Prologue: A Personal History of Before and After
There are two kinds of occurrences that can be said to change the world: There are the types which unfold over time, which we often see coming, and there are the unexpected types which happen in an instant. It’s hard to say which ones ultimately leave the more lasting societal impact. That would be a subjective conclusion anyway. What these types of occurrences have in common is that they divide our history into before and after. Ask anyone who is old enough if they remember life before and after certain things happened, and you’ll most likely get a story that defines the person as well as the day and age in which it took place.
I remember watching the earliest news reports about the Iranian hostage crisis in November of 1979. I was much too young to grasp the politics that swirled around that story, but I knew it was serious, and it was protracted. I also remember the sense of elation when it was announced, immediately after Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, that they had been released. A little over two months later, upon returning home from a trip to downtown with my mother and sisters, I flicked on the television and, before it even warmed up enough for the picture to appear, you could hear the newscasters had interrupted programming to tell us the president had been shot. These two back-to-back events, one long-in-coming and the other happening out of nowhere, had the lasting effect of increasing Reagan’s larger-than-life persona to an extent that carried over long past his presidency into the present day.
I also remember, in 1984, when Jesse Jackson launched his first campaign for the presidency. I was still too young to understand the intricacies of his platform and politics (although at least some of that probably speaks to the trickle-down understanding of politics most Americans still experience), but I definitely felt the newness of that candidacy, and how it had the possibility of unlocking something we’d never seen before. Of course, that quality of the unknown didn’t inspire everyone, and many of us possessed an intimate understanding of where that resistance came from.