And for all the things I can’t get enough of, there is too much of what should not be at all. There is too much wrong for one world.
The more I read, the more injustice I discover, and it seems like I can’t pick up a book anymore without uncovering a whole new field of systemic oppression I could never have imagined. There is too much for a single person to even keep track of, much less address in a meaningful way. Genocide, slavery, imperialism, colonialism, misogyny, racism, mass incarceration, reparations, big data, dark money, plutocracy, the revolving door, oppression of religion, oppression by religion, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, tax loopholes for the rich, destroying our already-insufficient social safety nets to benefit the rich, creating surveillance states in the name of national security, white men legislating reproductive rights, abstinence “education,” creationism, poverty, hunger, the war on drugs, the war on terror, anti-intellectualism, science denialism, campaign finance, voter suppression, gerrymandering. I literally cannot name them all; this list is mostly U.S.-centric, and even in that it is far from complete.
There is too much to deal with.
I was dealing with it, for a while. Before I had this blog, I wrote for seven years on the one I’d started in college. This was the writing that took me from belief in white, conservative patriarchal religion to liberal, intersectional feminist, atheist activism. It was how I processed everything I was learning about the world, but it was also how I ended up losing all my friends and a lot of family. By the end, everyone who hadn’t unfriended me, or been so rude that I unfriended them, was someone I wasn’t close enough to for it to matter. I stopped blogging; I think it was meant to be a temporary break while I figured out what to do next, but the fact was that I no longer felt comfortable with my blog’s audience. At some point I realized I was never going to revive it.
I’ve become more and more isolated since then, finally aware that none of the people I knew were (1) to be trusted with my private thoughts and feelings or (2) remotely interested in what I have to say. The more isolated I’ve become, the more my anxiety has expanded, taking a much larger hold on my life. And though I’ve tried to come back to blogging for two years now, my inability to speak is beginning to feel pathological. I start posts and never finish them, not for lack of trying. I have 82 drafts in progress right now, including this one. Some have been there for years.
It seems I don’t know how to write anymore, about this or anything else. This is frustrating, because writing has always been my thing. In high school I was miserable at math, brilliant at English, and fine at everything else. My essays were the ones put on the projector as examples for the class. But now, I don’t know what my own voice sounds like.
At the most basic level, I don’t even know how to choose words; I’ve dumbed down my vocabulary my entire life, avoiding any words the people around me didn’t use, so they wouldn’t have another reason to make fun of me. At the broader level of style, tone, and personality—again, I have no idea. I know what I used to sound like, a few years ago; I was idealistic, naive, painfully earnest. I don’t have that Pollyanna optimism anymore, the one that led me to write passionate treatises on all the issues I was discovering as though they were new. (That was the problem, that I thought they were new to other people too, and now that we’d recognized them we could start doing something about them. But none of the issues were new. I’d just become aware of my society’s culture, like being a fish and suddenly noticing the water around me—water that was completely invested in pretending these problems didn’t exist.) I’m not earnest like that anymore, and I’m not nearly as open. But I’m still passionate, and I still feel compelled to talk about what no one else wants to acknowledge. I don’t know what that should sound like.
Last month I read We Were Eight Years in Power, a collection of essays by Ta-Nehisi Coates (and yes, that post is one of the 82 drafts waiting for me to finish). Every page of it was stunning in its importance, but one section in particular became immediately relevant to my situation. In the introduction to “Fear of a Black President,” Coates describes having the realization that most of his ancestors “were not the Harriet Tubmans or Martin Luther Kings;” they didn’t change history, and they weren’t saved from their plight.
They were Celia, enslaved, hanged in 1855 for murdering her master, but who for a brief moment, stick in hand, lifeless body beneath her, knew freedom, for she had stopped this master from “forcing her.” They were Margaret Garner, who would slaughter her own child before submitting her to the slow slaughter of bondage, who with her last breath said to her husband, “Never marry again in slavery.” They were Ida B. Wells, who defied the great wave of lynching even when the men whom it victimized would not, even as the country turned away from her. All of these heroes had failed to cajole and coerce the masters of America. Their ambition of a better world had been frustrated . . . [But] the lessons they passed down were not about an abstract hope, an unknowable dream. They were about the power and necessity of immediate defiance.
That is where I joined them. I understood the problem of black enslavement in America as twofold. First there is the actual enslavement and all that has followed from it, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. But then there was the manufactured story that was told to ennoble and sanctify that enslavement. This was where these heroes took their stand. Celia would go to her death before she would accept the story that gave away her body . . . Ida would scream into the roaring waves before she would believe the story the masters of America told. I was a writer like Ida. And I felt, even in this time, a century later, that I too would gather my words and scream into the roaring waves, because to scream was to defy the story, and that defiance had meaning, no matter that the waves kept coming, would come, maybe, forever. The masters could lie to themselves, lie to the world, but they would never force me to lie to myself. I would never forget that they were liars . . . The world might fall off a cliff, but I did not have to be among those pushing it and more, I did not have to nod along while fools insisted that gravity was debatable.
This is where I found the answer. I might not know what my voice sounds like now, but I do know what it needs to say—or rather, I know that it needs to say it. It doesn’t matter who listens, it doesn’t matter that most people won’t. I don’t have to worry about the fact that it’s futile, because that’s not why I’m doing it anymore.
This is what made it so hard for me before, the fact that I genuinely believed we could change things, not just eventually but soon, like maybe now. It wouldn’t be simple, but it should be easy—because what needed to be done was obvious, and why wouldn’t we do what obviously needs to be done? But then another movie would come out with white actors in yellowface, the black character who dies first, the sexy geek girl, the white savior, the Trinity character; then another committee on women’s reproductive rights would be composed entirely of men; then another police officer would kill a black person for absolutely no reason, and white people would explain that that was fine.
I gave us the benefit of the doubt for a long time; I’d been the same myself, I’d been taught things growing up and had to unlearn them, and none of us can help the cultural conditioning that shaped us. It takes time to refocus your perspective, like trying to see the hidden image in a Magic Eye.
But the benefit of the doubt is one thing when the stakes are more shitty movies—it doesn’t go so far when the stakes are human lives. And actually, changing your perspective doesn’t require time so much as work. I finally realized that I couldn’t get through to people, because they didn’t want to be gotten through to. They cared more about being comfortable than about making the world right; they preferred, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the absence of tension to the presence of justice. After torturing myself for a while with my inability to understand this, I have finally realized I don’t need to. I don’t have to understand people who are doing terrible things, and I see now that I can’t stop them, either. All I can do is defy them doing it.
I was a writer like Ida . . . I too would gather my words and scream into the roaring waves, because to scream was to defy the story, and that defiance had meaning, no matter that the waves kept coming, would come, maybe, forever. The masters could lie to themselves, lie to the world, but they would never force me to lie to myself. I would never forget that they were liars . . . The world might fall off a cliff, but I did not have to be among those pushing it and more, I did not have to nod along while fools insisted that gravity was debatable.