Over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists held a rally that escalated into violence. An activist, a paralegal named Heather Heyer, was killed after a man drove his car into a crowd of protesters. I usually write about video games on this site, but today I need to talk about my dad, who marched in Selma in 1965.
I try to tell myself, when I feel especially silly for writing about Pokemon Snapchat filters, Sims vampires, or other light video game stuff, that my readers need distractions just like anyone else. If you’re particularly traumatised from watching a video of protesters being run over, maybe you need me to write a funny quiz about Mario or whatever. Sometimes I feel guilty about what my contributions to society lack compared to those of my father, who grew up in the segregated US south. My dad protested and went to gaol and put his life on the line to make a better world.
I am so proud of my father, and I’ve started to use him as a marker to hold myself up to. When the world is violent and confusing, he’s the person I turn to. When I was a kid, I didn’t really understand the significance of what he’s lived through, but now I try to ask him for guidance as much as I can. I’ve always wanted to follow in his footsteps. What better a person to ask about how I should feel and act in times of political upheaval than a guy who did the damn thing already?
I recall being 14, sitting in his sister’s house, relaxing after dinner. I was a teenager, and moody, opting out of the post-dinner movie with my cousins and my brothers to catch up on a full schedule of sulking. As I sat on the couch, lamenting that I’d been dragged into a boring family trip, my father and his sister started talking about their childhood. He started talking about marching. I’d never heard him talk about this before. His voice was light and jovial. It almost sounded like he was telling a joke.
“So we go to the end of the bridge,” he said, smiling, “and I see the dogs. I start asking myself, ‘Well, am I gonna get bit by those dogs, or am I gonna jump?'”
Later in life I found out more things about my father. He was put in solitary for nearly a month for doing a sit-in at a lunch counter. He remembers the Klan marching through his neighbourhood when he was about five. Visiting me in New York, he remarked that the houses in Queens, with their small gardens and metallic fences, reminded him of Selma. I asked if he ever missed it. He said, quickly and with a great certainty, “No.”
Before I began having these talks with my father, the Selma march was just a moment in my history textbook. That kind of violent racism felt so distant. I could drink from the same water fountains as my white peers, sit at the same lunch counters, attend the same schools. In my adolescent mind, segregation was as old as slavery. It had nothing to do with me. On that night in my aunt’s house, as I sat silently on the couch, I learned how wrong I was. The history of segregation, of America’s racism, was so close I could reach out and touch it. He was, and is, my guide on how to keep my head above water when things feel out of control. If he did it, then so can I. So can we.
Sometimes I look at my life and wonder what I am doing with my dad’s legacy. He might not think of it this way, but I know that I do. When Selma marchers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2016, my mother urged my dad to figure out how he could get one. I, his daughter, write about video games for a living.
It isn’t like he isn’t proud of me. I know for a fact that he prints out my articles and leaves them around the office. Whenever I go back to visit, my parents’ friends tell me that he never stops talking about me. I bought him a Kotaku T-shirt for Christmas and he put it on right after he opened it. Still, I know that my father’s actions helped shape the America that I live in. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which he fought for, helped bring the vote to everyone. There is an Oscar-nominated movie about the march to Montgomery, across the Edmund Pettus bridge, where my father was chased by dogs. He would have been about 19 at the time. My dad helped change the world.
Dad does not like to look back, a trait I picked up from him. Lately, he has been forced to. In 2013, when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was partially struck down, I texted my dad to see how he was feeling. All he said was, “Sad.” When George Zimmerman, the man who shot teenager Trayvon Martin, was found not guilty of second degree murder, my father and I were sitting in the living room of my childhood home. My dad loves to laugh and, whenever I’m having a hard time, his immediate response is to make me crack a smile. That night he silently left the room, went to bed early. On the night of the 2016 US election, I called my dad, drunk and sobbing. He had gone to sleep before the results came in. This is also his strategy when he’s watching basketball and the game’s going badly — better to rest well with some hope than go to bed hopeless. I told him the news, and I heard the words catch in his throat, “You’re joking. You’re joking.”
Today on the phone, my dad told me that when he was young, he didn’t want to have children. “For a long time I didn’t want to have any kids because hey, you know what, this place sucks. Why should I bring anybody into an environment like this?” he said. “I changed my mind. Sometimes I think, ‘Oh my god, these kids are gonna have a big struggle, man.’ Right now it’s looking like the things I thought were behind us are not.”
Dad told me that he didn’t think I was going to have to go through what he went through, but now he can see that he was wrong. “This fight is a never-ending fight,” he said. “There’s no end to it. I think after the ’60s, the whole black revolution, Martin Luther King, H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael and all the rest of the people, after that happened, people went to sleep,” he said. “They thought, ‘This is over.'” He says that the stories of the civil rights movement weren’t recorded or celebrated the way that they should have been, and our history and heroes were too quickly forgotten. My father says that white supremacists never stopped fighting, and that while we rested on our laurels, they kept at it. “They still praise their heroes, like Robert E. Lee and all those people. But we didn’t.”
Repeatedly he urged me to make a difference. He says, with my job, I have a great potential to be a voice for change. But the suggestions he makes for direct action surprised me, especially in light of what I know that he did in the ’60s. They’re small, gentle actions. Tell the stories of the civil rights movement, and the stories of our culture now. “Including in games,” he said. “It’s a whole culture thing that we have to fight. At every level.” For our generation at large, he tells me, again and again, that we have to do something.
“You gotta speak and engage with people. They have to know you and understand you and not feel afraid of you,” he said. “You can’t just sit back, oh, just because the country had a president like Barack Obama, that everything’s OK. Individuals have to make a difference.”
It’s nice to hear this from my father, because these are things that feel doable. I worry, all the time, that I’m just not doing enough. I want to be able to be an advocate and to engage in meaningful activism, but to be honest I’m afraid. While I know my father and his generation were able to end segregation, in his day, he told me, the Klan wore hoods. In Charlottesville, over the weekend, the white supremacists did not cover their faces. They felt safe enough not to.
Before I hang up with my dad, I remind him of my drunken phone call from election night. That night, I’d asked him if he felt scared when he was young. That night, he told me that he wasn’t scared. He thought he could change the world. “Do you think we still can?” I ask.
He paused. “I think that was the mentality in the ’60s, that we could,” he said. “I don’t think we have that. But it can come back. We can come out, in numbers, singing and shouting, and we can bring it back. We can change the world, for the better.”