by Andrew Young
My uncle died a couple of weeks before the November election. Had he lived, he’d have voted for Clinton, not because he thought she was fabulous but because at age 90 he had lived long enough to have experienced the consequences of bad leadership.
During Christmas 1944 he was in a German prisoner-of-war camp because a few days earlier his leaders, inexperienced and stupid, thought sending his company across an open field filled with snow and landmines would be the quickest way to capture a town filled with enemy soldiers armed to the teeth.
After the war he led a quiet, modest life. The Lutheran Church was important to him and it wasn’t until he was about 80 that I asked him about his one and only battle.
“We were ordered to fire and I did,” he said. They fired blindly. He couldn’t see anything. Decades later, he hoped he didn’t kill anyone. Like Ishmael in Moby Dick, my uncle survived to tell the next generation his story. Like the replicant character in Blade Runner, my uncle saw a sight no one today knows: the winter sky filled with 1,000 American heavy bombers headed to Berlin. After his funeral we went through his things and I found his dog tags and German POW identity badge. His service jacket, with corps and division insignia along with two stripes — he made corporal, not bad for a Chinatown boy serving in an all-white regiment — hung neatly in his closet. We never knew he cared so deeply about the violent past, because he was a soft-spoken, gentle man.
On Election Day I was helping Latino college students rehearse a workshop presentation that would take place later in the week. Their topic was on the importance of increasing college access for immigrants and refugees, especially those who were locked out of federal and other loans because they were undocumented. They stumbled through their talking points. They weren’t prepared and I told them so. Their facts were accurate but they weren’t saying why listeners should give a damn about what they were saying. The day after the election they were quiet, as we all were. On their next rehearsal, they did a bit better but I reminded them their presentation was about themselves, their communities, friends, relatives and younger siblings. After Trump’s victory, they had to speak from the heart. Personally, I was deeply fearful that they didn’t get it; they were now the frontline youngsters in a war they didn’t ask for, whether they liked it or not. At the conference they soared. After reciting their PowerPoint facts one stood to explain to the audience, “Let me tell you what it’s like to walk in my shoes,” and proceeded to talk as an undocumented young adult at a private college which prides itself for its part helping enslaved Americans (i.e., property) escape to safety. Later I spotted the group conferring with audience members, young people like themselves, who needed to find one another and together build hope and strength.
Common decency might be our region’s newest brand.
For the well-intentioned, liberal white older types, winning the struggle against Trumpism means winning here in Greensboro and the Piedmont, holding elected officials accountable and expecting more from them. It means pressuring those who are running for office, particularly those seeking reelection, to answer where they stand on a number of issues, from the anti-democratic actions of the General Assembly to police body cams to the daily indignities the working poor have endured for years. It means holding the News & Record to a higher standard.
It means oldsters asking themselves some pretty big questions that go beyond themselves, craft beer and shopping local, like what do they have to offer the next generation coming up, the one that’s really going to get hammered by Trumpism. It means asking them if they will open doors for next-generation leaders who do not look like them or our current leaders, because the region’s demographics have changed forever.
It means that it is within our collective power to transform Greensboro into a decent and affordable Southern city whose chief attraction to investors, employers and millennials is its commitment to the unfinished business of the international Civil Rights Movement, equality and social justice. This is not the vision of the chamber of commerce or the agenda of any economic development meetings I’ve ever attended, but Trump’s right-out-loud racism might change the equation. Common decency might be our region’s newest brand.
When I was growing up my mother fondly recalled Fiorella LaGuardia, the Republican mayor of New York, for his general decency and fairness. Above all, he was a man Chinatown residents could applaud because he stood up for the downtrodden and the underdogs of the world. In a story that should be told more, he infuriated German officials in 1935 by sending Jewish NYPD detectives to investigate after American Communist Party members stormed the SS Bremen docked in Manhattan and tore down its swastika flag. These were formative stories for many young New Yorkers who, like my uncle and father, would find themselves in the frontline just a few years later. Trump, as we know, was born just a year after the war and today prides himself as the Queens furbo (clever smart-ass) who can out-deal and outfox any fesso (schmuck). If you’re unclear about what I mean, watch Goodfellas again. Resisting Trumpism will not be a career builder but it will be the patriotic, right thing to do.
Andrew Young is an artist who chooses to live in Greensboro and not progressive bastions like Asheville or Brooklyn because the big changes to come will happen here.