We Are Losing a Generation of Civil-Rights Memories

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tags: racism, civil rights, African American history, oral history

I knew it was only a matter of time before coronavirus deaths hit my social-media feeds—before people I knew would grieve, or even become ill and die themselves—but I wasn’t prepared for the speed or relentlessness with which it happened. Or that most of the victims I’d see would be black. I knew that to a large extent this reflected the people and topics I followed, but it was something bigger too, a hint of the grim reality that was only just emerging.

My eyes began to search for COVID-19 in every death announcement. It wasn’t always there, as with the Reverend Joseph Lowery, known as the “Dean of the Civil-Rights Movement,” who died on March 27 at the age of 98, of causes unrelated to the coronavirus. But it often was, and as I scrolled past smiling photos of people of all ages—daughters, sons, cousins, matriarchs, and patriarchs—I wondered how American society would bear a loss of this magnitude, what it would do to our country to lose them and all they remembered.

I’ve been thinking about ancestral memories for a long time. In the mid-’80s, when I was 11, I interviewed my grandparents. For all the time I’d spent with them over the years—every day after school, plus all summer while my mom worked—I realized I knew little about their early lives and the stories of their families. Once in a while, they’d let slip little anecdotes—some amusing, others revealing of the discrimination they had endured during the brutal Jim Crow era. But much of their lives lay behind a heavy curtain that rarely opened. They didn’t like talking about the past, and if their conversation touched on it, they didn’t linger there.

As I slouched cross-legged on the variegated shag carpet in their Memphis bungalow, Grandma—a tall, lean, reddish-brown woman in her 70s—sat languid and elegant on a tufted gold velvet armchair, its plastic upholstery cover crinkling beneath her when she shifted. A few feet away, Granddaddy, a round man in his 80s with horn-rimmed glasses resting on his dark bronze face, perched on a red velvet damask armchair, also covered in plastic. They gazed at nothing in particular—nothing visible to me, anyway—while I formed my questions: What were the names of the Mississippi Delta towns where they were born? What were the names of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents? What were the oldest tales they could recall?

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