What to Do and Who to Be

The second week of January, I read Mychal Denzel Smith’s memoir Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching and Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time, a collection of essays about America’s past and present and future. Both were published before the 2016 presidential election, and both speak with sorrow and hope about our country’s history and its potential. Smith ends his book like this:

I hope my answers create a world where the Trayvons in waiting can see their own humanity. I hope I’ve fought hard enough to live long enough to see what questions they ask. I hope their answers are better than mine.

Post-election, it’s hard to read words of hope that were written before the election happened. It’s hard not to feel that the election of Trump is the death of all hope that we can work together to make a country that cares about all its citizens, or even cares just about all its children. It’s hard to look at my godson and feel like we’re leaving him anything worth having.

I woke up at four in the morning on 9 November 2016 and checked the news; and then I lay back down on the bed and whispered, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do? God, what are we going to do?” I checked in with my people all day, online and on my phone and in person, and it seemed like everyone I loved was asking the same question, not rhetorically, but genuinely: What are we going to do? Someone please stand up and tell us what to do.

People have stood up. Journalists, writers, private citizens have stood up and created resources and supported each other and given their time and expertise and wisdom and kindness. It isn’t the same as what we really wanted, which was for Dumbledore or Barack Obama to swoop in with a cape and save the day. Every day I wake up and think, This won’t be enough. We won’t be saved this way, with phone calls and petitions. The forces that are steering our country now are big and we are small and I can’t control it and we’re going to lose.

Here’s what I’m trying to remember. I can’t decide, and you can’t, what the country is going to be. It’s beyond our scope of control. I can only decide what I’m going to be. What’s in our heart matters to the exact extent that we use it to create action in the real world. If we love a group of people while enacting policies that lead to their deaths, then our love is worthless. If I inwardly oppose Donald Trump’s efforts to turn America into a banana republic, but I fail to translate that opposition into words and deeds, then my ideology doesn’t mean anything.

The world feels daunting, now. I can’t see what the future will look like from here, so I am trying to hang on to what I can see. I can see the kind of person I want to be (in my parents, in my sisters, in the writers and thinkers who have stood up since the election). I can make the choices that kind of person would make.

This is the end of Daniel Jose Older’s essay “This Far: Notes on Love and Revolution,” in The Fire This Time:

You chose hope, and the night is quiet and I write while you sleep — and this moment with all its weight and responsibility, this turning point in the world and our lives, is ours, and these words are for you.

  • Jeanne

    I feel like a lot of us are finally growing up, realizing that no one is going to sweep in to save us and we’re going to have to work every day to save ourselves and our children.

    • Yeah, exactly. There’s not going to be a situation where the good guys wake up and realize what’s happening and save the day. We have to save ourselves (and everyone else), because nobody else is going to do it. Yep.

  • Akilah

    Yes, all of this. Thank you.

    • Akilah

      Also, it seems our reaction to the election was pretty much the same (including waking up in the middle of the night). My daughter didn’t quite understand my reaction then, I think, but she does now. Unfortunately.

      • Ugh, this makes me so sad and angry. That this is the world a minority of Americans have forced upon our kids, when we could have given them so much better of a world. I hate it.

  • I read a conspiracy theory today that said the administration is throwing all of this at us all at once to create resistance fatigue. If that is true, then it really is up to us as individuals to stay strong and be the best person we can be. If that means speaking out against perceived injustices, that’s great. If it means concentrating your focus on a narrower circle of influence, that is okay as well. It’s going to be a long four years, and we all have to live with our individual consciences when it is all said and done. That is the most important thing.

    • Well, I definitely do think they’re doing a shock-and-awe tactic — whether it’s to pander to the base right off the bat or create resistance fatigue or make too many issues for people to effectively deal with any one of them, I don’t know. Regardless, as you say, it’s going to be a long four years and we have to keep our heads in the game and be ready for the fight.

  • I know you must be bombarded with things to read, but please read this: https://interruptingthesilence.com/2017/01/26/my-thank-you-note-to-president-trump/

    As you say so truly, “I can only decide how I’m going to be.” This spoke to my heart and to how I want to be.

    • Bookmarked for later, thanks lady. And yes, I am trying to remember what things are and are not in my purview of control. It’s hard but it’s what I’ve got to hold onto.

  • JeanPing

    I hope you keep saying things like this, because so far all I’ve been able to do is gibber. I keep emailing my rep (I was going to switch to calling, but then I got a horrible cough) but it’s gotten to the point that I’m actually afraid that they’re trying to dismantle the government. The State Dept. is empty, they appear to be ignoring the Constitution entirely, and there are still people defending this stuff. OK, deep breath. I will decide how I am going to be.

    • JEAN I TOO am afraid they’re trying to dismantle the government. A nationwide purge of the voter rolls also seems like a very real possibility. I want to scream WAKE UP WAKE UP at everyone in sight because it seems insane that we’re all going to work every day and going about our business while our country falls into chaos.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    So many big hugs of love to you! I just wrote about something similar yesterday. I am struggling and trying to find my way. I have decided that I can’t do everything which makes me feel all kinds of bad and guilty, no matter how true it is. So I am working my way through that. But I have decided to focus on environmental issues — climate change, food, water, land use, energy. It is here I see the most intersections with all sorts of social justice issues and here that I feel most knowledgeable and able to truly make a difference. Don’t despair!

    • The days I’m able to not despair, it’s because of people like you, lady. I would feel lost without my wonderful online community.

  • MumsyNK

    Thank you for saying all the things I am feeling every day. I will save this post for the days when I feel I can’t do another thing, to give me courage. See, I was never wrong when I called you Brave Jenny the Fearless.

    • Oh gosh, Mama, thank you. That means a lot. It’s all the stuff you taught me, after all! <3

  • Rachel

    This sums up all my feelings that I’ve been dealing with recently. It’s incredibly hard to find light in dark times, but I’m trying my best to fight for what I believe in.Thank you for writing this.

  • I teared up reading this post. šŸ™ I couldn’t agree more and it’s so overwhelming.

    • It’s really overwhelming. It’s like everything I already hated and resisted about this society but ALL AT ONCE EVERY MOMENT OF EVERY DAY. I’m still figuring out how to manage myself in that kind of situation.

  • {Hugs}

  • Laila@BigReadingLife

    I can’t tell you how much I needed to read this. I’m overwhelmed and anxious but I need to remember that re-tweeting is not really acting. Thank you.

  • Beautiful post. Your northern neighbours, despite our jokes about building a wall and How To Emigrate to Canada, are all watching with anxiously clenched fists to see if things are really going to play out as badly as it seems they will. Because what happens to you is going to significantly impact us, yes, but also because we really like and respect you guys and we don’t want to watch your train go speeding off the tracks. It’s voices like yours that convince me to keep hoping for the best possible scenario: Trump is going to galvanize and unite everyone who wants to defend freedom, democracy, equality, justiceā€”all those things that America is supposed to be aboutā€”and you’re going to be okay.

    Sending thoughts, prayers and Leonard Cohen songs your way. https://youtu.be/DU-RuR-qO4Y

  • Alley

    I love this. Thank you thank you.

    Side note, I’m now wondering what Hogwarts would be like if Obama was headmaster.

  • juhi


  • So fantastically put. Some books still resonate, while a few that I’ve read give this exact feeling of “but what now”. (Thinking especially of Angela Davis’ most recent.) That being said, reading (and buying) diverse books feels like one of the few things I can keep doing, although how much it actually does… I hope we can all get our deeds and words out when we need them. Hugs.

  • helen (a gallimaufry)

    This is such a great post. It IS hard to know what to do, but I have been amazed and impressed at all the stories of resistance and solidarity I’ve read, what people can do with so little time to organise anything. It’s inspiring to the rest of us. Hugs to you all.

  • A thousand amens to this.

  • Thank you for putting this into words so beautifully.

  • This! This post is everything.

  • This is lovely — both your writing, and your attitude. (Also, you have the BEST tags on your posts.)

  • Kristen M.

    Strangely, hubby and I just had this same convo tonight about climate change. We know there are big, evil forces behind governments and corporations that are the ones in control and ultimately our little actions at home don’t change much BUT they do enough by defining who we are and what we care about. My LED lightbulb won’t save the world but it might save my soul.

  • Christy

    Reading this twenty days later – really appreciate the reminder to keep on acting. Election night seems like eons ago, when I woke up in the middle of the night, saw the results and just wept in a kind of shocked panic. Both bookish friends online and friends/family IRL have helped tremendously since then, with encouragement and resolve.