We Are Losing a Generation of Civil-Rights Memories

America’s response to the pandemic harkens back to ugly times in our country’s history. But to recognize that, we need to know our elders’ stories.

Leta Seletzky

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?

From top to bottom: Seletzky’s grandmother; Seletzky as a baby with her parents; Seletzky’s grandfather (Courtesy of Leta Seletzky)

They answered in turn, hesitantly at first, noting dates and surnames, mentioning towns, states, and even another country, Cuba, through which Granddaddy’s ancestors passed before landing in the American South. I scribbled notes in pencil on a scrap of newspaper, the only paper I had handy.

This would be our only interview, extracting mostly biographical particulars. I took home the scrap of paper bearing my notes and put it in a desk drawer, where it lay for years among a jumble of trinkets and ephemera before disappearing in the whirlwind of packing for college. Over the course of my burgeoning adulthood, I gradually became aware of its loss, my heart dropping when something triggered a memory that took me back to its precious details. Never again, I swore, would I fail as the custodian of a fragment of history.

But I did fail again—this time with my father, whose stories I ceded to the forgetfulness of time until I was well into adulthood. Like my grandparents, he is from Jim Crow Mississippi, and though he was born a generation later—in 1944—little had changed with regard to racial oppression. In 1968, before I was born, he was a Memphis police officer whose undercover work brought him to the Lorraine Motel minutes before an assassin’s bullet struck Martin Luther King Jr. A well-known photograph captured my father kneeling over King while attempting to render first aid, as three people standing nearby point in the direction from which the shot came.

I grew up knowing little of these events beyond my father’s presence in the photograph; he never discussed them, and the rest of my family barely mentioned them. Over time, I’d discover conspiracy theories about his appearance at the scene of King’s murder.

I used to attribute my reluctance to explore his past to my fear of discovering any truth to the conspiracy theories. But underlying that was a more fundamental fear, prefigured by my grandparents’ reticence and my lost notes: that of the certain horror and grief I’d have to engage with, regardless of the specifics I uncovered. Avoiding my father’s story hadn’t shielded me from the anguish I dreaded, which already inhabited me in some hidden place near the edge of perception. Rather, it merely allowed more history to be lost. And lost history, I came to understand, was far more than a personal concern—it represented a danger to the hard-won gains my forebears and so many like them had made against racial apartheid and atrocities.

The matter is more urgent now than ever, as the coronavirus ravages the populace and the U.S. response threatens to repeat ugly historical episodes. But to recognize this, you’d need to know the stories of our elders, understand the world through their eyes. Then you’d see that what once appeared to many as inevitable social progress accompanying our advance through the decades was in fact fragile and contingent—and, without constant vigilance, forfeited.

This is evident in the actions of Donald Trump, who has defended his use of the racist terms Chinese virus and Wuhan virus, and whose administration has made little to no provision for the health of the more than 170,000 people held by the Federal Bureau of Prisons—a disproportionately black population—or the tens of thousands of immigrants in federal detention. His words and actions echo prevailing social and scientific narratives to which my grandparents and father were subject, those that painted black people as disease vectors and even facilitated infections, as in the decades-long Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Even as Trump acknowledged with seeming concern the mounting evidence that black people face much higher rates of severe illness and death from COVID-19 than other racial groups, he wondered aloud, “Why is it that the African American community is so much, numerous times more than everybody else?” The answer is no mystery to Jim Crow survivors, witnesses to America’s long legacy of disinvestment in and devaluation of black people; it’s as simple, and complicated, as this country’s racist underpinnings.

In the fall of 2015, I finally interviewed my dad—and this time, I made an audio recording. Five years later, we’re still interviewing and recording. In that time, I’ve heard stories that racked me with weeping and others that swelled me with pride. But most of all, they’ve enriched my understanding of this moment we live in now—how we got here and the precariousness of our position. As we face down the unthinkable horror and grief of this pandemic, I’m grateful for the opportunity to preserve and share a fragment of our collective history, particularly at a time when our fundamental rights—if not our very lives—are threatened as much by ahistorical perspectives as by invidious intent.