With all of the troubled times that are happening in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, it helps to have a point of reference to draw on. Similes are good because they can take an everyday idea and make it relevant to a particular circumstance. “Cold as ice” works because, well, everyone knows what ice feels like.
Metaphors are even better, because instead of comparing one thing to something else, you are saying they are the same thing. Saying “Racism is poison to society” means it’s not “like” poison, but that it can actually be deadly. It’s like taking out the middleman, in a linguistic sense.
I say all this because I found myself in the backyard of my house yesterday afternoon. There was some assorted overgrowth that I wanted to cut back, before the inevitable growth that the summertime always brings. There was a smallish tree in the alleyway, and I used a pruning saw to take most of it down. All that remained was about six inches of a very short tree-trunk looking growth coming up from the ground.
Rather than call it a day with that small victory in hand, I understood that it was not over yet. It might take one year or five years or maybe even longer than that, but whatever I had cut off was bound to grow back someday, since it grew there once before, didn’t it?
So I decided, with pruning saw in hand, to go after the root of the tree itself. The only way to eliminate dandelions at this time of year is to pull them up from the ground, root and all. So the same approach was warranted with this tree that I wanted to get rid of. So I started sawing away at the root.
After about three minutes or so, I realized this was not going to be as easy as I first thought. I could make out a line where the saw had cut, and could see some sawdust coming up from the root. But there was no sign of victory quite yet.
When the saw appeared to have reached its limit, I went to get a gardening tool with a sharp surface on one side. The angle of the root was tricky, and a chain link fence older than I am prevented too many solid blows from being landed on the root.
The next step was to grab a heavy, flat rock with a point at the end that was laying in the garden. After landing a series of sharp blows at the place where I had been cutting, the root didn’t appear to be any closer to breaking apart.
For the next half hout I used the saw, and the gardening tool, and the rock, and even tried kicking at the root a number of times. I sweated and I swore and gave up more than once, deciding that it was a fool’s errand to begin with. What did I care if there was a short little stump in my alley, anyway?
And that’s when it hit me what the word rooted means. It means dug in and entrenched, so familiar in its surroundings that it’s been a long time since it wasn’t actually there. And the more time and growth that a root has had in the same space, the more difficult it becomes to take it out, once and for all.
The root, after all, is literally on its own turf. This root made it clear that my intentions alone weren’t going to be enough to sever it. My hard work—at angles which my back found less than agreeable—weren’t going to be enough to get it out, either. And as appealing as giving up felt in that moment, it would mean that the root had won. And I could not allow that to happen.
George Floyd’s being pinned to the ground and then suffocated by a police officer’s maneuver felt like a root. An imposing, entrenched root that was defying my efforts to, literally, root it out. Racism and the devaluing of people based on their skin color has existed for generation upon generation in this country. It’s even written into our Constitution, where a black person was once counted as only a fraction of what a white person was.
The officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck didn’t invent the idea of a black man being valued as something lesser than himself. He was merely the latest manifestation—the outer layer—of a mindset that allowed Africans to be transported across the Atlantic Ocean and sold in a marketplace as though they were cattle. Racism is the deepest and most pernicious root that this nation has to offer. But once that root is engaged, its complete destruction can be the only acceptable outcome.
When the root in my alley finally cracked, revealing its size as two or three times bigger than I had originally imagined, I felt a sense of satisfaction that is hard to describe. I had taken on a mostly hidden foe and emerged victorious. But it was a hard fight, and one I probably would have passed on if the full size of the root had been clear to me from the beginning.
The root is an effective metaphor for my thinking about racism in this country, and perhaps in many other countries, as well. It will put up a fight, and expects to defeat the efforts of those who seek to take it out. Giving up appears, at all times, to be the easiest way to admit defeat. But winning the battle feels oh so good in the end.
The battle against racism seems to have begun anew, in Minneapolis and other places around the country. I’m not condoning—not now, and not ever—breaking widows and setting fires in the name of vengeance. We can’t descend into chaos and anarchy, not as long as we’re in possession of thousands of nuclear weapons that could end all life on this planet. But the point can be made that digging up a root is hard work, which tests the commitment and the ingenuity of those seeking to destroy it. But it’s an effort that must go forward, if “All men are created equal” is ever going to have the meaning that it should.