I spent D-Day in Normandy, walking on the beach in the sunshine. The French Air Force did a flyover, leaving a trail of bleu-blanc-rouge to salute the sacrifices made by the allied forces who landed there in 1944, freeing Europe from fascism’s grip.
It was the first time in months that I had been outside of a city, and the first time in a year that I had seen the ocean. Lockdown in Paris was harsh, and the sea air was doing me a world of good.
As glad as I was to be on that beach, I was conflicted. You see, I had thought we’d handle the coronavirus pandemic differently.
I had really been looking forward to the day when the virus would no longer be the top story. Somehow, I thought there would be a happy ending – a vaccine or treatment or general goodwill. You know, like in Star Trek where Americans worked alongside our former Cold War enemies, the Russians. They’d achieved world peace and there was a much worse threat: the Klingons.
I thought COVID-19 was the common enemy we’d been needing. With the polarization of politics in the United States, I thought a non-sentient being like the virus had a good chance of uniting us.
Boy, was I wrong. We turned on ourselves, bickering over masks and guns and watching illness spread through vulnerable segments of the population.
Then it got even worse.
While the virus still raged, yet another African-American man was killed by the people who are supposed to protect us. George Floyd’s agonizing death, captured on video, brought people outside in anger and pain and fear, and in France, it ripped the scab off a questionable death back in 2016, when a young black man named Adama Traoré died in police custody. Parisians took to the streets when they heard of George Floyd’s killing. Other cities erupted in protest as well.
Walking on that Normandy beach, I didn’t know what to make of us, to make of myself. I had isolated myself and my loved ones in France during the pandemic, having the luxury to forget that our society has ongoing racial issues that keep people from living full lives, or that even take people’s lives.
Every time a black person is killed unjustly in the United States, I get upset and then I forget about it, adding their names to a long list of tragic figures. That day, I felt disgusted with police brutality, disgusted with racism, disgusted with myself.
Then I walked through the village of Luc-sur-Mer to Sword beach where Allied troops landed on D-Day, and I saw this plaque at a memorial site. It was a Franklin D. Roosevelt quote, reminding us of what that war was about.
“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms,
- The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world.
- The second is the freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world.
- The third is freedom from want – which translated into world’s terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world.
- The fourth is freedom from fear – which translates into a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor anywhere in the world.”
We talk about the first two all the time, but the third and fourth, freedom from want and fear, are nowhere near accomplished for many Americans today nor for many citizens of the world. In fact, they seem farther away than ever for black and brown people, refugees, minorities.
In World War II, the fight was against fascism. It was against brutality, against making ethnic or religious or racial minorities a scapegoat for society’s ills. It was about wresting power away from those who used it for evil, about restoring basic human freedoms to those who had had theirs taken away. And on D-Day, we sent our loved ones onto the Normandy beaches to fight and even die for that cause.
We may have won World War II, but now, decades later, we’ve lost our focus.
We don’t recognize the same fight, the fight against oppression and prejudice and white supremacy. We – I – have looked the other way, occasionally giving a little money to a worthy cause to make myself feel better.
That won’t cut it any more.
My adult children are in the States, and I’m so, so proud of them for their activism. They, like many other young people, don’t have money to donate, so they are attending protests (masked of course), using their social media presence to spread information and awareness, and raising funds online. Their generation gives me hope for the future, hope that we can treat people fairly and kindly, hope that we can respect each other, hope that we won’t always be our worst selves.
To support Black-owned businesses in France, click HERE.
They advised their friends and followers to be advocates during this time by using their privilege to support black and brown causes; to shop at black and brown-owned businesses; to address their loved ones if they exhibit racial views. They challenge us to put our money where our mouth is – being silent puts you on the wrong side.
If there’s going to be a change this time, it’s going to take more than occasional donations. Liberté, egalité, et fraternité may be the French motto, but it’s something we all strive for, no matter our country. It’s going to take people like me, white people with adequate means, who will give time and money and energy. It will take listening to people of color, the ones who have been unheard, the only ones who know what is necessary right now. It’s going to take painful conversations with our loved ones, the ones who know they are racists and the ones who don’t.
It’s going to be uncomfortable. But it will be right.