Protest, marriage, and migration in an age of ongoing crisis.
(Image by Kevin Kane)
This essay will appear in the upcoming anthology The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner, 2016).
You told me to write this essay to our future children, but I’m writing to you instead. You said to tell them about how their mom worried, how she wasn’t sure if it was a good idea bringing black life into a world that doesn’t value it, but that she landed on hope amidst all the despair. Tell them, you said, about why their father does the work he does, what kind of world you hope to help build for them.
And I will, love, I will. But this moment right now—the night is quiet and I write while you sleep—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.
Three weeks ago we rode through the midnight streets of Kingston, Jamaica, past shacks and gas stations, jerk chicken cookouts and quickie motels, to the airport and this new life together. Our Twitter feeds and the national news were filled with updates on Sandra Bland, the latest black life destroyed while in police custody, the most recent name to become a hashtag. Every time her deathlike mugshot flashed across the screen I felt an ache detonate in me. It’s an ache many of us have become intimate with over the past year, as the hard work of protesters brings light to each new state-sanctioned murder. It recedes and then returns, compounded by the tragedy of how familiar it feels to mourn a stranger.
Art is a creator and a destroyer and no less a player in the great stage of the world than politics or violence.
In college, I scribbled a quote from Eqbal Ahmad in the back of my notebook: “…this out-administration occurs when you identify the primary contradiction of your adversary and expose that contradiction…to the world at large.” Ahmad wrote those words in reference to global struggles against empire, and trapped as I was just then, and probably always will be, in some wordy labyrinth between the future and past, the sentence settled somewhere in my brain and caught fire.
In a way, these words infer the same conclusion as the other quotes I’d copied around it: that art is a creator and a destroyer and no less a player in the great stage of the world than politics or violence. “It is in the nexus of representation, words, and space,” Foucault wrote, “that the destiny of peoples is silently formed.” Or the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani: “Our deliverance is in drawing with words.”
But Mr. Ahmad dispenses with the formality of arguing the power of representation, and jumps directly into strategy. Unlike so many of the texts we read in college, this passage is not concerned with making people comfortable or rehashing basic truths that are deemed controversial only because they agitate overprotected egos. “I argued that armed struggle,” Eqbal Ahmad writes at the beginning of that paragraph, “is less about arms and more about organization, that a successful armed struggle proceeds to out-administer the adversary and not outfight him.” Ahmed is concerned with victory, which is to say, survival.
It’s been a year since Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown dead in the streets of Ferguson. (I was in an airport that day, too, waiting for a flight to Cuba and watching Twitter explode with tweets from the scene of the murder. You texted me then and many times since, that you weren’t so sure about coming to a country that could do this to its people, a country that went out of its way to destroy black life.) It’s been a year of politicians stumbling to declare that all lives matter and reinstill the illusion of justice to the justice system. It’s been a year in which police took more than three hundred black lives as protestors shut down bridges and highways across the country to remind the world that those lives matter.
I spent my twenties with a healthy distrust of the word “revolution.” When I was a kid, it was ancient American history or what Star Wars characters did—something heroic and distant. But I’m the son of a survivor of how wrong revolutions can go, the nephew of a revolutionary turned counterrevolutionary turned political prisoner. And these days, you’re more likely to see “revolution” on a car ad than anywhere meaningful. Words mean things, we say again and again, but overuse and abuse can wear those meanings down, render them pale parodies of what they once were. And revolution, it seemed, had long since lost its meaning.
You can’t tiptoe toward justice. You can’t walk up to the door all polite and knock once or twice, hoping someone’s home. Justice is a door that, when closed, must be kicked in.
The Ferguson uprising changed that. The movement for black lives spread from city to city, spurred on by social media and the long pent-up feeling that no social movement in recent memory has done anything but tiptoe toward justice. You can’t tiptoe toward justice. You can’t walk up to the door all polite and knock once or twice, hoping someone’s home. Justice is a door that, when closed, must be kicked in. “No state,” Baldwin wrote, “has been able to foresee or prevent the day when their most ruined or abject accomplice—or most expensively dressed prostitute—will growl, ‘This far and no further.’” And maybe that day is more like a series of days, the whole year of protest that erupted between now and then, a culminating mass of days and nights, bodies laying down in intersections, symphony halls, strip malls, superhighways across this country, stopping traffic and business-as-usual, declaring by their very presence: “no further,” and again, “no further.”
I texted you updates as we marched: “Still safe and things are mostly calm. We’ve taken Columbus Circle. Helicopters overhead but cops can’t seem to keep up with us or figure out where we’re going next.” They couldn’t figure out where we were going next because we had no idea where we’d go next. We spun in an impossible, unruly snake through Midtown, spilled out into the streets and then the bridges and throughways. One night we shut down the Manhattan Bridge and pushed deep into Crown Heights, an army of flashing blue lights at our backs. With no coordination, no grant dictating our steps or signs, no leader, we marched in lockstep with hundreds of thousands of protestors across the United States and then the globe, and the simple, resonating demand that black lives matter laid bare the twin lies of American equality and exceptionalism. Even on the left, even in this age of exposed racial rifts, politicians still say with a straight face that this country was founded on principles of equality. Words mean things, we say again and again, but actions mean much more, and still as a nation, we worship the very slave owners who gave legal precedence to the notion of percentages of human beings. We scream equality and freedom while unabashedly modeling our actions on the fathers of genocide. The only way to rationalize this most-American of contradictions is to devalue the lives of the slaughtered, as was done then, so it must be now, and so apologists remind us that those were the times, and they didn’t know better, and on and on. But if those lives matter now then they mattered then, and the clapback stretches through history, unraveling all the creation myths this country has always held most sacred, toppling our many false idols and cleaning out our profaned temples.
There was a terrible hunger revealed in that ongoing funeral procession. So many showed up because so many must mourn, the trauma of bearing witness etched across the streets of America. And collective mourning became collective resistance, and the hunger born from so much witnessing and so little action over the years was the hunger to rebel. Revolution has sounded, as Tracy Chapman once sang, like a whisper. I heard it in my own writing on equality in publishing, demanding more than just reform, more than just diversity. Heard it in my friends and loved ones’ quiet ferocity as we talked into the night. But suddenly it was a collective howl, it echoed through the streets and out across the world: “This far and no further.”
Every journey is a crisis, a turning point, a shedding of myths, and mine began with the gnawing certainty that something did not add up.
It’s that hunger that I was trying to understand back in college when I jotted that quote down. It felt like tracing along the clues of a murder mystery: something was wrong. I couldn’t identify the crime, but I was aware of it, inside of me and in the whole world around me, and both were deeply connected. That’s why Eqbal Ahmad’s idea about primary contradiction tattooed itself on my brain. I knew from very early on that I was an artist, that art was my own form of medicine, both for myself and the world: a tool that could create or destroy. And I knew I profited from the crime—as a straight cis man, a Latino who isn’t black, a citizen of this great disastrous nation. And I knew I suffered from this crime with no name, too, that it robbed everyone in its grasp of humanity and self, made us tools and killers and liars and suicides. There were so many myths to unravel, even just within my own heart, my own head, but mythology was something I could understand. There were myths that were lies and myths made from truth, and often the falsest ones were the most plausible and the truest filled with dragons and gods. Every journey is a crisis, a turning point, a shedding of myths, and mine began with the gnawing certainty that something did not add up. And in a way, this journey never ends, but in another sense, it ends where all great roads lead: to the discovery of voice.
This year, the desperate hunger born from so much mourning found its collective voice. It happened in the streets, but it also happened across the Internet, in journals and late-night phone calls. The revolution wasn’t televised—there we saw only burning cars and concerned pundits—but it was live-tweeted. And while my own revolution took place on the page and in the streets, yours was a much more personal one, profound and earthshaking in its own, very different, way. I watched you stand at the crossroads of despair, Nastassian. Watched fear wash over you, and uncertainty. As that ache detonated again and again, I know the temptation to shut down entirely loomed large. We arrived at Manley Airport in Kingston to return to New York, checked our bags and emptied our pockets into the plastic bins, took off shoes and belts and were patted down and X-rayed and then whisked up an escalator to the waiting area. Kingston was a distant smattering of lights across the bay and home seemed a long way off for both of us. Sandra Bland’s face stared out from the television as broadcasters wondered through their phony cheer about her last moments on earth, languishing in that Texas jail cell. International travel is a closed circuit—once you’re in flight, there’s no turning back and then you’re vomited directly into the hands of US immigration officials, passport control, customs, sniffing dogs, and the forever fallout of 9/11. And even if you have nothing to hide, and we had nothing to hide, it feels like the cold machinery of the state closing around your neck. I thought about all the times I’d been “randomly” searched and quelled my own anxiety and turned to you, wondering if you would be freaking out, but you met me with a smile.
Tell them how their mother landed on hope amidst all the despair, you told me weeks later when I said I didn’t know how to write this essay. And in that I saw a miracle: your own journey, your own revolution, unraveling beside me and mine and also separate, a whole country and sea away. 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.
Daniel José Older is the author of the A Bone Street Rumba Novel urban fantasy series from Penguin’s Roc Books and the Young Adult novel Shadowshaper (Scholastic, 2015), a New York Times Notable Book of 2015, which was shortlisted for the Kirkus Prize in Young Readers’ Literature and the Andre Norton Award, and named one of Esquire’s “80 Books Every Person Should Read”. He co-edited the Locus and World Fantasy-nominated anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. His short stories and essays have appeared in The Guardian, NPR, Tor.com, Salon, BuzzFeed, Fireside Fiction, The New Haven Review, PANK, Apex, and Strange Horizons, and the anthologies The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race and Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond. You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at http://danieljoseolder.net/, on Youtube, and @djolder on Twitter.