Earlier today I glanced at my Facebook News Feed and saw, as usual, post after post about the president. He was doing what he always does: playing footsie with the Russians; complaining about The New York Times; bragging about, well, who cares. I put up a photo of a friend’s recent book, just to break the pattern.
I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t be reading and writing about the guy. On the contrary: I’ve never been more thankful for a vigilant press, a thoughtful circle of friends. And I’ve written about little else for months on this blog. My last eleven posts have addressed the election and its aftermath; you’d have to go back to September 20th, Stevie Smith’s birthday, to find an essay of mine not fastened to the political moment.
But sometimes, Jesus, we just need an hour or two when we don’t hear or speak his name.
I spent such an hour at the University of Michigan’s Rackham Auditorium a little over a month ago. I was there to listen to Claudia Rankine, whose Citizen I was teaching once again in my poetry workshop. Rankine never mentioned the president by name, despite his being clearly on her mind. “I’m going to say something radical,” she began. “Happy New Year. Because I believe in us more than I believe in a single human being.”
Rankine used the photographs in her book as a way to structure the hour. She’d project a photograph—Michael David Murphy’s Jim Crow Rd., for instance—and then read from the accompanying text. But she’d also take the opportunity to riff a bit, to expand upon her themes of black and white, of hard truths and easy deceptions. She quoted a resident of Jim Crow Road: “It’s named after James Crow. We call him Jim.” Then she paused and added, “We tell ourselves what we tell ourselves.” Laughter boomed from the back of the auditorium.
She said: “Something happens like the election, and people say, ‘How did this happen? How did this happen?’” Citizen makes clear how it happened, with its repeated stories of people of color being dismissed, being made to feel invisible. “It happens because other moments of racism—call them microaggressions, if you like—happen.”
During the Q&A session that followed the talk, Rankine was asked if she felt any reason for hope. Her answer: “The fact that we are having this conversation is hopeful.” She mentioned the efforts of activists from the past, including Martin Luther King, Jr., whose holiday we were marking. “We are here on the backs of those efforts.”
But she also dropped her voice a bit, while remembering Sandra Bland. “That could be me. If you caught me in the wrong moment—or the right moment—that could be me.”
A young woman prefaced a question by saying that she came from a small town where people fly Confederate flags on their trucks. “You come from America,” Rankine said simply.
I’ll say this: As American citizens, we’re going to have to figure out how to rescue one another from this low point in our recent history. We’re going to have to shine a light on whatever doesn’t reflect our highest values. I’ve avoided saying the president’s name for the length of this post, but I’ll call him out in the days ahead—whenever I see him promoting policies that are divisive, dangerous, and cruel. My voice alone won’t matter at all. But fifty million voices? A hundred million? Those will matter.
Rankine: “We’re moving into a period where we’re all going to have to step up, even if it feels precarious.”