he art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe. • From Gustave Flaubert, the 19th century French writer famous for “Madame Bovary.”
Jogging is a favorite activity of mine, and one might say it runs in the family (no pun intended), given that I share this with my maternal grandfather and cousin, both New Yorkers. However, on a morning in early September, my circuit was not the Central Park reservoir, but a few miles out of my village and into the neighboring one, home to one of the steepest hills I know of.
Since I never listen to music while running, I have only the sound of my breath and footsteps to keep rhythm. And as I passed through the short tunnel outside my village, turning a corner, my thoughts stopped changing with the cadence of my steps and settled on a fact that I had awoken preoccupied with.
About a month ago, on August 28th, it was the sixtieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom led by Martin Luther King. The 250,000-person march was a pinnacle for the Civil Rights movement, and it led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. This was the event immortalized for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Now, on August 28th, 2023, tens of thousands of marchers, including King’s descendants and a few members of the original march, proceeded to the Lincoln Memorial, “continuing” the dream Dr. King had spoken of, not merely “commemorating” it. True, there were historical elements to the 2023 march, namely the inclusion of more female speakers and of other marginalized communities. Still, a brief entry in the “Ouest France” newspaper I read the next day made evident to me that the dream was far from being achieved, or if it was achieved, it was perhaps not Dr. King’s dream.
Because over 700 miles from Washington, D.C., in Jacksonville, Florida, three black people were shot by Ryan Palmeter, a twenty-one-year-old gunman from the neighboring county. After killing Angela Carr, Anolt Laguerre, and Jerrald Gallion, respectively aged 52, 19, and 29, at a Dollar General store, Palmeter used the same rifle to shoot himself – a rifle with a swastika drawn on it.
I began to run up the steep incline. Had I the breath, I may have screamed. The number of shootings in the United States surely surpassed the number of steps I ran in an hour; by the time I crossed my house threshold, there would probably be two more added to the 476 attacks this year.
And falling in with the tap of my running shoes, a mantra took form.
Not a mantra in the conventionally spiritual sense of the word. Rather, a modified reiteration of words cried out in 1970, seven years after the March on Washington and two after King’s assassination. This was the height of the Vietnam War, the singers were David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young, and the song, “Ohio,” revolved around one chant: “four dead in Ohio.” The lyrics referenced four anti-war student demonstrators killed at Kent State University, Ohio, as they were voicing their anger against then-President Richard Nixon’s decision to place members of the National Guard on campus and expand American forces into Cambodia.
Needless to say, in 2023, the circumstances are different, but the underlying theme remains. Fifty-four years ago, it was “this Summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio.” As I sang to myself, it was still summer and the drum beat for three dead in Florida.
Three days prior, I had performed a concert in Flers, my local town, made up of fifteen songs that I sang. I so wanted to be back at the performance space now, adding that sixteenth track, “Florida.”
And I would have ended the concert that way, imploring the audience not just to remember the three victims of the shooting, but to read the history books, study them, memorize them if they had to. Had I been on a stage in the United States, I would have begged them to think about a time when social media was not there to impoverish language and be wielded by a demonic ex, and possibly future, President with an unflappable core of followers and more indictments than morals.
I reached the top of the hill and carried on, before turning around. The last time I had felt such a combination of anger, fear, and mourning was in 2020, with the killings of George Floyd and Jacob Blake, both at the hands of police. But at that time, the rage resonated differently in my mind; I was finishing middle school amidst a lockdown, and did not have a clear idea of where I or my native country were headed. Which dream was the United States working towards?
I glimpsed some of what the country dreamt when reading about Trump’s supporters storming the Capitol on January 6th – the closest that white supremacists have ever come to an “I have a dream” moment, fueled by extremism and guns.
Today, though, on the cusp of university, I know why history, language, and literature are a part of the path I am taking. For in the crossfires of rifles and in the hands of ill-intentioned politicians (Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, to name two), these three things are made malleable puppets, to be twisted and restrung as many times as necessary: think of the revisionist trends in Floridian schools, wherein African slaves are instead “workers brought to the southern United States” and references to the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality are being omitted from social studies textbooks.
As James Baldwin wrote, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” He knew that the day would come — if it hadn’t already — when many people would be unable to face history, past or present, out of the fear-based conviction that the past never happened or had no bearing on the present. I fear, as Baldwin would were he alive now, that the United States could be led by a person who encourages such blindness.
And as I continued my homebound run, the mantra returned: “three dead in Florida, three dead in Florida.”
Once I returned, I knew how I would write this article, but not how to finish it. In political pieces, it can be hard to strike a balance between factual and hopeful. How much hope is there left, if any?
My personal answer: at least a bit.
And along with that little bit, I have a marathon of words ahead of me, a notepad and pen as my running gear, and a head which I intend to keep clear, unenhanced by any substance which pretends to inspire. I shall fight — and this is a verb I seldom use — for a day when people will be elevated by words, not rifles. That day may come in my lifetime, in my children’s, or my grandchildren’s.
I climb the stairs and remove my shoes, shower, and then start writing.
That is where the real exercise starts.