Month: July 2016

What if America Kept its Promises? (some thoughts after watching the DNC)

It was nearly 10 pm PDT on Monday when I pulled up Michelle Obama’s speech on my computer. I was sad to have missed it in real time, but my toddler was finally asleep, and now the house was quiet enough that I could watch. I filled two bowls with ice cream and handed one to Smoke, who was reading on the couch. I pressed play and waited for the video to load.

I didn’t expect that Smoke would watch too. I thought he’d return to his book or complain that the sound was distracting him or ask me to put on a funny cats video instead. I was preparing to fight for my Michelle Obama moment, but it turned out I didn’t have to. Smoke sat there riveted, his spoonful of ice cream poised in front of his open mouth as he watched our First Lady in her blue dress. He listened as she described loading her daughters into a black SUV with the secret service on their first day of school. As she went on to say “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” and described the feeling of watching her daughters run across the White House lawn, Smoke looked over at me and seemed to understand why I was pressing tears away from the corners of my eyes.

 

Smoke was born in October 2008, one month before Obama would win the presidential election. This means that President Obama is the only president that Smoke has known. “That’s our president,” I say whenever we hear him speak on the radio. I say it with a certain pride not because he’s never disappointed me, but because I admire him. I appreciate that he models grace under pressure, that he manages to articulate truth in times of grief, and that he is not too self-important to display a sense of humor. These are qualities I want my children to have too, and they are qualities I wish we could take for granted in our world leaders.

 

 

Last week, as my mother was visiting, Smoke came across a set of American flag stickers he’d been giving at the grocery store for Independence Day. His eyes lit up when he saw them. “I’m going to make you a picture for your office!” he said and ran into the kitchen. Twenty minutes later he returned brandishing this:

 

America.jpg

“Wow!” I said, and then made the mistake of making eye contact with my mom. We silently laughed until tears gathered in the corners or our eyes. We laughed because of the utter innocence of it, because apparently Smoke hasn’t caught on to my feelings about America, which have always been and always will be fraught.

The America my son has seen is different from the one I see. To him, so far, America is just his school and his friends and his family, and a president his mom admires, though she occasionally shouts in frustration at the news. To him, America is a cartoon of Uncle Sam, the promise of liberty and justice for all, and fireworks on the Fourth of July. To him, Donald Trump is an unkind man who surely won’t win the election because no one would vote for a bully.

I want to have the America that my son thinks we have.

On Thursday night my sons and partner arrived home just as I was watching Hillary Clinton give her speech in real time. I hadn’t expected to cry, but then she came out in her white pantsuit and stood there, alone, on a podium that floated above a vast sea of bodies. Smoke took his place next to me on the couch. When HRC declared “I believe in science,” Smoke whooped along with the audience and for a moment I wondered if understood the layers of meaning implicit in that statement. Then I remembered he just really likes science. My own whoops and hollers were probably every bit as mysterious to him.

I keep coming back to what Michelle Obama called “the story of this country”, the story of progress that has allowed Barack Obama to become our first African American president and Hillary Clinton to become our first female major party nominee. My newfound right to marry is also a part of that story. But somehow, I keep getting stuck trying to convince myself that our progress towards equity is real and not an illusion. There’s a small but persistent voice in my head going: Really? Are we truly evolving towards justice? Or are we about to take an irrevocable step backwards?

This November will begin to answer those questions for me. I hope that Smoke can continue to love America. I hope that I can love it too.

Voices in the Wake of Yet Another Tragedy

I’ve been having trouble writing here lately. The last time I posted,  I was writing about the Orlando massacre. Since I posted that, there have been three more national tragedies, and still more international ones.  Adam Gopnik, in his most recent essay about gun violence for The New Yorker,  writes “The one thing we can be sure of, after we have mourned the last massacre, is that there will be another. You wake up at three in the morning, check the news, and there it is.” I don’t have words, but I wanted to leave here a collection of things that I’ve seen or read over the last few days, things that have helped me make some kind of sense of my world, or things that have at least spoken directly to my bafflement.

Roxane Gay, in an essay for Marie Claire,  asks us to examine our understanding of the word “ally”.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2015, upon the release of his book Between the World and Me. When I asked him about allies, he said, “I think one has to even abandon the phrase ‘ally’ and understand that you are not helping someone in a particular struggle; the fight is yours.” I mulled his words over for weeks because they were so pointed and powerful. Those words began to inform the ways in which I try to support other marginalized people—making their fights my own because that’s the only way forward.

Black people do not need allies. We need people to stand up and take on the problems borne of oppression as their own, without remove or distance. We need people to do this even if they cannot fully understand what it’s like to be oppressed for their race or ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, class, religion, or other marker of identity. We need people to use common sense to figure out how to participate in social justice.

Vox ran this first-person essay by former officer Reddit Hudson that offers a compelling explanation of some of the dynamics at play in any given police force.

On any given day, in any police department in the nation, 15 percent of officers will do the right thing no matter what is happening. Fifteen percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70 percent could go either way depending on whom they are working with.

That’s a theory from my friend K.L. Williams, who has trained thousands of officers around the country in use of force.

Finally, in one of the most beautifully written essays I’ve read, Garnette Cadogan writes about “Walking While Black.” Cadogan writes about walking the streets in Kingston Jamaica, and transferring to a new world when he began attending college in New Orleans:

On my first day in the city, I went walking for a few hours to get a feel for the place and to buy supplies to transform my dormitory room from a prison bunker into a welcoming space. When some university staff members found out what I’d been up to, they warned me to restrict my walking to the places recommended as safe to tourists and the parents of freshmen. They trotted out statistics about New Orleans’s crime rate. But Kingston’s crime rate dwarfed those numbers, and I decided to ignore these well-meant cautions. A city was waiting to be discovered, and I wouldn’t let inconvenient facts get in the way. These American criminals are nothing on Kingston’s, I thought. They’re no real threat to me.

What no one had told me was that I was the one who would be considered a threat.

I’d love to hear about anything you’re reading that has shed some light on the darkness. Please leave me a link in the comments.