Unfinished Stories

Photo credit: unknown. Photo description: Adriana’s mami holding a sign “Rise” in the middle of a crowd of protestors, trying to help rewrite the nation’s stories.

Note: We will be working on a series of posts centered around “changing our imaginations” about education, colleges, and all the things that the two of us love to think and write about, as inspired by Kandace Montgomery, a Minneapolis-based organizer for Black Visions Collective who, talking in particular about abolishing the police, said, “They’ve ruined our imagination and told us that policing is the issue [solution]. We need to change our imagination. We have to change what’s possible.”

This post is an updated  version of Adriana’s talk at the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at Carleton in 2017. We thought it was worth publishing now because of the focus on working towards our dreams even/especially while living in a daunting reality. It showcases Adriana’s persistent optimism, even in the face of anxiety and grief. 

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In his Farewell address, President Obama invited those listening to act as “anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy”; almost four years later, it is more clear what that meant and means for us, how we are all a part of the unfinished story that is this country. We all understand now, so deeply, so gutturally, so painfully that the United States of America that we thought existed, maybe not on the ground, but at least in the world of theory, available in founding documents… that the United States of America has never yet been. Obama, then, was asking for us to be the guardians of something still to come, still to be born, still to be imagined into being.

The burden of working towards a dream might already be clear to you–after, all, how are we supposed to be guardians of that which does not yet exist?, but I want to underline it anyway. First–history does not serve as a blueprint, but it does offer necessary red-ink-comments in our margins that might help us do thoughtful, substantial edits. In the New York Times (2017), historian Khalil Gibran Muhammed writes: “The Dr. King we choose to remember was indeed the symbolic beacon of the civil rights movement. But the Dr. King we forget worked within institutions to transform broken systems. He never positioned himself as a paragon of progress. Nor did he allow others to become complacent.” Muhammed worries particularly about the way individual markers of progress serve to simplify history and create a narrative of progress that is so very seductive. (After all, if progress is in process, am I needed? There’s been a black president, isn’t racism over?) Muhammed’s concerns are not unjustified, given that even in the comments section one of the most “liked” comments applies the “we must stop harping on the past in order to move on into the future” logic that imagines we can fix structural inequality and racism without examining its roots. Indeed, as our friend Kevin Wolfe would say (miss you much!), this logic imagines that racism and inequality are curious and singular deviations from the beautiful commands of our founding propositions, instead of emerging from them. The challenge is obvious for those of us who take seriously Muhammed’s call to “judge transformation by how our institutions behave on behalf of individuals rather than the other way around”: our attention to history only helps to the degree that it is clear-eyed and strong-hearted, willing to battle the myths that sustain this country’s most dangerous lies: that we have always and we continue to prioritize justice, equality, and liberty for all.

The second burden of working towards a dream is that it has no end. That protest sign that we’ve seen on social media–”I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit?”–get ready to see it again, and again, and again. I don’t mean to disillusion you or to disappoint you, but rather to steel you for the road ahead: the destination is not yet written; we cannot yet imagine the fitting close to this story.  Martin Luther King Jr. warned us that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. It’s long indeed. As Anita Chikkatur and I wrote in November 2016, “You have to really put your shoulder to the wheel to bend the arc of the moral universe.”  So, right now, as we stand and sit and walk and run and kneel and march and close our eyes and feel called into action, it’s important to know this long arc so that you can keep going, knowing that it is unlikely that you will see the fruits of your labor. 

How do you keep going? How do you not get exhausted and shift back into complacency? I want you to think of cultivating a muscle within yourselves–your resistance muscle. Like any muscle, it needs to be flexed regularly; it needs to be trained; it occasionally needs rest in order to work harder. This muscle profits from alliances, from listening, and from risk-taking; it requires the attention of truth-seekers, visionaries, and organizers. At the heart of it, this resistance muscle needs love and narrative.

Yes, narrative. Let me talk about why narrative matters. One way to think about this problem of not having a blueprint, about not knowing exactly where we’re going, is just as I’ve started to do so, in the language of maps, a spatial metaphor for figuring out the necessary social, political, and economic reorganization to come. I think a more sustainable metaphor, when talking about our own participation-our calls to action- is narrative. In a talk he gave at Carleton in 2017, psychologist Corey L.M. Keyes talked about the markers of mental health; hearing two of them, “purpose” and “autonomy,” the inner literary critic in me couldn’t help but rescript what he was saying just a tiny bit. Purpose and autonomy grow in us as we feel like the story we’re living makes sense, that our part in the story matters, and that you have some degree of control over your part in the story.

 Lin-Manuel Miranda’s amazing musical Hamilton (now streaming! But this isn’t a commercial! Also like all art, it has problems!) is all about narrative–indeed, the character Hamilton as imagined by Miranda is so very sensitive to the purity and perfection of the narrative of him that he torpedoes it. There’s a lesson there for all of us as we begin to own our roles in this grand story about this country, this moment, the future: do not invest yourself in idealized heroes or perfect narratives. Be humble as you sketch your part in the story; be forgiving as you look back and wish you’d taken other steps; appreciate your fellow sojourners who also work to build the story. 

Of course, the true hero of Hamilton–my preferred role model today–is Eliza. In the final song, “Who lives who dies who tells your story,” all the other characters moan and lament, “when you’re gone who tells your story,” She’s the one who changes the mood and direction of the song, forcefully responding: “I put myself back in the narrative.” In many ways, so many of us have imagined ourselves beyond and on the edges of the national narrative. It is high time we write ourselves back into the story. The more that we work on inserting ourselves into this story, asking ourselves, as Eliza does, “when my time is up, have I done enough?,” the more we can feel our strength, be ready for the long haul, glory in the small victories along the way.

So. Narrative–your approach to the national version of it–matters. And love matters. I’m talking of the love that Dr. King hints at when he says, “Here and there an individual or group dares to love, and rises to the majestic heights of moral maturity.” Dares to love. Dr. King points out that love is, indeed, difficult, because it asks us to engage in “understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all men.” For King, daring to love during struggle and sacrifice makes possible–indeed, it is the only way–to “create the beloved community.” “Love is the most durable power in the world,” he proclaims. Solange adds to that, “what’s love without a mission?”

Yeah. We’re not talking about romantic love or some anemic, anodyne love. This cannot be a touchy-feely love. This has to be an angry, justice-driven love, a commanding love, a requiring love. It is a get-up-and-shout love and a do-you-see-me-now love. To create the beloved community, we need to be able to imagine it into existence, to be able to see and care about our neighbor, our enemy, our kin. We need to love, so as not to fall into tactics of exclusion, division, and separation. It’s important to know that love is not easy. If it ever feels easy, you’re probably not doing it right. Don’t shy away from this kind of hard, daring love–it is a love that helps us re-imagine the terms of our story.

You might be asking right now, “love seems hard. How does it keep my resistance muscle from getting tired? Why is hard love sustaining?” My answer is as follows: I do not love institutions. Or corporations. Or policies. I love people. Institutions, corporations, policies will never return your love. Demand from these entities justice, equity, fair measures and processes. Love is different. Love people, without expectation of return. Love fully, knowing they may not be able to. Love honestly, letting your light shine. Love people, because loving them makes you a better, stronger, wiser person. 

Recess – sumer is icumen in, yo!

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Photo credit

It’s summer! Grades are in, graduation is this Saturday, and well, we have other writing and reading on our plates! And some fun and relaxing, too! Consequently we’ll be on a biweekly (every two weeks) schedule for our posts; in the recesses between them, we plan to link to Things We’re Reading that we hope you’ll read too. We especially hope to provide a signal boost for the writings of women of color.

Without further ado, please meet Jenny Zhang, a poet whose essay “They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist” tackles what it’s like to be a woman of color in the literary world. She confronts moments like when Michael Derrick Hudson masqueraded as a Chinese American poet under the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou in order to publish a poem.

She and the other white writers who marveled over my luck wanted to try on my Otherness to advance their value in the literary marketplace, but I don’t think they wanted to grow up as an immigrant in the United States. I don’t think they wanted to experience racism and misogyny on a micro and macro level, be made to feel perpetually foreign no matter how long they’ve lived here, and be denied any opportunity to ever write something without the millstone of but is this authentic/representative/good for black/Asian/Latino/native people? hanging from their necks.

Zhang documents the ways in which the voices of poets of color have been underdocumented, underheard, and, as in the Hudson case, appropriated and monetized. “When they wonder why I am still here I can’t help but suspect it’s very different from when I wonder why I am still here. I can’t help but suspect they are enraged there even has to be anyone like me here at all.”

Our pride is our survival and the white wounded ego does not get to ooze over our excellence anymore. We will not be colonized by white injuries scabbing over our words. The reparations white people claw for the minute they feel excluded from this world is not our problem.

Complementing Zhang’s essay beautifully and painfully, Jennifer Tamayo’s piece “When You Handle Poison” relates the cost of living within the white supremacy of  U.S. poetry communities, detailing the taxing emotional and economic tolls.

The handling of this poison — the labour to spot and deconstruct instances of capitalist white supremacist cis-hetero-patriarchy at work — is particularly venomous because it performs both personally and systemically.

Tamayo traces this work–how her “unpaid and unseen” labor fits within larger raced and gendered cultural and economic systems–through her body. She emphasizes, “Essays of this kind are written with the body. If I track the progress of writing, my body becomes the compass.” In this way, she charts the everyday resistances she engages in through the ways they harm and eat away at her.

What I find difficult about these e-mails is the performance it asks of me — at times civil, or charming, or pleased, or excited, or careful — I am never myself. I am your social justice doll come to life. I distrust the invisibility of this kind of private conversation and what it demands of me.

Both of these  poets end with refusals to make nice, demanding that their experiences and their knowledges be recognized and heard…. so please do read these pieces and feel free to start a conversation in the comments.