Making sense of our 'dumpster fire' year

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(CNN)"It simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered." That's how Katherine Anne Porter described living through the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic while working as a journalist in Denver. These experiences informed her semi-autobiographical 1939 short novel, "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," a searing depiction of the twin ravages of a deadly virus and a world war on a country desperate to escape both.

Porter's account of normal life turned dystopian reality echoes with painful familiarity in 2020. We end this year struggling to mourn unimaginable losses wrought by a coronavirus pandemic and watching doctors, nurses and leaders roll up their sleeves for a vaccine while telling the stories, as Porter did, of those who survived.
This week we're highlighting some of the social commentary and cultural criticism that helped us process 2020, a year when dumpster fires appeared on holiday cards.

    The painful lessons we learned from the 'great confessional'

      The "great confessional" is how Virginia Woolf referred to illness in 1926 -- and that was borne out in 2020, the year when Covid-19 cast America's longstanding sins of racial and economic inequality into newly harsh relief. Catherine Powell demanded attention be paid to the "color of Covid" and its disproportionate havoc on the health and labor of Black and Latinx communities. Wellesley College president Paula A. Johnson put a face to the tragedy in her remembrance of Rana Zoe Mungin, a 30-year-old teacher lost to the virus after she was unable to get tested. "The pandemic comes as a reminder of what we stand to lose when diverse voices go unheeded," Johnson wrote.
        As the weeks turned into months, Covid also became the "great confessional" of the difference in our social realities-- whether we were able to work from home or not, were single or had a family, lived or worked near the area of the latest outbreak. We grappled, too, with what should remain open and what should stay closed. "Parents, and particularly mothers, are shouldering most of the burden," of the pandemic's impact on the economy, wrote Jill Filipovic. "And it's going to do long-term damage to women's earnings, careers, and basic safety and security."
        The permanent mark left by this virus was also visible on the city streets; Carl Swanson and the editors of New York Magazine's Curbed paid poignant tribute in their list of "500 Goodbyes" to places "big and small" that closed their doors in 2020. Every community in America and many across the world could say the same.

          The 'Great Awakening'

          When historians assess 2020, March 13 and May 25 will be recalled as the dates when the names Breonna Taylor and George Floyd became synonyms for the demand for racial justice. After Taylor and Floyd were killed by police, a spasm of protest racked America and the world, one whose aftershocks created what Van Jones described as a "cultural tsunami that is sweeping through media, the academy, houses of worship, Hollywood and even corporate board rooms. This new, building force may someday change the course of world history. In many ways, it already has." Jones called it, in reference to waves of religious revival that have swept the US throughout its history, a "Great Awakening." Aunjanue Ellis wrote that the reckoning -- which eventually included the removal of Mississippi's Confederacy-inflected flag -- was long overdue for her home state and all of America: "The Confederate flag and its attendant horrors -- the massacres, torture and lynchings -- loom through every state of this country."
          Many Americans asked whether -- or how - this racial reckoning would be different. Jennifer Harvey suggested that for that to happen, many White Christians would need to replace their focus on "racial reconciliation" with a commitment to reparations as an expression of their faith.
          Amid the cries that Black Lives Matter, the calls to "say her name," another message emerged: silence is complicity. Silence in the face of bigotry is also a scar, reflected Jeff Yang, one borne by Asian Americans in particular even as it divides them from solidarity with Black and brown Americans. Yang observed: "Through silence, we allow others to control whether we belong and where we belong. Are we unassimilable aliens, or intrinsically American? Do we seek adjacency to whiteness, or coalitions of color? By speaking out now, we answer these questions for ourselves."
          Roxanne Jones wrote movingly of how a posthumous Pulitzer Citation in May for the investigative reporting of suffrage and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells was a reminder that because of Wells and others like her, "black girls like me dared to dream that our words could be used as a weapon against hate and fear. She taught us the power of telling our own stories."
          In a year when museums were closed and public space was an arena for demonstrations, but also a zone of exposure to contagion, artists used magazine covers and monuments to speak to these protests and the people whose shortened lives inspired them. With "Say Their Names" for the New Yorker, Kadir Nelson depicted George Floyd with his shoulders outlining the faces and bodies of Black men and women, forming a visual history of racism and activism.
          Amy Sherald, whose rendering of Michelle Obama hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, depicted Breonna Taylor on the cover of Vanity Fair in hues of blue-green reminiscent, for the artist, of Lady Liberty. Lighting artist Dustin Klein projected Floyd's image, the words "No Justice No Peace" and "BLM" onto Richmond's Robert E. Lee monument, an image National Geographic also put on its cover.

          Turning to Narnia and 'chickenality'

          During spring and summer lockdowns, many looked for home-based comfort. Holly Thomas started re-reading the young adult literature of her childhood. When Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis "made the world bigger," Thomas reminisced, "it stayed that way. There was no cozy -- or claustrophobic -- return home." I spoke with and heard from a number of CNN Opinion readers who shared what books they were reading to get by -- a decidedly eclectic mix, from "The Plague" to "Anna Karenina" to "Murder on the Orient Express."
          "People are stretched and stressed and heartbroken and thin. People are savoring joy wherever they can," observed Tess Taylor -- and for her and her family, that meant bringing home chickens. Something about their "chickenality" sustained Taylor and her young children as they struggled with isolation and chaos. "The chickens make me feel more connected to life," she wrote. "In finding this one place to connect, we've gotten some refuge, and laughter, and some courage to carry on."

          The surreal world of sports in 2020

          "Early this year, the loss of Kobe Bryant, a complicated hero, seemed likely to dominate the end-of-year sports headlines. Now that moment...almost feels like another lifetime," lamented Amy Bass. From a "biological bomb" of an Italian soccer match that became a superspreader event to a canceled Olympics (and stadiums emptied of fans) to a work stoppage that practically put the world on pause, sports served as a crucible--for Covid-19 response, the resulting economic fallout and racial justice activism, Bass noted. "Stick to sports" meant something very different this year, she wrote: "In the wake of a year of devastating loss, loss that has permeated every inch of our being, sticking to sports will tell us what we need to know."
          Peniel E. Joseph opined that in "finding his voice on the need for America to recognize the humanity of Black folk, [LeBron] James has helped an entire generation of millennial athletes and celebrities find their own. In this way, despite his boundary-shattering athletic brilliance, James' most important legacy is the one that is shaping up off the court. His commitment to voting rights, educational excellence and anti-racism makes him much more than an NBA champion, Finals MVP and otherworldly celebrity."
          Another smart take:

          A fraught centennial

          For all its unanticipated chaos, 2020 was a momentous centennial year for many American women, an exalting of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. This gave women the right to vote-- some women, that is, most of them White, noted Treva B. Lindsey. She asserted: "The road to the 19th Amendment, without question, warrants commemoration. An uncritical celebration of its ratification, however, would be an acute misstep that fails to address the complicated legacy of the women's suffrage movement in the US" on matters of race.
          Keisha N. Blain offered a portrait of Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer, for whom "women's rights and Black voting rights were integral parts of realizing the ideals of American democracy." Quoting Hamer's famous line -- "Nobody's free until everybody's free" -- Blain wrote that as the "US marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, Hamer's words are as pertinent today as they were almost 50 years ago."
          Senator Kamala Harris's glass-ceiling-shattering election as Vice President in November made prescient these words written by Martha S. Jones for the Washington Post just before the centennial in August: "In the 55 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Black women have earned, and insisted on, a place in American politics....Simply put, Black women are no longer a 'first' in politics — they are a force."
          What will 2120 look like?

          The Queen and her gambit

          In a year stuck inside, popular streaming TV became more than our entertainment -- it became, for many, a shared language and a welcome alternate universe. It seemed we all wanted to learn to speak "The Queen's Gambit" and "The Crown." Nicole Hemmer weighed in on the popularity of these period dramas--both centered on the lives of women--and what they were whispering to 2020 audiences from their settings in a decidedly sexist world dominated by men (she added "Mrs. America" to the mix for good measure).
          Hemmer wrote that "as historical dramas, they offer an extra bit of comfort to make them easily bingeable in a year when we crave certainty: we know how the world will change [for women] after these women's stories end, because it's the world we're living in...these stories, though fascinating and layered, nonetheless feel like comfort food, something familiar and interesting but not too challenging... More than that, these shows offer an on-ramp to critical thinking and more intense conversations about ambition, genius, intersectionality, motherhood and power... That flexibility explains, perhaps, why three shows have been so immensely popular: they speak to us, but not too loudly."
          For Kate Maltby, the fourth season of "The Crown", chronicling the lives of Queen Elizabeth II and her family, was as much about the history it leaves out -- of everything from Margaret Thatcher's handling of the Falklands War to the tempestuous marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana (the portrayal which roused the ire of a UK culture minister). "There are always conflicting narratives at stake when TV dramatizes recent history," Maltby assessed. "What is the obligation to truth? Can a single TV show, even a documentary, ever capture it?
          "It is not just history that's at stake in 'The Crown.' It is the lives of human beings....It's not wrong to be concerned about historical truth, or about who gets to write the first draft of history. Especially when a global media giant is streaming melodramatic takes to a captive, locked-down audience."
          More on what we watched in 2020 and what it means:
          Bill Carter for CNN Business Perspectives: TV viewers are craving comfort food. 2021 will deliver

          Putting a President on our bookshelves

          Millions of Americans bought former President Barack Obama's book, "A Promised Land" -- though he left it off his own favorites of 2020. Peter Bergen read this "moving, beautifully written memoir" through the lens of two defining military actions: the surge of tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan and the raid against Osama bin Laden -- the latter a decision that Obama knew could have cost him a second term, had it gone wrong.
          Jeremi Suri saw the book as a lens through which to assess Obama's presidency against that of earlier reformers like LBJ and FDR. For Suri, the book "is a further testament to how inherited hatreds and habits, magnified by modern media, make it exceedingly difficult to reform outdated institutions."
          Writing for the New York Times, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recalled chastising a friend for "doing an Obama," i.e. refusing to take a stand but insisting on seeing "73 sides of every issue." "Often, in this book, Barack Obama does an Obama," Adichie avowed. "He is a man watching himself watch himself, curiously puritanical in his skepticism, turning to see every angle and possibly dissatisfied with all, and genetically incapable of being an ideologue."
          More presidential reading:

          Don't miss: 2020 in the first person

          Allison Glock: