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.