always, something deserves to be burned…
~ from “Not an Elegy for Mike Brown” by Danez Smith
I may not have understood the significance of phrases like white hate and generational racism when I was a kid, but college changed all that.
College was when I came to understand the meaning of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit.” Sitting in a lecture hall with my professor, Jewell Parker Rhodes, listening intently to the lyrics, I was overcome by the sickening symbolism. I was angered by the fact that such a significant part of my country’s history had been hidden from me.
Several years later, I was teaching Ralph Ellison’s horrifically graphic short story, “A Party Down at the Square.” It was the first time I’d prefaced any work of literature with a trigger warning.
Just last month, I taught Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till” (1960) and Audre Lorde’s “Power” (1978), which recounts the murder of an unnamed Black boy at the hands of the police. And the very next week, we read “Not an Elegy for Mike Brown” (2014) by Danez Smith. A mere three poems shows us how little has changed in the past 60 years.
So in honor of all the Black lives, as well as all the Black writers who have been my literary guides and mentors, I will continue to declare my independence from historical lies and obfuscations, from an oppressive and hate-filled society, from hate-mongering leaders, from an ignorant and truth-averse educational system, from a broken and dehumanizing (anti)justice system.
What good am I to the classroom or the community otherwise?
As a child, “American” was a curse on the lips of my first stepmother who reluctantly immigrated here, entering a world of concrete and small minds. I have felt shame for my country since then, though She has blessed me time and again.
My summer is long, my job secure, though it quivers with anticipation—taking whatever form public policy decides. My boss calls. Eight to ten kids per classroom. Masks. Plexiglass barriers. No rotating from class to class. Students remotely logging in from other rooms or from home. My boss states that her priority is “teacher wellness.” “We have to learn to put our oxygen mask on first if we can even hope to be there for those kids.” I box up the classroom art supplies, I heave out old books and a filing cabinet to make room for the six feet barrier between each desk. Then I go home to burrow.
I am a white girl with a yoga mat and I am a cicada. Their cries sink into every position. I am concrete. I am kaliche blown loose by toxic winds. I am the sweat that falls from my pores and the salt that crusts the ground. I lie here and leave this burnt, guilt-ridden, sop of heaping flesh behind as my shell rises up around me. It cracks open and I peel my way out of it. Out into the desert air thick with the desire for rain. Soon, soon it will come.
Tomorrow I will pry open the curriculum, remove the canonical stuffing, shred the remaining voices of old white men and fill it anew. I will not know everything, it will not be perfect, but it will be a beginning.
This year for Independence Day, rather than celebrating a bloody secession from the Brits, I’m celebrating a different kind of freedom: my independence from White Silence. I’ve realized that all those times I didn’t speak out because “what might So-and-so think?” Well…it sounds stupid now to even wonder that. What would someone think if I stand up to save or improve the lives of my fellow humans? But of course in our brand of patriarchy, white women are conditioned to please rather than stand. It might cause friction. It might cause people to look at me differently. Even in my own family. All peanuts compared to what my siblings of color (if I might be so bold as to imply this familiarity) have and are going through. And what I’ve realized is this:
I haven’t just held myself back from saying things that are vital to say. I haven’t even just held back my friends and family of color. Or their friends and family of color, or on down the line. No. That So-and-so I was worried about, I’ve held them back too. I’ve neglected to invite them along with me on this journey toward the wholeness our species. I’ve held them back from beginning to understand themselves better and how they fit into the hierarchies of white supremacy and systemic racism. And I want to bring them along. We need them! We need all hands on deck if we’re to steer this ship out of the storm and into the port called Liberty and Justice for All.
The difference right now between the people with whom I identify politically and the other side is this. My side thinks that you can only experience America in her totality—through her failures, her sins, her hypocrisies. You can’t access the heartbreaking propositions of the Declaration, the Constitution, or the Gettysburg Address without seeing how history undermines those texts. If you don’t understand that the Central American refugees are coming because Reagan subverted their elected governments and shipped arms to their insurgencies, you will never understand this country.
The other side experiences America through the ritual of identifying the disloyal: at the moment, they are the protestors (aka “looters”), BLM, Antifa, immigrants, feminists, progressives. It’s an experience of the Nation based upon group identification and excoriations of those others who would disrupt that identification.
This year I want to declare my independence from this opposition. The first side, my side, offers the benefit of experiencing the nation in a deeper way than the latter. You can’t have a meaningful relationship with America without traversing the crimes, the lies, the horror. If you don’t go there, all you’re left with is flags and fireworks, the Blue Angels over the Superbowl. Which is to say that the experience of America in which the latter camp partakes is facile, shallow, an inch or two deep.
But what has happened in this country over the past six months will require most of us to transcend this particular confrontation, which after all goes back at least to the 60s on one side, McCarthy on the other. It will require us to persuade one another that this country must widen its sense of responsibility for those who live here and for the world itself. It will require us to leave behind the intense sense of umbrage the last four years have fomented.
When people learn that I have been hospitalized more than a dozen times in several psychiatric hospitals, they cringe and walk away as if they might “catch” my illness by the words I have spoken. Often people—strangers and friends—don’t want to know I am bipolar, with PTSD, and Major Depressive Disorder.
I am declaring freedom from the stigma of mental illness. Often a taboo subject, sometimes it strikes fear and misunderstanding. I want everyone to be able to speak about their issues, problems, and be recognized as ordinary citizens, just like the rest of you.
Privileged, I have health insurance covering my weekly visit with my therapist and most of the cost of my medications. Others aren’t as lucky. Their insurance may not fully cover therapy or medications, and there are people who don’t have insurance at all.
I was bipolar for many years before I was diagnosed. The night before I saw the psychiatrist, I asked my 17-year-old daughter if I should talk about how I really felt. “Of course,” she said. “That’s why you’re going.”
But I was used to the years I’d hid my dark moods, tried to control manic episodes and suicidal ideations. I was unsure how others might react and was terrified of my own brain. I took my daughter’s advice, spoke honestly about my experiences—positive and negative—was diagnosed and put on medications.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t still have problems. Meds stopped working or my moods changed, and I needed to be hospitalized—I missed my daughter’s high school graduation, my birthday, Christmas, and even New Year’s and Thanksgiving, but I was in a safe place, getting help.
What I want is to de-stigmatize mental illness. I encourage those who are suffering, worried, or ill to be unafraid. But if you need help, call the Maricopa County Crisis Line at 602/222-9444.
Virginia Chase Sutton
I declare freedom from anything that undermines treating humans with dignity and respect. Including the insistence upon not calling a duck a duck: Racism is racism, murder is murder.
I declare freedom from a colonized bookshelf, and from white people who ONLY want to read without actions that follow.
From politicians who desecrate the words of George Floyd at an anti-mask rally, and from the ignorance of my own microaggressions.
From silence when hearing a racist joke, and from pouring energy into people who are unwilling to imagine a world where they are not right.
From systems built to serve the white man at the expense of all else, and from willful ignorance of the pain caused by these systems.
I declare freedom from continuing to walk if I see a police officer pull over a Black person because I think it will/should be fine.
I declare freedom from opaque lenses that color the world based on my desire for comfort.
I declare freedom from the belief that compassion and empathy are ethereal things that we cannot touch — they are both actionable and necessary, right now.
Devin Kate Pope
how do I declare freedom? the splintering american dream is a fruitless swallow to empty bellies. of a constant dream of living, of struggle, of choking, to buried deep in the land of washed out gold and a sea of blood. america spat us out into houses of broken faucets, into conveyor belts of prison, into curfews and devouring school gates, into mouthwatering cages, into a kind of death that is forced to keep us living. we are bruised and bleeding, unripe fruit. we are not afforded freedom from a land where our bodies are stolen from the birth of our mother. i know this too well. but the root of my existence is a mirror, in which my fight for justice is a fight for the existence of young poor immigrant women. and this is how i will fight: with our mothers and daughters at the back of my tongue and at the hands of my stories. i cannot let our brothers and sisters be dipped, drenched, drowned in red and let america greet them with silence. even when my ankles are buried underneath crackled land and withered roses, i will continue to fight. i am declaring freedom in my existence, in my stories and in my fight for revolutionary love. i am declaring freedom to be fearless. i am declaring freedom to be unapologetic.
Preetpal Kaur Gill
Cover image by Kurt Viers.