Annually, Frank Capra’s film screens forcefully on mainline American TV channels that aren’t narrating 21st Century-concussion protocol-Tlachtli. Structured to be a sermon on contentment, the film’s masterful plot is thought to depict a timeless existential meditation — does my life matter? Digging deeper, the character George Bailey asks for all of us, “why live an unhappy life?”
The answer, as presented in the film, is that without George’s life, so many other lives would have been subservient to malaise or would have not existed. It could be said that the film asserts that death frames life, by employing a thought experiment in which George was never born. In other words, George existed so that others, like his college-educated, war hero younger brother Harry, could live. It also props up the idea that there is existence and that there is life. To borrow from another pop culture reference, Jeff Perry’s Cyrus Beene retorts to a distressed President Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) in Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal that “some men are meant to be happy, and some men are meant to be great.”
At the resolution of the story, the community that George poured his life into — and traded his dreams for — donates and saves the financial institution from regulatory ruin, and his life, as the film leaves us, is spared from suicide.
What the film does not show us, however, is his response. George, who has attained two-thirds of the American creed of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, still has a problem, we think. The denouement implies that George has defeated Lionel Barrymore’s avaricious Mr. Potter and that he is theoretically the richest man in Bedford Falls. But what calculus did he accept? Did he accept that he never travelled the world and find satisfaction with the utilitarian function of his life?
Where am I going with this?
On Labor Day, I received a call from a Chicago number that informed me of the impossible, that “Derwin Davis has passed.” My juicing, soy milk acolyte, near-genius music teacher — my uncle — was dead inexplicably at 56, days before his birthday. This mind-bending news ushered me into a new awareness of mortality. Though I had prepared for a day like this mentally, I had no inclination that my uncle, last in the family’s male birth order, would be the first to go.
My uncle inspired wonder in me. I remember his red sports car as a youth and his tales of far away places. He seemed to live with a degree of fulfilment and freedom that my other aunts and uncles did not. A working-class musician, his creativity was imprisoned only within his early religious outlook and financial realities. His death, maybe the first of its kind in his peer group, was the first time that I had to look unflinchingly at the natural experiment that It’s a Wonderful Life proposes as a guidepost for life’s utility.
My granddad that I knew, my uncles, aunts, and my maternal grandmother all were expected transitions or passed so early in my life that all I could muster as an analysis was “Ma Julie is a in a jewelry box.” Never before September have I had someone so instrumental to my identity pass on. And it seemed that his peers maybe had a same feeling.
At the funeral, which was just a eclectic as his style and upbeat as his personality, there was a visible fog over the faces of his peers. The struggle was not the eulogization of a life well-lived but rather the analysis of a life unexamined. His death marked a clear boundary on youth and opportunity, no matter how well-intentioned one is.
In what my family now understands as his last days, my uncle, especially to me, became very reflective about his life. Even still, he maintained that there was a new era of life that even in his mid-fifties he would be eligible to achieve.
I could see that in my visit and stay with him in the summer of 2017, that he was beginning to become ground down, which was an unusual development. He was anchoring the burden of family, service, and community, all in exchange for his deep-seated quest for personal happiness. He wanted nothing more than to work on his own musical projects and be united with someone who would cherish him and love him until the end of his days.
He follows his father’s legacy almost to the letter. His father, my namesake, Pastor Eligah Davis, died at 57. My uncle was 19 days from 57. Poetically, his license expired on his birthday. His arc on this plane had ended, but not his memory.
As I’ve docked back to my reality in Birmingham, I’ve tried to make more sense of life. At 24, I could have as many as 60 more years or as little as 30 more years. But I’m finding that life is less about quantity, and more about quality.
I often wonder what our responsibility should be as Black Millennials and what our generational contribution should be to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, if that is our standard. Some our grandparents marched, some of our parents broke barriers, and some of our relatives, who are also parents, have never broken free from the second wave of urban institutional violence that ravaged the 1980’s. Beyond all of this, Millennials have the lowest crime rate, lowest teen pregnancy rate, and highest educational attainment rate in the history of Black folks, despite the setback of the Great Recession. Even more, Gen Z is poised to outpace even baby Millennials’ (currently 24 -29) gains in the these areas.
What again was the hope of the silenced, sullen slave?
On some nondescript plantation in Arkansas, there was no end in sight to slavery. As chattel slavery was inherited generationally, I ponder many days the foresight and hope tapestry of the ancestors. Surrounded by circumspect death of the being, how did they frame life?
It is this question that drives my own current reflections about tolerance of injustice.
Just as we were mulling the absence of my uncle on Thanksgiving, I hopped on Facebook and was chilled to see that the same attitude that threw sticks of dynamite at residential homes casually killed Emantic “EJ” Bradford, Jr. I was incensed but emotionally muted by an inexorable but spectral force that I have yet to overcome or diagnose. No amount of pragmatic optimism can dissuade me that that we are still accursed with a devil of a system that still has the agency to curtail our expectations for existence and life.
When I read about Cyntoia’s Brown case and plea or America’s “King Saul”— Donald Trump — whimsical outbursts, or remember the three years since Sandra Bland’s death, I’m reminded that a good life for me sometimes stops short of a good life for my neighbor.
I’m also confused about if Black people are George or should aspire to be Harry. If we were to assign a character that most aligns with our experience, it would be George. Even since emancipation (our high school graduation), our duty has come before our destiny. It would seem that we have existed so that others could live. So that the Dutch could live, the English could live, the Spanish could live, the French could live. What perhaps goes the most undiscussed is the hurt from discovering that the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which traumatized generations of people, was not about vengeful war, but was about happiness (increased standard of living and production with no regards to capital inputs — toxic capitalism). We were a toy and implement to achieve pleasure. Spices, sugar, comfortable clothes, and something to smoke.
And though we may have resigned ourselves to a ‘responsible’ life, one mostly concerned with sustenance and survival, should it be that our collective lives’ utility be solely measured by our benefit to a foreign and forced civilization for which we are begrudging joint heirs? Like George, we are the sole blip repelling Mr. Potter’s good ‘ole boy capitalistic greed, keeping America’s Framers honest. The problem we have is that in our story, the community does not rally behind us, and our institutions, cultural, social and economic, are closed by the state. We would have helped Jamestown from freezing in the river, Henrietta Lacks would have transformed medical resource and saved Mr. Gower, cooked at colleges we couldn’t attend, fought in wars in which Henry reneged on his promise to bring 40 acres and a mule, lobby to build affordable housing units like Bailey Park, and married honeymoon-less without any salvation.
A month later from the November killing in the Galleria (which to me creates an inescapable paradox of pleasure and pain), I’m a pallbearer at my best friend’s mother’s funeral. The whole scene was surreal. I could not have bet that when we met ten years ago, that we would reflect in this way.
More rationally, on that same day, I paid my respects to a childhood sponsor of my elementary education. She went into cardiac arrest a day after her husband’s funeral.
As I joyfully muse through my uncle’s unreleased projects on Christmas Eve, I am left to consider what my response is to my guardian angel. The most potent takeaway from my uncle’s funeral is that everything actually matters. Every relationship, decision, failure, heartbreak, and dream.
Personally, I am always striving for a set of conditions that make happiness more probable. I push back on the view that happiness is solely a decision, powered by a mature internal locus of control. I’ve long struggled with the notion that I should accept the dichotomy of happy people, and ‘great’ people.
But its reality is a strong counterfactual. There are constraints and our existence becomes a teleological journey towards life. It’s one big optimization problem.
The final scene of the film practically defines the popular consciousness of a storybook ending.
So what happens when all things do not “work together for the good” during our lifespans?
Maybe what was reified for me in 2018 is that life, regardless of happiness, is wonderful in and of itself.
But there has to be space to pursue happiness, unfeigned and unfettered.
It’s a Wonderful Life?
It’s a Wonderful Life?
It’s a Wonderful Life.