprehension among NY fans at the time of the March on Washington, because it was held one week before DisCon 1—the 1963 World SF Convention—was due to be held in DC. It was going to be my first worldcon. (I went down on a bus—no air conditioning—and because my mother objected to my paying $6 a night for a room at the Statler-Hilton, I was booked into the DC WYMCA, instead. $1.50, I think, a night—and no air conditioning, either.)

    Would there be rioting, civil unrest, disorder? Would the worldcon be affected?

    The answer, in retrospect, is a solid no. The only thing DisCon had to cope with were the assembled loud voices of Sigma Alpha Rho, the high-school fraternity the fans shared the hotel with.

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