A pedestrian walks past a mural reading: "When out of your home, Wear a mask over your mouth and nose," during the coronavirus outbreak in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
A pedestrian walks past a mural reading: "When out of your home, Wear a mask over your mouth and nose," during the coronavirus outbreak in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

The past year was fraught with pain and loss, but it also taught us a lot about politics, society, and the power of saying “No.”

The year of our Lord 2020 was a doozy. 

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, civil rights legends John Lewis, Rev. C.T. Vivian, and Rev. Joseph Lowery, and sports greats John Thompson, Kobe Bryant, Bob Gibson, and Phyllis George went gently into that good night. Black Panther’s iconic actor Chadwick Boseman succumbed to colon cancer, but not before giving us outstanding performances in Da 5 Bloods and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. A horrifically mismanaged pandemic claimed more than 330,000 American lives, the newest Supreme Court appointee has never actually argued a case in a courtroom, and reliably red states like Georgia and Arizona turned blue. 

While Joseph R. Biden received the most votes cast for a US president in the history of our nation, President Donald Trump launched an all-out assault on democracy by trying to discredit and overturn the election results. A massive hacking of five major US agencies went unchecked, as did police killings of unarmed Black and brown Americans. And Republicans left struggling Americans out to dry by refusing to pass another COVID relief package for nearly nine months.

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Luckily, the New Year approaches, and even though it looks like Trump will have to be dragged from the White House kicking and screaming, change is in the air. 

Here are some hard lessons we learned in 2020 that we need to take with us into the new year.

  • Masks save lives. It is no longer up for debate except by people who are awash in preserving their perverted version of whiteness and racial superiority under the guise of freedom evidenced by their perpetuation of violence and fear. In 2021, don’t fall for the banana in the tailpipe and listen to scientists and medical professionals. Wash your hands, practice social distancing, and wear a mask, period.

  • My mother used to tell me: “Choose your friends, don’t let people choose you.” That is some of the best advice I have ever received, and the pandemic is where I have put it to good use as an adult. Having to deal with potential exposure to the virus has forced many of us to consider who is worth the risk. I mean, can I really trust this person to protect my health and not bring me a disease that could kill me or my loved ones? In 2021, let’s all continue to be mindful of who we allow into our space.

  • Your vote matters. Just look at Georgia, where Biden won by a mere 12,000 votes. Do not ever let those in power make you think your vote is unimportant. If it didn’t have the potential to be life-changing, politicians wouldn’t try so hard to suppress your voice through voter intimidation tactics and voter suppression laws. That’s why you should vote every opportunity you get next year, especially if you skipped 2020. If the struggle for the right to vote no longer moves you, then vote for the 336,000 people who died because of the current administration’s inaction on the coronavirus since they are no longer here to do so.

  • Stereotypes are out in 2021. People of color are living in large numbers in suburban areas, as evidenced by Biden’s win in formerly “white counties” in Georgia that usually vote Republican. Although gentrification poses serious problems, one good thing to come of it is American cities are teeming with young, dynamic White folks, many of whom are committed to being allies to social justice movements and vote differently from their parents. This past year has taught us cities and suburbs are no longer the stark places represented in 1970s and 1980s movies like Fort Apache the Bronx, Home Alone, or Bonfire of the Vanities. They are shifting and changing like the rest of America, and developing identities that are distinct and challenging the status quo. 

  • One of the greatest things that came out of COVID-19 is people actually found time to take stock of their lives and see just how much we were cramming into each day. Thanks to Zoom, many of us have learned there is more to life than meetings about meetings and doing something for the sake of doing it. That time is over. In 2021, take some time to get to know your family, remember why you fell in love with your home, read a good book, and savor the accomplishment of surviving in a pandemic, which is not promised.

  • As my friend Stephanie always says: “‘No’ is a complete sentence,” and 2020 has given us the freedom to yell “No!” at the top of our lungs. So many decisions are life or death in a pandemic. No, I’m not coming to your “socially distanced” wedding with 200 attendees. No, I can’t contribute money to your cause at the end of the year because of pay cuts, the holidays, or simply because I don’t want to. No, you’re not going to deny COVID-19 for nearly a year, then be the first person in line for the vaccine and think I’m going to vote for you again. (That is what I call a, “Hell no.”) In 2021, say no often and frequently without the guilt that sometimes comes with imposing boundaries that keep you sane, happy, and in the COVID-19 environment, alive.

  • Unfortunately, empathy is in short supply nowadays, particularly among our government leaders. Take Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, who withheld paid time off for workers who test positive for COVID-19.  In 2021, let’s treat people the way you would want to be treated if you weren’t one of the wealthiest members of the Senate.

  • Black lives do, still, and will always matter. Unless you have been living under a rock, Black Lives Matter is a social movement shining light on the horror of Black people being brutalized and killed by police. While activists have been doing this social justice work for many years, more people this year realized how vital criminal justice and police reform is. With the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, many finally understood what Black folks in this country had been saying for over a century: Black Lives Matter.

  • In 2020, we should have also learned the value of patience. Whether we’re talking about the vaccines being developed to protect against the virus, how long it took for votes to be counted to declare Biden had won, or the end of Trump’s chaotic presidency, change is often slow but inevitable. With that in mind, it is going to take time for the Biden-Harris team and newly elected officials in Congress to bring about the change this country needs around issues of health care, social justice, workers’ rights and climate protections. But it will happen if we give them space and time to do what needs to be done.

In my best Sam Cook voice: In 2021, a change is gonna come, and I’m here for it. 

READ MORE: The Racist Roots of Georgia’s Runoff Elections