“Poetry is not a luxury.” — Audre Lorde
America horrifies me. Its savagery and vulgarity. Its appetite for racial terror.
Whether achieved through airstrikes abroad or through domestic slaughter, killing the Other remains the nation’s truest creed.
Today, almost 250 years since the founding of the republic, the violence of settler colonialism continues to ooze from America’s pores. We have used our technological might to build a militarized society. We have mastered the art of detention and deportation. Our incarceration spree has reached new dimensions of perversity. We frantically surveil and police and punish even as our economic lives grow less secure.
We revel in ignorance and depravity. “Build the wall!” — not “Black lives matter!” — is the populist chant of the day. The country’s political decline is incontrovertible, but its spiritual decay is equally striking.
How does one live with dignity in such an obscene moment?
This is a particularly urgent question for those who must bear witness to the violence of white supremacy. We must constantly engage the lies of the oppressor. “Whiteness is virtue,” we are told. “No,” we reply. “Whiteness is blindness. It is theft.” Yet we must also resist the toxicity of the larger culture. Inevitably, we weaken. We lose the capacity to metabolize trauma.
We succumb to combat fatigue. We recognize its corrosiveness, its emotional and psychic toll. Given the political realities of our time, however, a descent into despair seems unavoidable at times.
Like generations of black people, I fantasize about fleeing America. The emigrationist impulse has always intrigued me. There can be no more enduring sign of our humanity and good sense than the desire to abandon Babylon.
Yet I find myself returning to Paul Robeson’s magnificent display of intransigence before the House Un-American Activities Committee. As he told that body in 1956:
My father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no Fascist-minded people will drive me from it.
How, then, do we sing our song in a strange land? Amid desolation, how do we sustain hope?
I raise the question fully cognizant of Obama’s appropriation of that word on behalf of ruling elites.
How do we restore hope as a radical, collective project? The answer may lie in a more intentional and courageous reckoning with the violence that surrounds us. Frantz Fanon wrote that “In the colonial context the settler only ends his work of breaking in the native when the latter admits loudly and intelligibly the supremacy of the white man’s values. In the period of decolonization, the colonized masses mock at these very values, insult them, and vomit them up.”
Perhaps retaining hope means fighting to excrete — both from the body and the body politic — the toxins produced by white supremacy. Perhaps this is as much a spiritual endeavor as it is a war of attrition.
Even as a secularist, I recognize that one cannot simply rely on positivism and materialist analysis to preserve the flame of struggle.
Resistance requires more than outrage and dialectics. We need art. Love. Some source of transcendence. If the spiritual element within our struggle is not consistently and creatively renewed, perhaps something vital begins to atrophy.
For me the Gandhian concept of satyagraha captures this truth. Though satyagraha may be translated as “soul force,” its principles of civil disobedience are hardly mystical or ethereal. Indeed, satyagraha means political obstinacy. The staunchest resistance involves the soul.
To escape bitterness and nihilism, radical activists must cultivate what the scholar Vernon C. Mitchell, Jr. has called “a reverence for hope.” For struggle is more than defiance. It is faith. It is a quest for grace. And it is — at least in part — the audacity to persist.
As Harriet Tubman tells us,
If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.