There is No Joy Here
There’s a certain irony to starting a blog about finding joy during the week that your nation explodes in a collective cry of outrage, anger, and deep, bottomless sorrow.
But here we go. Today, I am thinking about how we find our way through this mix of emotions. Progress is not about forgetting the horrible experiences in our lives, but rather acknowledging how they’ve changed us and educated us, and then use those lessons to move forward.
To be honest, I’m not sure what “forward” means in this period of mourning, this period of shock, when America collectively witnessed a modern-day lynching and is left to ask, “What could I have done? What should I have done?” Yesterday, today, and most importantly—tomorrow. How can I change anything?
First we start by listening to each other. One of my dearest friends from high school, who is black, sent me a link to an essay called Your Black Colleagues May Look Like They’re Okay — Chances Are They’re Not. Just the link. No commentary.
A quote from the piece, written by Danielle Cadet:
“There’s a tale of two quarantines. Because while some Americans have been consumed by banana bread, others have had to navigate surviving a pandemic in a country they were never actually meant to live in.
“Over the last few months, Black people have not only watched their friends and family members die at higher rates from the coronavirus, they have also watched people who look like them be gunned down while going for a jog, be murdered in their homes, threatened while bird watching in Central Park, and mercilessly choked on camera.”
I live in those two worlds. I have baked my banana bread and listened to white people express confusion and judgment over how vandalism and looting is the proper response to these ongoing tragedies. Yes, most people were peacefully protesting, but it’s the scenes of violence, regardless of the perpetrators, that glues themselves to the brain and even provide justification for preconceived racist narratives. Even the peaceful protesters can be an affront, forcing us to confront our inner bigots in ways that are uncomfortable. Marching, protesting, putting a face and a voice to your pain—can’t we just go back to the way things were, when you were over there, invisible, and I was over here able to ignore your plight?
But it is wrong to expect people to swallow their collective anger, to not vocalize and organize, just so that white people won’t feel so uncomfortable. And yet, isn’t that what we’ve been doing for years? Barack Obama could never speak aggressively, because then he’d be labeled an “angry black man.” Dress like us, talk like us, be more like us, and then we’ll be less threatened. Assimilate. Reject who your experiences turned you into, and instead be the Invisible Man. (The book by Ralph Ellison, not the movie, which by the way is quite an appropriate read for our times.)
I have many thoughts and feelings on race but usually do not express them, because I feel as a white woman I do not have the right to speak for the experience of others. But maybe that’s been to the detriment of the discourse. I’ve had conversations with my husband, who is Guyanese, and my daughter, who is therefore biracial, and their sadness over George Floyd, and all the others before him, is a deep well, a scab that keeps getting ripped off only to have to reform.
In our conversation, my high school friend went on to say, “I have experienced much pain and loss in my life, (yet) I have never felt the way I feel. The English language doesn’t even have a word to describe it.”
I am so grateful that she shared her sorrow with me, so that I can understand it. My heart aches for the aches of the people I love. But what can I do? What can I, an educated, upper-middle-class white woman who knows how to write well enough to bring people this far along in her essay, do.
I can do a lot, obviously. I can speak up! I can listen! And I can act. I’ve been thinking a lot about what actions to take—I could share commentary on social media, aware I'm preaching to the choir because those who need to understand won't; I could be infuriated by a president who uses religion as a backdrop for subverting the most basic human rights; I could give in to the sadness and weep for my children who have to grow up in this world we’ve given them.
But none of those bring about progress. They are part of a process, but they are not a solution. The only thing I can think of is this: We need to mobilize. We need to take back control. And to do that -- we need to vote.
I spent the first half of my career working in community journalism. I went to a ridiculous number of city council hearings, school board meetings, community board meetings, police community council meetings. You know who else goes to these meetings? White people. In my experience, no matter the makeup of the community, the people in the chairs, both in the audience and at the podium, are always overwhelmingly white. And while you may think that these meetings are too low on the political spectrum to matter, they do. Look at which communities get jails and which have the manicured parks. Look at what schools have the new computer labs and which ones have classes in janitor’s closets. Coincidence? No.
Politics, while so icky and gross that I hate it as a rule, is the way through. I vote in every election. Judgeship, borough president, primaries – I am there. And you know who’s not there? Hardly anyone else. Your vote has more power in a small election than anywhere else. The 2019 Queens, NY, district attorney’s race was decided by 60 votes. Sixty votes, in a borough with a population of more than 2 million! Political change can start at the local, ground roots level and create a foundation from which to grow.
I agree with Atlanta activist Killer Mike, who called for a political revolution in America. “It is time to beat up prosecutors you don’t like at the voting booth,” he said during a press conference, with the Atlanta’s police chief and mayor standing behind him. “It is time to hold mayoral offices accountable, chiefs and deputy chiefs.”
Vote ‘em out. Vote the bums out. And if there’s no one running against them, find someone to do it. Start a political action committee in your neighborhood. Foster the young voices who have tons of ideas but lack the networks and cash to bankroll their own campaigns. Show up, and speak up, at the meetings that matter. Vent if you must, but please also have a call to action. (Please, the former reporter in me begs you – do not prattle on at the podium without bringing ideas.)
Write op-eds in your local paper, and call the editor asking for coverage for events that matter to your community. Bring solutions. Champion people with good ideas.
There’s a reason why we needed a Voting Rights Act to affirm the obvious—every American has a place at the ballot box. There’s a reason why some want voter ID laws, why the people who have to wait in line for hours to vote are usually people of color, why there’s a backlash against voting by mail—the vote is powerful. The vote is how things change.
If you want things to be better, if you want change, then seize the power that so many are fighting so hard to hold onto.
Weeping may come for the night
But joy comes in the morning.
Bring on the morning.