Illustration by Eliane Gerrits.

“We didn’t come this far, to only come this far.” Those are the words on the banner an older black woman is carrying through the streets of Princeton.

“I also walked here in 1968,” she says heatedly when we start talking. “Damn it, this seems like back to the future. The murder of a black man, the demonstrations, the riots, the police brutality, the calls for law and order. And, yes, even a rocket launched into space.”

America is the country everyone loves to hate. “Hollywood, hamburgers, and hooey,” my Dutch friends say. This country makes a real effort to appear superficial. But this self-inflicted caricature is also a facade. It hides the deep wounds in the history of a deceivingly complicated country. Sometimes those scars rise to the surface and become visible. Like now.

This country was created with two major crimes against humanity: violence against the indigenous people and slavery. Both left indelible scars. The consequences of the latter in particular are still tangible and visible today. It is a systematic flaw in society.

It is naive to think that this original sin was repaired after the Civil War. While black Americans theoretically became full citizens, as enshrined in the Constitution, the white majority, in particular in the South, did everything they could to prevent them from exercising those rights. It took more than a hundred years for the practice to slowly conform to theory, thanks to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But that struggle for a just society was also only an advance payment on the future, the next step in a long recovery process.

President Trump took a big step back when, through tear gas clouds, he walked with his White House vassals to a church where he never goes and held up a book he never reads. His dubious values have previously appeared, from questioning Obama’s birth certificate to refusing to condemn the white supremacist demonstrators in Charlottesville.

You can only understand the United States if you have an eye for these forces of repression and the opposing forces for justice. The massive protests after the murder of George Floyd are also a sign that a large part of this country is well aware of the systematic injustice being done to black Americans. As with any therapy, true healing can begin only when one is aware of and accepts the deep wounds, however painful that may be. This can be a lesson to the world.

Every moment carries both our history and our future. “Don’t think these protests are meaningless,” says the woman with the protest sign. “I was touched to see the many officers kneeling in the street in solidarity with the protesters.” She shows me a photo on her cell phone of one of these agents. “When I look at him,” she says, “I know: every step forward carries the promise of the next step.”

Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published by W.W. Norton in 2017. She can be contacted at pdejong@ias.edu.

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