A New Vision for America

I always feel a bit like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window when I look out of my own rear windows across a narrow driveway and into the apartments around me.  I usually witness brief, mundane moments: two people eating by a table in a kitchen identical to mine; a mother walking slowly around her living room cradling a baby; a cat looking out of a window, waiting for its owner to return home.  Kids play together and ride their bikes back and forth within view of their mothers who sit on their apartment buildings’ front steps, or they line up near the ice cream truck that passes down this driveway every weekday once the weather turns warm.  Adults lean against their cars, chatting with each other in relaxed, indecipherable voices.

I love looking out of the window and seeing life happening around me; it makes me feel connected to humanity in a cliched but significant way.  The neighborhood feels American in all its ethnic diversity.  I know what this country is when I look outside my window and see the warm glow of a light on in a neighbor’s apartment; I know we share a space and (hopefully) agree to do each other no harm and even, occasionally, to help each other if we need a hand.

When I think about the country at large, however, I have no idea what it’s doing or what it’s about.  Maybe that’s at the root of what plagues us nationally and has always been haunting this nation persistently divided by an us vs. them mentality.  Those divisions are natural; we group ourselves with whom we share a variety of characteristics and opinions.  But it’s a destructive dynamic nonetheless because the United States is neither a monolith nor a nation that can comfortably be dominated by one side or the other.  And yet a sense of bipartisanship or even coalition appears impossible amongst the tribalism that defines our politics and identity.

Does tribalism exist when there’s a resistance to empathy?  When we care more about our own team than the others?  Despite desires to strive for a more perfect union, this country was founded on cruelty, misogyny, genocide, and slavery.  For hundreds of years, writers, artists, politicians and other citizens have publicly called for people to soften their hearts, revive their consciences, and pay attention to those suffering around them rather than silently tolerate inhuman policies or politics.

What might be needed is not only a new vision for the future that addresses concerns about healthcare, our economy and the benefits/dangers of automation, and the cultural and racial divisions that persist but also a new way of invoking or constructing empathy for the “other.” A desire for privilege, to strive for, protect and accumulate power and wealth and to defeat those who seem to stand in our way continually undermines this empathy, and it is doing this especially now.   It seems that we’ve come to a time again for the construction/invention of feeling, an awakening of our conscience.

Whoever can channel the emotional connection we might have for our closest neighbors and apply it to how we imagine ourselves as a nation might save us from ourselves.  I say this as a person who is angry at half of the country and unable (perhaps even unwilling) to truly understand the other side.  Tribalism often feels justified and even righteous; cooperating with people who are eager to hurt you seems not only unwise but insane.  And yet…that tribalism is our exploitable weakness, so empathy for the other, a desire to look out for each other, because we can imagine others in their most human and mundane moments, may be the only way that this country isn’t just a loose, disparate collection of antagonistic strangers.

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Sadness, Anger, and Self-Care in the Early Days of the Trump Era

From late October to the last days of December, I found it increasingly difficult to quiet my mind enough to fall asleep and stay asleep.  I’d wake up in the middle of the night sweaty, with my heart racing as if startled by a terrible nightmare. Sleeplessness left me on edge and exhausted throughout the day.  I had chest pains and a persistent cold and upset stomach and became fearful not only of these symptoms but of the world around me.  It became difficult to focus on work and to relax when I got home.

Then, on a cold and dusky evening December evening, I began to feel anxious on a crowded Metro platform on my way home.  Suddenly, the trains were too loud, and there were too many people around me.  A woman next to me kept complaining about her delayed train, and it took everything I had to respond to her cordially and commiserate with her.  But it was all too much.  I couldn’t figure out what was terrifying me, as I never had that kind of seemingly unprovoked reaction to crowds before.  I told myself to breathe, to count to ten, to force myself to control whatever was happening to me, and I couldn’t.

I was able to keep myself together all the way home, and I made sure that no one I met or worked with during those weeks knew what I was feeling.  But inside I felt out of control and powerless, especially at night, right before I went to sleep.  I never mentioned what I was going through to anyone, but one night, I called my mother, telling her the unease I felt when I woke up from sleep in the middle of the night and how that feeling haunted me on and off throughout the day.  My mother, amateur psychologist that she is, responded with her diagnosis matter-of-factly,

“It’s the election.”

According to her, Trump, President Trump, my fixation on the election, his victory, and the realities of his Presidency weighed on my mind so much that it was making me sick.

I laughed it off at first, explaining that other things were on my mind, but I slowly contemplated the idea that she was right.  And that was terrifying because I never thought that my feelings or my state of mind would have such a detrimental effect on my physical health or that politics would have such an effect on physical and emotional wellbeing.

I realized that I needed to take care of my emotional and physical health, because, in this case, they may have been interconnected.  The election left me completely bewildered and with an overwhelming feeling of loss, as it did for millions of people.  My addiction to news and social media during the last few months didn’t help.  While I had no desire to fight with strangers on twitter, I believed I was finding catharsis in hearing voices that expressed those feelings of fear and anger that I had.  However, sometimes those sentiments were coupled with apocalyptic declarations about life in the United States under President Trump, and all those worries and feelings of impending doom can lead to stress.  There will most likely be a surplus of political fights on the horizon that will leave me and others in a constant state of anger.  But if sustained rage supposedly leads to activism and resistance, what does that do to our health?

This acknowledgment of rage and need for self-care is addressed in this week’s Black-ish, “Good Dre Hunting,” which explores this issue of sustained outrage and its unsustainability and unproductivity.  But the episode also clearly affirms that sometimes righteous anger is absolutely necessary, and sometimes therapy can be absolutely essential.

The Atlantic‘s Julie Beck explores how some are looking to save themselves from election-related anger, stress or  what Jack Saul, director of the International Trauma Studies Program, calls collective trauma, “a shared experience of threat and anxiety in response to sudden or ongoing events that lead to some threat to a basic sense of belonging in society.” In order to relieve this stress or trauma, Saul and others advocate that people focus more on building connections to others to create a support system and community dedicated to volunteerism and activism than self-care, which, according to Saul, leads to isolation and vulnerability.

However, executive editor of Girls for Gender Equality Joanne Smith explains that self-care can involve deepening connections to other people:

“As a black woman organizer and movement leader, I will need to love me harder than I ever have before so that this toxic masculinity and white supremacy does not snatch my light or the light of my community. It also means that I must be vulnerable and connected to the people in cross movement spaces who love me and recognize my humanity the most.”

Numerous blogs, like Just Jasmineblackgirlmentalhealth.tumblr.com, and noirecare.com, are dedicated to addressing the importance of black women practicing self-care by themselves and within their communities because self-care is as important to social movements as collective protest.

Balancing self-care and social consciousness are not new concerns.  In “The Negro in American Culture,” in 1961, James Baldwin explains that “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.”

These last few weeks, I’ve focused on my own health and emotional quality of life so that I can be better equipped to helping others.  Sometimes that involves stepping away from social media more and more.  I will still keep myself aware of what’s going on since vigilance is essential, but so is abstaining from social media when righteous anger turns into feelings of fear and rage that are paralyzing and toxic and leave you feeling utterly powerless.

Focusing on my quality of life involves allowing myself to pursue what I enjoy in life, dancing, painting, being optimistic, eating delicious food and planning good things for the future because all of these things are necessary for emotional and spiritual survival as well.

And improving my quality of life has also meant getting involved in issues that are important to me: going to a local rally on saving the Affordable Care Act, attending the Women’s March on Washington, and exploring ways to get involved in my community, possibly through my local Democratic Committee or other groups and organizations.

The first step for me was in admitting that I was feeling powerless and angry and that I was surrounding myself online voices that were preoccupied with everything horrible that can and might happen and that I believed remained beyond my control.  It’s possible that a lot of people feel this way, and in identifying these feelings, I began to feel better.

Control freak that I am, I’m not ready to give up what little power I do have.  If you feel powerless and overwhelmed by your own anger, think about how that is affecting your daily life and your health.  Know that taking care of yourself is the most important thing you can do so that you can help others who will need you these next four years.  It’s not selfish or delusional to find some joy in your life; it’s absolutely necessary so that you can give that joy to others who will need it.  And I hope to remind myself of this when that feeling of powerlessness and defeat creep up on me again, leaving me terrified in the middle of the night.  I’ll have to remind myself that it’s possible to get a good night’s sleep and still be woke.

Sources:

Beck, Julie. “How to Cope with Post-Election Stress.” 10 Nov. 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/11/how-to-cope-with-post-election-stress/507296/. Accessed 20 Jan. 2016.
Blay, Zeba. “11 Ways Black People Can Practice Self-Care in the Wake of Trump.” The Huffington Post. 11 Nov. 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/11-ways-black-people-can-practice-self-care-in-the-wake-of-trumps-win_us_5824a420e4b07751c390db8a. Accessed 20 Jan. 2017.
Zinzi, Janna A. “Surviving Trump: Black Woman Strengthen Coalitions, Practice Revolutionary Self-Care.” The Root, 16 Dec. 2016, http://www.theroot.com/surviving-trump-black-women-strengthen-coalitions-pra-1790858050. Accessed 20 Jan. 2017.

Is it Possible to Unite a Nation Divided?

As I get older, I am realizing that I will save myself a lot of time – and ultimately save a bit of my sanity – if I accept that fact that human beings are irrational by nature. I’ve spent a lot of mental energy trying to figure out why people do the things they do. Why do they sometimes act against their own interests? Why do they appear to cling to choices that have and continue to be “bad” for them and a lot of other people, too?

I’ve been asking myself these questions possibly from a place of judgment. I like to think of myself as rational and can tend to judge others as irrational if they do things I cannot always understand. I elevate myself in my own mind when I do this. That is my emotional payoff. I can’t understand other people, and then deem them not worth understanding.

I’m speaking abstractly here, as this is something I think about and have done most of my life. But I’m really writing this in response to something more specific: the election and the political realities that we will face with this new incoming President. Full disclosure: I am an Obamanista in my heart of hearts. I volunteered for his campaigns during his elections, and most recently, since July, I volunteered at my local Democratic Coordinated Committee Campaign office to help Virginia elect Hillary Clinton as President. Virginia came through, but other important states did not. There’s a lot to blame for this result, and I’ve spent a lot of time placing blame almost everywhere in private conversations with friends and family because I cannot understand how this all happened.  Electing Donald Trump as the President of the United States seems completely irrational to me, as he disqualified himself more times than I can count. I’ve thought of reasons why this election happened the way it did: sexism, racism, nativisim, and an uninformed electorate. I’ve read why this happened: economic anxieties; the negative effects of globalization; a continual, institutionalized suspicion of the Clintons because of their political baggage/failings; and a populace fearful of the social, global, technological changes that we’ve experienced these last few years. All of these reasons are legitimate.

Here’s the difficult question I ask myself now: does it matter why people voted for Donald Trump, or Jill Stein, or Gary Johnson or Harambe or whoever wasn’t Hillary Clinton, if they even showed up to vote at all? What do we learn from this? There may be a lot to learn from the answers to these questions. However, as a results-oriented person, I also wonder what net benefits come from blaming and shaming others for their choices? It can be a great way of shining a light on questionable if not downright immoral behavior, and that can be instructive. But it is the best way to reach people?

I have no answers to these questions yet, but I also want to figure out if there are other ways of reaching people, too. For example, what if we just accept that people are irrational? That we all have biases and emotional reasons for doing things that other people can’t understand and cannot be explained rationally?  This country itself is irrational in the ways it defines itself.  The United States is as aspirational in its elevation of freedom and equality as it is forever characterized by its original sins of slavery, genocide, and racial and economic equality. We, as Americans, are irrational as well.  Our desires for freedom and autonomy were and still are determined by oppressing others.  We have internalized that.  We see that as a sign of power, and as a result, at times, we celebrate and elevate those who oppress others because we have romanticized that as an ultimate sign of self-determination and heroism.  I don’t want and never want to whitewash what has happened or what may come. However, I think we have to also realized that we are just as likely to listen to our better angels as we are to  double down on our worst, most bigoted impulses, even if that hurts us in the long run.  That’s a condition, that on some level, we all share. We are intertwined by these irrationalities.

In an attempt to tie this back into the original premise of this blog: what happens if we see those we disagree with not as caricatures or irrational creatures but as actual complex people with their own inner lives, biases and desires, their own complicated interiority?  How do you reach them? How do we encourage empathy with others instead of indulge in dehumanization, and what could be the results of that?  Can empathy become message powerful enough so that people can’t help but hear it? These questions weigh heavily in my mind, and I hope to come back to them as this year progresses.

Idris Elba’s Speech on Diversity in British Media

In many ways this is a timely speech, given the recent debate about Oscar nominations, their continued lack of diversity, and what that reveals about lack of roles and opportunities for nonwhite actors.  Yet this problem has been around for as long as I can remember, and it goes further back than that.  What I found most striking about this speech is its emphasis on imagination, how Elba has imagined himself and his opportunities, and the relative lack of imagination in the entertainment industry when it comes to casting and storytelling.

Diversity in the modern world is more than just skin colour. It’s gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, social background, and – most important of all, as far as I’m concerned – diversity of thought. Because if you have genuine diversity of thought among people making TV & film, then you won’t accidentally shut out any of the groups I just mentioned.

Click here to see the entire speech.

The Persistence of Black Invisibility: Darren Wilson and the Invisible Man

I was on Tumblr today and saw someone post an article from Popular Science by Rafi Letzter, “What Science Tells Us About Darren Wilson and Michael Brown: What Does It Mean for a Black Teen to be a Demon” that discusses Darren Wilson’s depiction of Michael Brown moments before deciding to shoot him.  It briefly analyzed the persistent history of seeing black people or in this case the black body as superhuman or as a superhuman threat.

According to excerpts from Wilson’s account posted in the article and heard in various ways in mainstream media recently, Wilson believed Brown “was almost bulking up to run through the shots.”  A few months ago, I ended a post asking, “What was the threat in this situation and what was this officer Darren Wilson fearful of?  When and why does it appear that fear itself is justification enough killing someone else?  Fear is at the root of these very broad questions, but I start with fear because it is that emotion that allows us to determine how and to what lengths we protect ourselves and who we believe is worth protecting, especially within our national borders or local communities.”

I suppose Wilson’s comments are my answer.  Brown stopped being human in Wilson’s eyes, whether he knew it or not.  Wilson protected himself against not a man but a powerful villain who could somehow run through bullets and would get madder and more powerful the more Wilson shot at him.  Wilson felt like a five-year old child despite being 6′ 4″ and 210 lbs. Despite the fact that Brown, at 300 lbs, was the same height.  What Wilson describes sounds like a nightmare.  In this narrative, Wilson is allowed to express his fear and while Brown is an unfeeling, unafraid, Hulk.  Wilson is a person with feelings and interiority who can only continue to live only if Brown does not.  We do not get to hear if, no matter how terrifying Brown was to Wilson, Brown, too, showed any fear in his last moments, only that he was terrifying, unstoppable, and then subdued only by lethal force.

This article concludes that Wilson might not even know that he has attributed superhuman traits to Brown and, as Letzter reminds us, “the insidious truth of prejudice…is that it can emerge unbidden in an instant, and vanish moments later without ever bubbling to the surface of conscious intent.”

Two nights ago, I was skimming the Prologue to Invisible Man since I taught excerpts from that novel this semester, and I think these last few lines say more on this subject, not from a traditional scientific standpoint, but a literary one.  I want to conclude this brief post with what in 1945 Ralph Ellison writes about being what it means for a black man to be seen as a demon 70 years ago and what it might still mean today:

“I am an invisible man…I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything except me.  Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a bio-chemical accident to my epidermis.  That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition in the eyes of those with whom I come in contact.  A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality…You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds.  Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy.” 

Updates on New Postings for September

It’s that time of year again.  The semester starts next week for me, and during the fall, I’ll be trying to balance teaching with dissertation writing and research.  In the spirit of keeping myself on task when it comes to this blog, there are at least two posts I’m planning to make during the month of September. One will be in response to the film Belle (2013), which I mentioned in my last post, and the second will be a brief discussion on Juan Francisco Manzano (1797-1854) and his The Autobiography of a Slave/Autobiografia de un Escalvo.

Finally, for the past couple of weeks, my thoughts have also been on Michael Brown, his family, the Ferguson community, and the handling and media coverage of protests about Ferguson.  It’s a topic I have a lot of opinions about both in terms of my research on race, interiority and personhood as well as how it continues to shape my personal experience and understanding of race and citizenship as a black woman in the United States.  While I do believe in waiting to hear all of the facts surrounding the killing of Michael Brown, his death feels too closely linked to a tradition in the U.S. where lethal force is used against black citizens who may seem threatening, even if they are unarmed.

What was the threat in this situation and what was this officer Darren Wilson fearful of?  When and why does it appear that fear itself is justification enough killing someone else?  Fear is at the root of these very broad questions, but I start with fear because it is that emotion that allows us to determine how and to what lengths we protect ourselves and who we believe is worth protecting, especially within our national borders or local communities.