It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
If those lines sound familiar, it's because they were published in 1859 as the opening of Charles Dickens's "A Tale of Two Cities." If you haven't read the novel, let me give you some context: the "two cities" are London and Paris, the dual settings of the book. The "times" spoken of span 1775-1792, the period leading up to and during the French Revolution.
There is no shortage of literary criticism of Dickens's iconic first line, and I don't have the space to explicate this passage the way I would like, so a summary will have to suffice. Dickens is reflecting on the revolution from decades in the future, and notes that the "noisiest authorities" paint the era as either the best or the worst, light or dark, with no room for nuance. In reality, though, the French Revolution was not so different from the 1850s — or the 21st century, I might add. While a dark time in European history, the era also represented hope and freedom for those who prevailed over the monarchy and declared liberté, égalité, fraternité. It was both the best and the worst, both light and dark. It was both the spring of hope and the winter of despair.
These lines have been circling through my head lately, along with other literary morsels that have permanently etched themselves on my consciousness. I wonder what historians (and historical novelists) will write about the deaths of George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and the countless others whose lives have been lost to police violence, and the resulting defiance of the American public.
Witnessing this revolution, I'm mostly feeling grief. I am heartbroken over the state of our world, that people could treat others so poorly, and that no matter how far humanity has progressed, this is still a battle we have to fight. But in the midst of mourning, there is also a spring of hope.
The weekend after the death of George Floyd, I traveled to the Twin Cities to visit my parents. Twice, my dad and I went to Minneapolis to witness what we had been reading about in the newspaper. I'm glad we did, because I needed to feel the things I felt.
Our first trip took us to the corner of East 29th Street and 27th Avenue South. Buildings were still actively burning. A house nearby one of the torched businesses had had its siding melted off by the heat of the blaze. It was like a giant pressure cooker had exploded in the middle of Minneapolis. Although it was the middle of the day, state troopers in riot gear lined the streets, preventing access to the worst of the carnage.
On our second venture to Ground Zero, we drove westbound down Lake Street. Both sides were lined with plywood-covered shop windows, since graffiti'd with Martin Luther King Jr. quotes, memorials to George Floyd and calls for justice. On the sidewalks, people were walking in droves with brooms, dustpans and shovels in hand. We followed the crowd to its destination: the site of a former Arby's restaurant that had been razed to the ground. A grassroots group of volunteers swarmed the area, organizing into lines that passed rubble down, hand to hand, until the debris was collected in one big heap for removal. An organizer with a megaphone made sure people were rotating out of the most labor-intensive jobs, and encouraged volunteers to visit the refreshment station to keep their bodies fueled and hydrated so they could continue working. One person had even brought her dog, a Golden Retriever wearing a harness that read "FREE HUGS."
The two scenes, just blocks away from each other, represented to me that there is so much darkness in the world right now, but there is still a spring of hope. Not all is despair. In the two weeks since Floyd's death, reforms have already begun. People are making their voices heard. I am hopeful that my kids won't have to feel the grief that I feel. And I hope that history reflects the duality of this time — light and dark, hope and despair, hand in hand with each other, and not just superlative comparisons.