I will never abandon the sad rituals now performed every year on the eleventh day of September. Where were you when…? What do you remember? What do you think they’d be doing today if…?
As I’ve said before on this day, there have always been as many New Yorks as there are people who have lived there, and this beautiful essay by Colson Whitehead encapsulates the unique pain of watching your personal New York transform, especially after tragedy.
“You swallow hard when you discover that the old coffee shop is now a chain pharmacy, that the place where you first kissed so-and-so is now a discount electronics retailer, that where you bought this very jacket is now rubble behind a blue plywood fence and a future office building,” he writes.
You never really get a chance to say a proper good-bye to the parts of the city that made you, especially to the ones that you never expected to.
But this year, I’m also thinking about how America has transformed, 18 years later.
A country that at once seemed capable of welcoming a black man with a funny name and his unapologetically black family to the White House, and yet viciously question the same man’s American legitimacy.
About the people whose memories of that terrible day have been kept alive by slow-moving illnesses now overtaking them, and the first responders we would have utterly failed but for the intervention of a former late-night talk show host, a good New Yorker if there ever was one.
About the innocent Muslims who died that day and who have been exempted from remembrance, and the Muslim-Americans who now feel like permanent suspects. About the people of all colors, faiths, and genders who continue to serve in the military in an endless war most people barely acknowledge. About the veterans in desperate need of care we have not provided, and who have taken to dying by suicide in public to get our attention.
Swallowing hard about travel bans, children in cages, and how we now scratch at the eyes of the world as a matter of posture and policy. Watching through tears as once fringe hate groups swell in number, march in the streets and kill people, and whose leaders would be public enemy number one if anyone cared about that sort of thing.
I spent six months traveling the country after the attacks on September with my friend Jay Golden, a writerly quest to connect with people different from me in search of what America really was. After sixteen thousand miles and hundreds of interviews, I felt real hope. (If you can stand 17 minutes of me blathering about this TEDx style, I got you covered.)
Now, 18 years later, that hope is harder to summon. Perhaps that’s just life on the race beat.
Or perhaps we need to find a way to say a true and proper goodbye to the parts of America that have unexpectedly made us, and that continue to serve us all so poorly; the ugly histories now calcified in how we live and work and lead and teach and punish and govern and dream, still unexamined and unremembered.