Where Were You When?

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day invites us to pause and reflect on what it means to have freedom. I’m not a legal scholar, but I know freedom is an important pillar of our democracy. It affords citizens free speech, the ability to move around, to practice religion, and other rights and privileges. As important, freedom should include peace of mind. We should not have to worry about where to sleep, having enough food to eat, being a victim of violence, or lack of healthcare.

“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.” Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

How do we turn the freedom "shoulds” into actual change?

1. Showing up the ballot box

2. Defending the oppressed 3. Making charitable donations of time and funding

4. Being an example for children by modeling civil discourse

5. Repeat steps 1 through 4

I was born in a generation defined by the question, “Where were you when…?” In my younger years, the full sentence was, “Where were you when JFK was shot?” I’m dating myself with my answer. I was in the girl’s restroom at 39th Street School in South Los Angeles. I remember seeing my typically stoic teachers crying loudly at the news that our beloved President John Kennedy had been shot.

Based on initial reports, we didn’t know he was assassinated—we only knew he had been shot while sitting next to his wife in a parade limousine.

School was let out early that day, November 22, 1963. I had my first lesson in the power of media. I walked home thinking I’d be the first to inform my grandmother about the news. To my surprise, she already knew. She was watching our RCA TV that showed vivid images of the Dallas motorcade. Even in black and white, we knew the reporting was serious. There were no cable channels back then—only three major news networks—and they carried the same programming. Again, I remember where I was.

For people born decades later, the question, “Where were you” is often completed with “Where were you during OJ Simpson’s Bronco chase?” Or, “Where were you on 9/11?” Sadly, we now add to the list, “Where were you during the American Insurrection?”

The common denominator to these questions is the sudden tragedy that shocks and stuns us into disbelief. “How can this be happening?” “Is this a bad movie being replayed over and over again?”

America has its share of tragedies, but certain American incidents evoke international unity. These transfixing tragedies stand out because they don’t require context and decoding among those who experience them—even from a distance.

They create a wrinkle in time that’s indelible to our memories. Psychologists speak of collective trauma as a “cataclysmic event that shatters the basic fabric of society. Aside from the horrific loss of life, collective trauma is also a crisis of meaning.” For me, the hazard in processing such trauma is reliving it through unrelated events.

That’s what happened to me January 6, 2021. I was working at home as I had done since the pandemic began nine months earlier. I rarely turn on the TV during the day unless there’s breaking news. My cell phone alerted me that was the case. In the morning of that day, I thought the news cycle would be dominated by results of the Georgia run-off elections that flipped control of the U.S. Senate.

By noon, it was as if the historic Senate run-off never occurred. All channels (certainly more than the three in my youth) were giving real-time developments of a U.S. Capitol riot that was soon recast as an insurrection. As in the case of JKF’s death, the shooting was renamed an assassination as more information came in short order.

I ask today as I did back then, “How can this be happening?” “Is this a bad movie being replayed over and over again?” Again, I remember where I was.

An hour into the escalating attacks on January 6, I was joining a faith-based Zoom call held on Wednesdays to discuss race in America. This multicultural assembly was established mid-2020 to address systemic racism in the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others. During our call, we viewed our mobile devices and Zoom screen as the disturbing images from the nation’s Capitol unfolded.

We cope by championing freedom for others and for ourselves. Let freedom ring. We will remember where we were when we “shared the good.”

Cheryl Farrell is a member of Morningside United Church of Christ and part of our SCNC Conversations on Racism. Cheryl is a corporate communications consultant and performance storyteller in Southern California. She has decades of experience in healthcare, education, and financial services. Cheryl was an original cast member of the Jeopardy! Clue Crew (2001 to 2008) and toured the world appearing in more than 1,000 video clips. She is developing a book proposal that examines how older black women excel at the intersection of race, gender, and age. Cheryl has a master’s degree in Communication Management from USC and a bachelor’s degree in economics from UCLA. She has been married for 35 years and has two adult children.

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