Art in Resistance

NBC just posted an article about artists rising up against Trump. It’s an interesting piece that talks about everything from plays to poetry, and it gives a panorama of especially the younger generations of American artists. It’s easy to feel ineffective in the fight against Trump, when he can undo so much with an executive twitch. It’s easy to feel ineffective as an artist, when you spend all of one day having a conversation with imaginary people, and spend all of the next day erasing everything you wrote. Nobody benefits from that. You can look over years of that routine, and decide that nobody ever benefits.

But when you use art in reaction to Trump, something interesting happens. Trumpites have decided, in general, to become impervious to reason. Facts do not serve them. For now, at least, logic from facts will not touch them. But although portrait and story might emerge from facts, the depth of such artistry’s reach comes through encounter. Art places a person—a gay man, say, or a refugee— in front of the audience, and then it demands empathy. By appealing to the audience’s humanity, it kills any effort to dehumanize. In fact, if the art is good enough, it is literally moving—which is to say it transports a person from one stance to another. The history of art is full of this sort of thing, from the Book of Jonah to Dorothea Lange. I mean, Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to start an actual war. So if you are an artist who opposes Trump, accept that you have work to do. Speak up on Facebook, or on a blog, or in the op-ed column, or at the community theater—or in the pulpit, or at the benefit concert, or in the gallery on Washington and Main. Devote your life to creating encounter. Give it all you can, and be content with the goodness in this endeavor. Through art, you might not directly love your enemy, but you will offer love to them. And if nothing else, when history looks over the shambles of our present era, you will have left a record of your own resistance.

(Originally posted January 6, 2017)

Lift Every Voice and Sing

(By James Weldon Johnson, 1871 – 1938)

 

Lift every voice and sing,

Till earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise

High as the list’ning skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on till victory is won.

 

Stony the road we trod,

Bitter the chast’ning rod,

Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;

Yet with a steady beat,

Have not our weary feet

Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.

We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,

Out from the gloomy past,

Till now we stand at last

Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

 

God of our weary years,

God of our silent tears,

Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;

Thou who hast by Thy might,

Led us into the light,

Keep us forever in the path, we pray.

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,

Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;

Shadowed beneath Thy hand,

May we forever stand,

True to our God,

True to our native land.

 

(Originally posted November 14, 2016)

Trump Wins Election

Election night has been so upsetting that even my cat threw up, twice. Everyone in my immediate family called their mother. And we all sort of gawped at one another, long distance, while in the mirror, I could see the pulse beating in my neck. 

I could be angry—but I see no point. Right now we are at the mercy of the angry, of those who added their rage to their fear, and who bought into a campaign that offered very little reason, and very little knowledge, even, of the Constitution, so that a man who awaits two criminal trials could become president of the United States. More anger—while natural—will not serve us here. Not now—not en masse. 

What we need to do now is what so many have started already. It is, in fact, what we did after the Orlando shooting. We need to say we love one another. We need to say we’ll protect one another. We need to say that when one of us becomes a victim, we all stand as victims. And this stance is a potent thing. It makes of us a unity. All of our colors and creeds, all of our genders and sexualities—we are one force pushing against the hatred that we just watched lay hold of our country. In our resolve, and in catastrophe’s peculiar alchemy, we will become the very community we’ve fought to defend.

Catastrophe is Greek for “overturning.” If we look to the Jews, who are no strangers to oppression, we see that their prophecies are actually histories of catastrophes. They are prophetic, in part, because they show what happens if we follow the same patterns of the past. In recent centuries, a national cult of unreasoning hostility would both engender and suffer an overturning, after reaching a climax—which was usually a war. According to this pattern, the catastrophe would right the world after the world had gone upside-down. The catch, of course, is that millions of innocents would suffer the price.

We all have reason to fear. We all have reason to fight. And if Trump makes good on his promises, and deports the Muslims, and suppresses the women, and walls off the Mexicans, and increases police violence, and orders unconstitutional arrests—if he picks war, and ruins the earth, or starts to shoot the good folks at Standing Rock, then yes, we do fight. We fight legally and peacefully. We renounce all violence, unless it is the only way to save a life.

We look to our gifts: our ideas, our art, our pedagogy, our science, our ethic, our humor, our courage, our faith. We each find the tool with which we are most deft, and we wield it to carve out what good we can, to preserve democracy where we can, to open our unity even to those who voted for this threat, because, at heart, they too were afraid. 

We may not be able to say that we were there on the night that a woman became president. That is a loss. So instead let’s say that we were part of the community that saved the country—not just half of it, but all—by holding onto its most basic ideals even when our brethren, our media, and the government itself lost sight of them.

For the next four years, build sanctuaries for one another. Put a sign in your office, or church, or classroom that reveals that you keep a safe place for minorities. Keep certain social media communities alive and talking; they need members more than ever. Read. Write. Speak to one another, even if it’s just to our group. We may not be able to convince our opponents of our ideals, but we will be able to bolster our friends. So rise up. Sit in. Sing. Pray. When things have become this dark, we need to use our voices, if only to know that we are not alone.

We are not alone. The popular vote has shown that. The rest of the world will show it. Our leaders haven’t fled us; they are young and they remain among us. We have faced our losses, and more of them will come to claim us. But goodness is divine, because in spite of even death, it rises again.

(Originally posted November 8, 2016)

Giving Them the Knee

I wonder how long it will take for protesting athletes to decide–en masse–that they’re just not going to take the field. They’ve gone on strike for pay disputes. They could easily declare that this is far more important. Imagine whole groups of people refusing to play while other folks are dying. Imagine them saying no to a country that uses them for entertainment while it kills their brethren. Think of this resistance seeping into Hollywood, or finance, or infrastructure. Let’s see what actually happens if racism gets its wish, and all the blacks and their allies disappear from the country.

You think it’s upsetting when somebody kneels for the national anthem? What I think is that you’re really afraid. You’re frightened–as you’ve always been frightened–of the people you oppress. And the reason is not the one you assign to your fear. It isn’t because “these people” are barbaric, or violent, or even disrespectful. It’s because your country has been all of those things to them–and furthermore, it’s because their mounting imperative to resist comes from God-given, human dignity.

(Originally posted October 20, 2016)

Love for the Southern Liberal

A few times lately, I’ve run into the usually northern, usually liberal idea that the south is home only to conservatives. Now, I feel more midwestern than I do southern, but I have to set this record straight. The south is full of liberals. Look at Atlanta; look at Austin; look at North Carolina’s research triangle. I know there are southern liberals, because I’m friends with southern liberals. Southern liberals have been key players in every civil rights movement this country has ever seen. So please. You can say that in the south, liberals are the minority. But that’s the very reason you should say they exist. Unlike those in Massachusetts, California, or even some communities in Iowa, southern liberals have to be stalwarts. Don’t add to their trouble by claiming that in most meaningful ways, they don’t persist.

(Originally posted April 30, 2016)