Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is a man of few words. He is the sometimes boyfriend of Mma Precious Ramotswe, the title character in Alexander McCall Smith’s series The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Mr. Matekoni is a car mechanic in Botswana where the series is set. He is a simple man – wise and laconic – who, when asked to explain something, often responds with “I have no more words.” I use it jokingly when M pushes hard to continue a conversation I’m not comfortable with.
Today, it’s not a joke. It’s exactly how I feel. “I have no more words” to explain what’s currently consuming us – a killer virus, police brutality, racial division, a violent culture, government stalemate – in effect our whole existence on this 2nd of June 2020.
I get up early, before M does, and while I’m making my triple shot latte I always put on some music, usually jazz. Yesterday something made me choose Mendelssohn. I think it was an unconscious need for meditative calm. What came up was Lied Ohne Worter (Songs Without Words). Perfect. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and Felix Mendelssohn were trying to tell me something.
As a writer I am seldom at a loss for words, but the imperfect storm of Covid-19, the George Floyd murder, nationwide protests, rampaging anarchists, and Donald Trump using tear gas and rubber bullets to clear his path to a photo op (with a Bible) is too hard to process. I have no more words…
But…I have questions. Why don’t black (or brown or Asian) lives matter? Why was George Floyd murdered by four white police officers? Why are people of color being gunned down by police officers (Filando Castillo and Laquan McDonald). Why haven’t police cracked down on murderous white vigilantes (Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin)? Why are thousands of Latinos still in detention, turned away or deported? Why do we tolerate Donald Trump’s attacks on female reporters of color (Asian-American journalist Weija Jang of CBS and NPR reporters Yamiche Alcindor and Ayesha Rascoe).
And… why are black and brown people dying from Covid-19 at three times the rate of whites?
In the last two days I’ve received emails from friends in Berlin, Singapore, Saigon, and Sydney asking about the “riots” and if I’m safe. And, when I emailed a black friend to see if he was OK, he responded by asking if I was more concerned with the looting than the underlying racism? I assured him I was not, but was concerned with his safety and that of other friends. Everyone is on edge. I have no more words…
Why have peaceful protests turned violent? Why is there a violence pandemic? Why are there so many guns around? M’s garden helper called 5 minutes ago to say he’s locked down at the VA hospital because cops are swarming the place with helicopters overhead. There’s is an active shooter situation. What the fuck is going on?
The No. 1 lady detective, Mma Ramotswe, was ingeniously good at solving crimes, but I don’t think we need her to solve this mystery. America is infected – yes, there is a killer virus loose in the world, but the culture is infected with another contagion. There is a systemic infection underlying this Lord of the Flies moment. Forty million Americans have filed unemployment claims since March 1. Officially, the unemployment rate is 14.7% but economists estimate the real number is between 25 and 30%. And, there is no leadership in sight.
In May of 2019, a Federal Reserve study showed that 27% of adults would be unable to cover an unexpected expense greater than $400. One-quarter have no retirement savings at all. That was a year before Covid-19 and the recession it triggered. Since then it’s clear that the impact on communities of color has greater than on whites.
Diagnosing the problem is much easier than solving it. It’s a compound problem—a killer virus exacerbated by a legacy of slavery. The framers of our Constitution agreed that a black person was worth only 3/5 that of a white. Not a good way to start out, and it continued for almost 200 years despite the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction, Brown vs. Board of Education and Great Society legislation. George Floyd is only the latest victim of ingrained racism.
I worry for my grandchildren. Five of them are children of color. Will they be OK? I don’t know. Right now, I have no words… to express my concern, my fear, and my anguish for them, for America, and for all the good people suffering this fate. We’re flying blind, but my response like Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s is “I have no more words.”