Oh, sure, 2013 started on an optimistic note. President Obama, having won re-election by a landslide, was sworn in at the beginning of the year, setting the stage for his second term with soaring, progressive rhetoric filled with big vision and big promises. (And a lip-synching Beyoncé.)
But there were times along the way that 2013 just felt beat-down hard, like it was a really, really bad year to be black in America. It was certainly a tough year to be voting while black in some states in America, thanks to voter-ID laws and the Supreme Court striking down key portions of the Voting Rights Act. It was also a bad year to be shopping while black—in particular, to be shopping while black in Barneys. (And Macys.) It was an even worse year to be asking for help while black. For Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell, seeking help literally meant a death sentence.
2013 marked the 50th anniversary of a particularly bloody year that saw Medgar Evers shot in his driveway, the assassination of a president, the lynchings of three civil rights workers and a bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that took the lives of four little girls.
But in 2013, it seemed like not much progress had been made in the value of black lives. An 8-year-old boy playing outside was shot in the face by a 46-year-old white man. The man’s reason for shooting Donald Maiden: “Because I wanted to.” Hadiya Pendleton twirled her baton at the presidential Inauguration, only to be gunned down in a neighborhood park in Chicago a few days later. And baby Jonylah Watkins was shot to death while her father changed her diaper in a minivan.
When a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin, communal grief seemed to bubble over. "Even though I am broken hearted my faith is unshattered I WILL ALWAYS LOVE MY BABY TRAY," Trayvon’s father tweeted.
It was a tough year to be black and out of work in a tough economy, with the African-American unemployment rate remaining double that of whites. On the other hand, as fast-food workers walked off the job and into the streets to protest their low wages, this was the year that people began seriously talking about income inequality in the U.S., and that is a good thing. According to the Pew Research Center, the wealth gap in the country is the highest since 1928. The sequester and the subsequent government shutdown underscored our continued economic vulnerability: African-American workers were disproportionately affected by the furlough.
It was a really hard year to be Obama. (Heathcare.gov. Ouch.)
In so many ways, 2013 felt like living in a perennial Friday the 13th, with the bad luck piling on top of bad luck. Detroit went broke. Charles Dorner went on a murderous rampage against the LAPD.
It’s turning out to be a horrific year in South Sudan and the Central Republic of Africa, as both countries erupt in flames. It’s not a good time to be Haitian in the Dominican Republic, even if you were born there and your parents were born there—and your grandparents and your great-grandparents. This year, the Dominican Supreme Court ruled that you were no longer a citizen.
But lest this become a dirge, let’s celebrate the good things that happened in 2013.
For one thing, racism died. Or at least, Republicans thought it did. Yes, 2013 was the year of the racial insult, from Paula Deen’s fall from grace to the Duck Dynasty dude’s racist and homophobic ramblings to Megyn Kelly’s white Santa and white Jesus. But it was also the year in which folks got called out for their racism. As long as there’s such a thing as #BlackTwitter, the bigots of the world will be looking over their shoulder. Just ask Justine “Just kidding. I’m white!” Sacco, who right about now probably wishes she’d never heard of Twitter.
No doubt about it, it was a good year to be Beyoncé, who had an outrageously successful world tour, and then, without letting anyone in on her secret, independently dropped her self-titled visual album. Mrs. Carter broke records, selling nearly 1 million copies in a matter of days, all the while sparking a debate on black feminism and definitively answering this question: Who Run[s] the World? As if you had to ask.
Charles Ramsey saved three women and a little girl from a decade of torture in a horror house. For his heroism, he got his 15 minutes of fame, a book deal and some criticism about this own checkered past. No good deed …
Black hair became a thing—again. Girls with proudly poufy hair ran into school officials who were determined to tame their locks, and the Internet rushed in to support them.
Miley Cyrus took to twerking and sticking out her tongue and patting black booties, setting off a firestorm of controversy at MTV’s VMAs. Jay Z and Paula Patton gave her a pass, but folks were not amused. Nor where they amused when Kanye decided to claim the Confederate flag as his own in some misguided effort to … what, exactly?
Cicely Tyson returned to Broadway after a 30-year hiatus and won a Tony for her mesmerizing turn in Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful at 80-something. On the other side of the age spectrum, Quvenzhané Wallis at 9 became the youngest actor ever to be nominated for an Oscar in the leading actress category. She didn’t win, but with her infectious grin and puppy-dog handbag, she seemed to be the embodiment of that old adage: It’s an honor to be nominated.
This was, for once, a really good year to be a black actor working in Hollywood. And a black director working in Hollywood. Scandal continued to dominate Twitter on Thursday nights, with Shonda Rhimes heaping on improbable plot point after improbable plot point, and Gladiators gobbling it up and asking for more. The show made history recently, the first ever show with a black female trifecta: writer (Rhimes), director (Ava DuVernay) and star (Kerry Washington). TVlandia was also good to Nicole Beharie in Sleepy Hollow and Michael Ealy in Almost Human, Don Cheadle hamming it up in House of Lies and Jeffrey Wright stealing the show in Boardwalk Empire.
But it was with film that black talent truly sparkled, inspiring talk of a renaissance with nearly a dozen new releases: Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels' The Butler, 12 Years a Slave, among others. These were films that sparked dialogue, forced people to talk about the role of race in America and how often it constricts, both yesterday and today, still.
One of those films released was Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, starring Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela. Mandela, as you know, died this year at 95, marking a particularly sad passing in a particularly sad year. His legacy reminds us that it’s possible to survive a hard year, that it’s possible to survive 27 really hard years as he did in a prison cell on Robben Island, to survive with a fiery revolutionary sensibility intact, but with the maturity to adapt that sensibility to the changing times. He was the epitome of living gracefully under the most extreme of pressures.
Teresa Wiltz is a journalist based in Washington, D.C.
Teresa Wiltz is senior staff writer at Stateline, the journalism outlet of the Pew Charitable Trusts.