It feels like we’re standing at the gates of hell.
This week has been, namely, a lot. A lot of grief, mourning, anger, dismay, righteousness, passion. We sit here in a time when everyone already was in their feelings of pent-up frustration and loss of control and certainty amid the coronavirus pandemic. All the death, incalculable economic crisis, and personal and family turmoil it has wrought.
Yet even during the pandemic, racist murder and harassment showed up again, from Ahmaud Arbery to Breonna Taylor to Christian Cooper. Then this flashpoint of racist murder emerges on live video as police officers dispassionately pressed the life out of George Floyd during nine agonizing minutes. And, with so many of us sheltered at home, there’s nowhere to turn away to.
The uncertainty. The fear that we may be barreling toward a Tiananmen Square moment. The President repeatedly declares his desire for police suppression of protest, and martial law in cities across the nation. And Sen. Tom Cotton can opine, unvarnished and unquestioned, in The New York Times about sending troops to quell protests by dishonestly saying it’s the same as when Eisenhower sent in the National Guard to enforce school desegregation.
But there’s another way in which it feels like we’re at those infernal gates.
Right now, it feels like we’re seeing Black Lives Matter go mainstream in a way that felt unimaginable debating people about even putting those three words together during the past six years. That in a society baked in anti-Blackness, naming something pro-Black is radical. I’m THROWN watching Black Lives Matter in the posts by white friends and major businesses and corporations.
I’m seeing many of my white friends and colleagues go public about discussing racism, and namely the racism and violence against Black people. This includes white people who, for years, may have thought they agreed with BLM and anti-racist causes or ideas, but never said so out loud. Or they may say so to the Black people they know, but not among the white people they know and in white spaces and with their families and neighbors.
But right now, in the maelstrom of everything affecting us, they are breaking that silence. They are heeding that silence can easily be taken as acceptance and complicity.
In one conversation, a white colleague and I were talking about Trump. I said that Trump forces people to take a side because he does not dress up his bigotry and hatred in language accepted by wider, polite society as neutral. My colleague said that the saddest thing is that idea that there’s another side than what is so clearly right, and so clearly wrong.
When you’re at the gates of hell, there’s only one side to pick: the side of the living.
The gates of hell scene is among my favorites in all of fiction. The delicious, high drama of a moment when our heroes’ backs are so far up against the wall, facing certain doom and impossible odds.
In those moments, the truths of their fellowship, their dedication, their honor and their love, are all laid bare, as they will lay it all on the line for one final ride. For if this is the end, then they will face it on their feet, together.
I was inspired to call the gates of hell scene such when I saw the film What Dreams May Come in the theater back in 1998. A maudlin, visually stunning drama starring Robin Williams as a dead man who travels through the afterlife to save his wife’s soul? Sure, my parents and I ate that stuff up back then, so there we were in the theater.
Anyway, there’s a part in the movie when Chris comes upon the gateway to Hell, represented as a horrifying, burning shipwreck. (Yes, the ship’s name is Cerberus. The movie’s not subtle.) He has come this far with his afterlife guide Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and the Tracker (Max von Sydow) who will help Chris navigate his way to his wife.
As they approach the shipwreck, Albert prepares to rush into an army of the damned to find Annie. Chris stops him by realizing that Albert is actually the soul of his previously deceased son, Ian. They embrace amid the fire, torment and soul death.
“There’s not another man I’d go through Hell with,” Chris says to Ian, calling to an earlier flashback when they both were alive. And they embrace again. But the Tracker will only take Chris into Hell, and so he and Ian must part ways, unsure whether they’ll ever see each other again, unsure whether Chris will succeed or join his wife in damnation.
I think of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, when the Aragorn looks into certain death at the Black Gate of Mordor, simply says, “For Frodo,” and charges into the fray. Surely nothing but death can come next for him, and ruin for all Middle-Earth. But he goes anyway, and the remains of the Fellowship, and the last army of Men, charge behind him. If they must die, they will die fighting.
And I remember my favorite scene in all the Star Wars films. When Han Solo is about to be frozen in carbonite in The Empire Strikes Back, and Chewbacca attacks Stormtroopers and raises all kinds of hell. Surprisingly, Darth Vader pushes down a trooper’s blaster, letting the misery play out.
Think of the condition our heroes are in by now. Chewbacca pledged a life debt to Han for rescuing him from imperial bondage, only for them to wind up here after all this time on the run and fighting in war. Han may die in front of him, and Darth Vader and the Empire have captured him and Leia for certain torture and death.
Yet, Han doesn’t focus on himself. “Chewie, this won’t help me! Save your strength. There’ll be another time,” Han says, comforting his friend and first mate. “The Princess,” Han continues. “You have to take care of her.”
And only then, at the gates of hell, when death is near and certain, Han and Leia impulsively kiss, and we get those famous words.
“I love you.”
During these days of mass, horrific grief and righteous anger over white supremacist murder and the violent repression of those who dare stand up to it, so many more friends have told me they love me. Among my Black friends and other people of color, they voice comradery in carrying this horrible weight, always. And from my white friends, they express how they can’t turn away and there’s no turning back.
Because when you stand at the gates of hell, there’s no way by through.
It feels as if a great and terrible reckoning is upon us in America. Nightly I watch and read of police in city after city raining down lustful brutality, with near impunity, upon those protesting that same brutality. I’m hearing about it now in Buffalo as I write this, and I’ve read of so much horror and fear in my beloved hometown Philadelphia.
“Panic is spreadin’,” Marvin Gaye sang. “God knows where we’re headin’.”
However, as bleak as it all seems now, I’m still fighting. I’m not leaving. I can’t afford to. And neither can you.
There’s only one side when staring into hell. Choose the side of the living.
Come with us if you want to live.