One August in America tested the nation’s mettle. Years from now, that’s what historians will say.
Harvests traditionally begin in August, and last month in Charlottesville the United States reaped the bitter product of its divisions. But as the month went on we also found ways to come together through a celestial phenomenon and a vicious act of Mother Nature.
Both the eclipse and Harvey reminded us how minuscule we are. And maybe we needed some perspective.
It’s been a divisive spell in American history, a time when we’ve disagreed bitterly on the country’s direction and shunned dialogue and debate, choosing instead to seek affirmation of our opinions in echo chambers.
There’s been no middle ground, just quicksand. We were bound to boil over, historians might write.
Then we paused to marvel at the moon crossing the sun, which united us in awe. Five days later, a hurricane swamped Texas, and we set aside our differences to show empathy for our stricken countrymen and women. Neighbors came with rescue boats, houses of worship opened their doors to evacuees and Americans rushed to donate money.
Suddenly, Charlottesville seemed like a long time ago.
Torches and tragedy
When they look back on the 31 days that just passed, historians may first seize upon August 11, the day white nationalists stormed Charlottesville, Virginia.
On a campus founded by our third president and the author of a document proclaiming “all men are created equal,” an angry mob, mostly white and mostly male, marched with torches to claim Thomas Jefferson’s words – seminal to our country’s creation – meant nothing.
They decried Jews, blacks, Latinos, immigrants, anyone who doesn’t look and behave like them. For older Southerners, it resurrected memories of the night rides, when robe-clad cowards on horseback terrorized people of color below the Mason-Dixon line.
These so-called loyalists arrived on a campus and in a town where they weren’t welcome, to pursue a cause as specious as their patriotism: defending a statue of a long-dead general who lost a rebellion against the country to which we pledge allegiance.
Fueled by perceived attacks on whiteness, they demanded a bleached homeland, free of the cultures and ethnicities that form America’s backbone.
They were interrupted by a group of Americans of all creeds – including the Anglo-Saxons they purport to defend – who quite simply said, “Oh, hell no.” For one group, anger was a reaction; for the other, a state of being.
While historians will write about the hate and violence – the clubs, the tear gas, the crude shields with symbols of white supremacy – there were heroes that weekend, too.
A 26-year-old landscaper was badly injured saving his beloved from a Dodge that roared into a knot of counterprotesters. Then, there’s Heather Heyer. We should say her name often so we don’t forget it.
Let’s hope historians remember her, too.
Heyer was a voice for the disenfranchised, friends say, but no one could push her out of the way of martyrdom. She died that Saturday defending people whose value, she believed, was not up for debate.
Against arguably the most schismatic political backdrop the nation has seen in 152 years, white nationalists promised to usher demonstrations into more cities. Counterprotesters and self-proclaimed anti-fascists vowed to be there when they arrived.
On social media, the world wondered, “WTF?” Americans asked if their country was marching backward, seeking to repeat the mistakes that had been millstones on its progress. Racist memes littered Twitter, leaving some dejected souls to complain they’d lost faith in humanity.
A cosmic interlude
The country deserved a respite, and it soon received one, if for only the 3 minutes or so that the moon managed to blot out the sun. For that wondrous moment, and the giddy hours leading up to it, our differences were irrelevant.
It didn’t matter if you were Democrat or Republican, black or white, Team Taylor or Team Kanye. Americans from South Carolina to Oregon gathered at rooftops, parking decks, campgrounds and patios to gaze skyward to a spectacle 240,000 miles away.
It was awesome, literally, and when we took off those goofy cardboard glasses, there were smiles all around, a collective appreciation of forces grander than us or anything, good or bad, we might create.
Historians might write it was the grounding America needed. They just might.
Because as our excitement over the eclipse waned, like the moon cycling to its own rebirth, a monster storm was building in the Gulf.
When Harvey struck Texas, with a ferocity experts say the Lone Star State has not seen in more than a century, millions found themselves in its path.
It was dubbed a “1,000-year event,” but scientists studying climate change – yet another source of our division – say a warming planet is propelling extreme weather onto the Gulf Coast with alarming regularity. Texas alone experienced 500-year weather events in 2015 and 2016.
Harvey’s 130-mph winds lashed the coast, and rain fell in cascades. Like it might never stop.
Too many braved the deluge, believing the storm, like some before it, would bring more bluster than obliteration. Soon, officials across southeastern Texas said resources were stretched so thin that rescuers were being forced to make the most unenviable of decisions: who should be saved first.
A dozen years after Hurricane Katrina, the images were eerily familiar: People stranded on rooftops, some having chopped their ways out of attics; disoriented families wading through rib-high waters, towing their belongings behind them in anything that would float; bedsheets hanging from second-story windows where people had rappelled to safety.
Authorities pleaded with the stranded to put towels or other markers on their roofs because house numbers were no longer visible.
As the rains persisted and the flooding spread, the cavalry arrived in the form of American altruism.
Sure, there were villains – looters and scurrilous business owners gouging victims for drinking water – but the dominant storyline became the heroes near and far who answered calls to help.
Cities opened shelters and sent manpower, supplies and equipment. Rescuers dangled from helicopters and charged into rushing floodwaters to pluck Texans from danger. Corporations and celebrities used their power and platforms to raise millions in disaster relief. Journalists put down their notepads and microphones to lift folks out of the water.
In one of the most selfless acts of heroism, the Cajun Navy – a band of regular ol’ Louisianans who cut their teeth in the rescue game during Katrina – jumped in their trucks and hauled a flotilla of boats west to save their neighbors.
Texas prides itself on going big, and the state will have to do just that as it begins a recovery effort that will last years. But if there can be any silver lining to such a deadly and horrific storm, it’s that in Americans’ response to it, we gave those who lost faith in humanity two weeks earlier reason to believe again.
In the grand scheme, whatever that may be, we can be defined by what we do going forward and how we put aside differences to uplift our fellow Americans, no matter their race or religion or politics.
We should hope that’s what history reveals about us in August 2017.
Charlottesville exposed our divisions. Harvey hid them. The eclipse showed us we are but tiny players in a vast universe, and we have more in common than we think.
This story has been revised for context and detail, and to correct nickname of Texas to the Lone Star State, not the Longhorn State. Apologies to Cougars, Aggies, Techsters, et al.