Illustration by Shino Arihara
I'VE BEEN FEELING VERY SHORT OF HEROES LATELY. HEROES, I'VE discovered in the infancy of my middle age, are not only for kids or the socially disadvantaged or the hopelessly naive; they're for everybody, particularly everybody who peddles hope for a living — activists, artists, alternative-weekly columnists — in one way or another. Just because I grew up and stopped tacking posters of my favorite people on the bedroom walls doesn't mean I don't need to elevate an image anymore. Of course I've always had my father to look to, but family is a very niche kind of heroism, and since my father suffered through the slow entropy of the civil rights movement and is a longtime alternative-weekly columnist himself, well, he's got troubles of his own. No: After passing 40 this year I needed someone big, public, hagiographic, a bright but sufficiently distant light of reason and rock-star certitude who would reinforce what I can now safely call a world-view and a set of beliefs. Someone to affirm the things I had already come to admire — not as exciting as an object of teenage adulation, but still the oxygen I needed to fuel the imagination I had left.
I got some air last week. My father did too. We were both media panelists at a breakfast forum (it was bound to happen) that's held monthly, an itinerant event that gathers together various black people in town and presents speakers who tell us why we should and must keep hope alive. I generally attend, for the prospect of hope as well as the far more assured prospect of free scrambled eggs and chicken wings, which is frankly no small consideration at 7:30 in the morning. The guest speaker this time was Barbara Lee, the Alameda County congresswoman who supplied the only vote against last September's House measure to authorize the use of military force in Afghanistan. Instantly lauded and instantly attacked, Lee became an overnight icon who was later not exactly forgotten, but set aside as time went on and the War on Terrorism graduated, for all of us, from a heated controversy into merely what is. Barbara Lee offered something of what she is, a tiny bit of sobering truth that nonetheless cracked open a critical window of what might be. She is no rock star. She is trim, composed, friendly yet authoritative in a way that didn't jibe with my picture of her as a Berkeley ideologue or Black Panther flame keeper. She considerately let everybody down most of their eggs and chicken wings before mounting the podium and delivering a very clear explanation of why she'd done what she'd done. She also offered an examination of why George W. Bush's administration was doing what it was doing.
As Lee spoke, the heretofore unthinkable happened: People put down their forks. The room got utterly quiet. The more Lee talked about September 11, the more it fell away and the more we all could see, again, the absolute relevance of all those things we assumed had hardened into unusable history, at best permanently stashed in an abeyance file — the woes of a black underclass, the need for adequate schools, health care and a million other concerns that underclass had always illuminated throughout history, though certainly didn't have a corner on these days. Lee talked about America's malign neglect of these things as laying down “seeds of despair, roots of despair” that have bred a certain terrorism at home. The international scene doesn't supplant the national one or even the local one because, Lee believes, they are all touched to a degree by the same malign neglect and abuse — and willful abdication — of power. It happened to be April 29 the day Lee spoke, and in a nod to official riot-anniversary day, Lee talked about race relations and America's eternal color wars, concluding that “true peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.” She actually talked less philosophy — she is principally against war, always has been — than numbers and data that chiefly concerned the federal budget and its grossly disproportionate concern with military expenditures, and its tax breaks for the corporate and the superwealthy.
This was hardly new or shocking information, but that was precisely the problem, that none of this had sounded new or shocking in an inordinately long time — eight months, to be exact. What was new was the messenger, and the heroism it takes now to align such Great Societyera concerns with the concerns of September 11. Lee didn't pit one atrocity against the other, or decide which one was more or less morally outrageous, and therefore more or less deserving of attention; she only pointed out several things at once, and how they might be connected. “The budget,” she declared at one point, “is a blueprint for this country's values. These are costs that grow out of fear and a misdefinition of security. It's also economic security.” She decried the USA-PATRIOT Act as the worst instincts of the times — fear, miscarriage of ideals and of moneys — writ large in legislation. “We must not be sold this impossible choice,” said Lee, “between having liberty and having security.”
HER VOICE WAS PERFECTLY MODULATED, BUT LEE'S words rang to me like those of Patrick Henry, or Frederick Douglass. I felt a shiver of patriotism for the first time since the 1984 Summer Olympics. Barbara Lee, in her pink suit and clip earrings, was blowing away the War on Terrorism fog that had settled around all of us for months and narrowed our visibility to almost zero. Things had gotten so murky lately, and the War on Terrorism so enveloping, that it felt possible to me that the war — not institutionalized racism or a two-tiered economy — might actually be responsible for poor people of color; the war might have shut down my neighborhood coffeehouse and screwed up my last 401(k) quarterly reports. I felt a collective relief in the room as we all returned to something, a worn groove of well, yeah. It didn't make us happy but made us weirdly whole. I wasn't crazy, or off the beat; it was the American polity that had obviously lost its mind. I glanced over at my father, who was busy scribbling notes at the end of our table, something I'd never seen him do. He was feeling some reinforcement, too, maybe recording it. Lee was sweeping a light of truth around the room, but also from afar, assuring us that we were overmatched and had been for eons — but, in a phrase, so what? There were eons left.
I was charged, and because of that I had another question, something badly in need of an answer right now. With heroes fully in mind I stood up and asked Lee how it was that she had been the only black congressperson to say no to war. I understood that many members of Congress of all ethnic persuasions had very likely not voted with their consciences, that the enormous emotion that built after the attacks quickly crested in a mob-mentality cry for retaliation that overtook more normally prudent souls. Still, I said, given everything black people stood to lose, have always stood to lose in the big picture, given everything you've just described, what of the others? What of Maxine Waters, of John Lewis, an avowed freedom fighter and my last candidate for hero, one I retrieved from history after stumbling onto his recently published autobiography? Lee paused — her only pause of the morning. She said that she couldn't judge her colleagues on the basis of a single vote. Many had voted the right way on other matters, and it was wrong to discount that. John Lewis had thought very long and hard about his vote, she said, and was 99 percent certain he would vote against the war. “But there was 1 percent of him that was afraid of being viewed as soft on terrorism,” she said, almost sympathetically. “And that determined his vote.”
Lee meant this as a defense, and in one way, it was. John Lewis' uncertainty was humanizing — heroic, even, by the standards of literature and 20th-century circumstance. But in real life it was disappointing: I could tack him to my bedroom walls, but only so high. My father asked a question about models of black leadership and how that might change. Lee replied that the goods were all there but they were piecemeal, that all the satellite black leadership had to come together and form a common agenda. Then it was all over and everybody was on their feet clapping and Lee was being spirited away to another stop on her L.A. tour. People stayed on their feet to mingle and talk about what they'd just heard, or felt. My father told me he wasn't entirely satisfied with Lee's answer to his question — “too pat, too pat!” he muttered — but he described his dissatisfaction with a vigor that bespoke a broader satisfaction with something else. Barbara Lee told us in her talk that we were in a defining moment. Many of us believed her. If only for a morning, that made heroes of us all.