A tornado tore through New Orleans yesterday, as if this city needed another hit, as if we needed another reminder that there are destructive forces beyond our control. Yesterday marked the end of my first week back in this damaged beautiful place and it’s been a whirlwind, a good New Orleans-style whirlwind: starting a new job, meeting new roommates, running into old friends on their bikes, buzzing the back of my head, getting yelled at by strangers, sitting on the back porch watching the sunset, calling an ambulance for a drugged-up man lying motionless on the sidewalk by a church Sunday morning, accidentally digging a grenade out of the ground and watching the NOPD and NOLA bomb squad evacuate a stretch of Magazine Street to extract the “potential explosive.” It’s been good, so so good. Truly, I feel euphoric here. I beam at the scenery, I’m lifted up by the familiar sounds and feels of the streets, I’m loving the return to physical work, I love the people I work with, I love the early mornings, I love how much I feel at home here. (It makes me feel like that girl Jessica on YouTube who chants into her mirror, I love my house! I love my haircuts! I can do anything good!!, except I’m not as cute and blonde and tiny.)
Of course, some of these feelings wear off over time, and I’m sure fatigue and confusion and existential crises etc will eventually take its place for at least a lil bit; but for now I am reveling in a genuine state of happiness that I haven’t experienced in a while. I also find it interesting that I feel so genuinely good having stopped (temporarily, but for now cold-turkey stopped) drinking alcohol. It is good to know that I love this city sober, and good to know that some combination of nature, physical work, this city and sobriety fill me with positive energy. Progress, this is progress.
It’s been strange moving back here amidst all the terrible, shameful atrocities currently plaguing our country, and another small yet devastating natural disaster, and starting a job that is very disconnected from it all. I feel a sense of moral obligation to keep tabs on, and connect to, what’s happening; but I also feel a sense of moral obligation to allow myself to be happy. I don’t want things to be wasted on me just because I am disheartened and angered by what’s going down politically, or because there are a million places my mind could be occupied other than here. I don’t want the oh-so-beautiful details that make this place magnificent to be wasted on me – the elegant balconies, the funky trim and chipping paints, the Mardi Gras beads strung on metal beams, the distant glitter of the bridge in the dark, the way the night sky is sometimes purple-orange. This is my city again. It hits me from time to time, as I am biking, or walking, or working, or looking at the people or houses or sky. And it feels good, so deeply good, and I can’t quite believe it.
In typical American holiday fashion, the past week was a marathon of media ingestion: a movie (Moonlight), a National Gallery art show (Stuart Davis In Full Swing), a novel (Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums), and an autobiography (Richard Wright’s Black Boy). It was a fun Thanksgiving, truly. Despite these seemingly random art forms and compositions, they all belonged together; they all felt relevant; and they all felt distinctly American. Why? It is strange and surprising, that these works fit together at all. And what does it even mean for something to feel “distinctly American,” anyway?
I imagine many of us are chewing on questions like this as our country faces a crisis in identity. Because that’s what’s happening, I think – no one seems to know who we are, or what the heck America stands for. Freedom and liberty and justice feel a little out the door given our incumbent President, our incarceration system, our housing and food and education crisis, our potential immigrant policies, and our seemingly ceaseless oppression of millions of non-whites. (But let’s not get started down that road…)
So what do we stand for? What does America represent? Just like the characters in these books and movies, our country is baffled by what it is. Perhaps America is like a teenager, lashing out and suffering what is hopefully just a growing pain. Or perhaps it’s like a middle-aged man going through a mid-life crisis, nostalgic for his past, jealous and wary of others that have emerged stronger than him, and confused and scared for how he got to where he is. Either way, it’s a crisis of identity. And that’s not something to be taken lightly.
It would be impossible for me to weave these male artists together into a seamless cohesive narrative on our country (lest I wished to turn this blog into a small senior thesis) but they certainly all have one thing in common: A great American spirit, a grappling with masculinity and manhood, and an emergence of self-empowerment and identity. (Also, they’re all wonderfully intoxicating compositions in their own rights.) Without reducing these art forms into something extremely black-and-white, I would argue that all these artists transcended modern conventions and found power within their artistic vision; but underneath the surface all of them contain a darker history etched in their lines. And its this expression of darkness, to me, that makes mastery; that’s what makes art beautiful, and worth celebrating, and genuine depiction of identity, and American.
For example, on the surface, Stuart Davis and Jack Kerouac’s works contain an exuberance, a dramatic and excited display for the cultural and artistic offerings of America. In TheDharma Bums, Kerouac talks of “mad” young Americans hiking and meditating and drinking and orgy-ing away their life in the Cascades and Sierras. “Japhy was full of great ideas like that,” the narrator describes his friend’s talent for packing light. “What hope, what human energy, what truly American optimism was packed into that neat little frame of his!”
Truly American optimism. This is how we identify – liberated, optimistic, full of ideas and possibilities. Consider the art of Stuart Davis, whose aim was to be “distinctly American” in the “Whitman sense.” Davis – hugely influenced by the rise of jazz – depicts a bright, colorful, jubilant expression of American life. But the irony is that his art was inspired by predominantly African-American expressions, the products of those who had suffered and endured oppression solely based on their heritage, i.e. being non-white Americans.
The exhibition in the National Gallery didn’t point out all of the darkness that underlies this exuberant “American” art, but I’m not sure that’s what Stuart Davis himself was after, either. Holland Cotter from the NY Times touched on this in an article about the exhibit; he writes that some of Davis’ thinking about art seems “locked in the past”:
I’m thinking about the way he identified his art as American, a product of, and a homage to, “the wonderful place we live in,” a place of entrepreneurial appetites and Walt Whitman-esque enthusiasms. I’m thinking of his insistence that art’s primary moral role is, or should be, to add pleasure to the world, to give an illusion of ordering chaos, as opposed to facing it and staring it down.
Yes – the notion that art must concede with “American optimism” is outdated; rather, one of its primary moral roles is to illuminate the chaos, and identify with turbulence and suffering, if it is to capture an American spirit. The darkness is with us, among us. I keep coming back to this passage in Black Boy, Richard Wright’s autobiography, in which he describes feeling innately like an outsider as a young boy:
In shaking hands I was doing something that I was to do countless times in the years to come: acting in conformity with what others expected of me even though, by the very nature and form of my life, I did not and could not share their spirit…
(Whenever I thought of the essential bleakness of black life in America, I knew that Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of Western civilization, that they lived somehow in it but not of it.)
Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of Western civilization. What a bold, jarring statement. I would imagine most Blacks would agree with it. But either way I think that today, when we look at the overall American art forms from the past several centuries, the “Negro spirit” of Wright’s time is a huge, unavoidable component of the “modern” American spirit, even if we have to look between the lines.
For example, Jack Kerouac, a visionary of white-hipster Western America, rarely mentions African Americans in his novels (or at least, The Dharma Bums) more than once or twice. Under the surface, though, Kerouac was fascinated by – and even jealous of – the African American culture in his time. (“I walked on Welton Street wishing I was a ‘[n-word],’” Kerouac wrote in his journals in Denver of 1949, “because I saw that the best of the ‘white world’ had to offer was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.”) You wouldn’t find this spirit much in his novels, but it’s certainly there in his personal writings published in 2004. When Kerouac looked at the problems in American culture (consumerism, obsession with entertainment and money etc), he actually found a sense of salvation in the non-white world. Consider this passage from his visit to Poughkeepsie in 1949:
What dismal streets… what dismal lives… what futurelessness & hapless woe. Thousands of drunkards in bars. But out of this wreckage rises a Cleo – a veritable Cleophus – the “Negro Neal” I met there this weekend – actually a “Negro Allen” in substance…
The future of America lies in the spirituality and strength of a Negro like Cleo… I know it now… and in all those who understand and receive him. It is simplicity and raw strength, rising out of the American ground, that will save us. We will be saved… There are great undiscovered peoples in America… Our class-laws will collapse.. otherwise America will collapse… and America will not collapse. You feel it in the busy streets… the swing of things; the sound of things going on, going up …
It’s amazing to me, how relevant this passage feels almost seventy years later. The swings and sounds – he’s certainly referring at least in part to the sounds of jazz rising from the streets and clubs, from mostly African American artists. It will save us. This “raw strength” rising from “undiscovered peoples” is the epitome of the triumphant American spirit, and is what will prevent us from destruction; and our future lies in all those who understand and receive this spirit and strength.
This is where “Moonlight” comes in. The movie was created by and based on the true life of Tarell Alvin McCraney, a gay black man who grew up in a Miami ghetto. Despite his turbulent and dangerous upbringing, his strength, spirit, choices and perhaps some chance prompted him to do and create many great things, including this recent beautiful film about power, identity, and ultimately love’s triumphs. There is no doubt that it achieves a level of greatness. But McCraney, as quoted in the LA Times, expressed nervousness about being labeled as just a “queer love story” or a “well-done black movie.”:
The thing that scares me is that people will try to use that to put it in this corner, because we can’t consider it ‘a great story.’ We have to consider it ‘this kind of great story.’ There is no part of me that wants to shirk this identity — it’s just who I am, how I got here.
And there’s no part of me that wants to shirk this American identity – that this is who we are, this is how we got here. Avoiding our past will only cause more pain. I can’t change our past, or what America has stood for. But I can change the way I look at everything created here, and understand the darknesses amidst the exuberance, and understand that these heavier stories deserve the status of greatness, and deserve to be OF the American spirit. While I can enjoy the fun elements of American art – be it Stuart Davis’ paintings, or Jack Kerouac’s ramblings of enlightened hitchhikers – I don’t want to take them on surface level; I want to understand how they actually fit into this country’s identity. In times like this, where I feel slightly lost in my own turf, it is consoling, necessary even, to seek our history, to peer into the masteries of American art, to find a common ground.
p.s. some more moon quotes:
From The Dharma Bums:
“But night would come and with it the mountain moon and the lake would be moon-laned and I’d go out and sit in the grass and meditate facing west, wishing there were a Personal God in all this impersonal matter. I’d go out to my snowfield and dig out my jar of purple Jello and look at the white moon through it. I could feel the world rolling toward the moon… bucks with wide antlers, does, and cute little fawns looking like otherworldly mammals on another planet with all that moonlight rock behind them.
…One night in a meditation vision Avalokitesvara the Hearer and Answerer of Prayer said to me “You are empowered to remind people that they are utterly free.”
Tarell Alvin McCraney: I struggle with the person I’ve created to present to the world versus my authentic self. And to me, that’s one of the things this [movie] illustrates. It’s not the only thing for sure, but it illustrates who we become in order to survive, or what we think is surviving, and the cost of that.
Vulture: And also, the joy of when you feel like someone can see you for who you are.
McCraney: Absolutely. Being seen is so important and when someone sees you through all of your bullshit or through all of your performances, good or bad … I think in some places, that little boy had to perform certain ways. He was in danger; his world was chaos. But at every avenue, Kevin was there like, I see who you are, I can see you. To me that’s why Moonlight, the title, makes so much sense. To be seen under this light, it’s like it doesn’t matter that it’s just a reflection of the sun. To be seen period is enough. It’s beautiful and it doesn’t matter that it’s in the dark. It doesn’t matter that everything else around you is dark. If you get that light on you, to bask in it, it may not be as warm as the sun, but it’s certainly feels so good.”
For about a week before election night, I canvassed for “For our Future,” going door-to-door to different voters around Gainesville FL essentially to ensure people voted for Hillary Clinton. (This was a paid position, for the record.) I spent a lot of time in east Gainesville, i.e. the lower-income predominantly black neighborhoods, and found optimism behind most doors: People had already made a plan to vote, they were voting for Hillary, they knew how high the stakes were in this election. My job was not that hard. I convinced a number of people to get out there who were reluctant, and clarified some important points (a lot of people didn’t quite know where to go, and some even thought the deadline for voting had been extended PAST election day… yikes). I felt a sense of urgency, but not panic; I was fairly convinced that Florida would go blue. I could tell that the minority voters were taking this very seriously, and I truly believed that this election would come down to a minority voter turnout.
I think for me, one of the most crushing parts of this election has been thinking back to those conversations, especially with the black folks – the old, young, healthy, sick, wealthy, poor – and how I declared with complete conviction that THEY had the power to prevent Trump from becoming President, that the outcome was in their hands. “If you go out and vote,” I said, “and your family and neighbors and friends go out and vote, you can all prevent this dangerous man from becoming president. Your vote really counts here.” “Is he actually racist?” some of them would ask me. “Yes, he is,” I’d confirm with regret. Or, when I told them I would drive them to the polls if they didn’t have a ride, they said, “Does it really matter that much?”
Of course it mattered that much. But apparently the rural white vote still overpowered their ballots, and I regret my approach in these conversations, and I feel sick to my stomach when I think of these Gainesville residents – especially the elderly – who might feel powerless to what’s happening now. What does this election tell them? Did they believe they’d stop him?
A huge part of me wonders if “For our Future” had focused on talking to registered voters in rural areas – even registered Republicans – we’d be facing the same President-elect today. Canvassing in non-urban areas would’ve been costly, and difficult, and probably dangerous and perhaps for naught. But I wonder. Because clearly the rural Floridians had the power here. What would’ve happened if those people – predominantly white, perhaps educated and wealthier, perhaps not – had even seen a glimpse of progressive, informed, rational discourse on this election, even a glimpse? I wonder. Maybe it would’ve swayed.
I’d like to share a story that has really stuck with me, of a woman I drove to the polls on election day around 5:00. I had offered my (shamefully messy) car to voters sans transportation as I canvassed all day, but only found one taker – a very sweet, young-ish white woman at a homeless shelter who hopped in with gratitude. As I drove to her polling location (a church which, by the way, is EXTREMELY FAR for the mostly-black precinct, why can’t they make these polling places more central again…?!) we got to talking about her difficult life. She recently was fired from McDonald’s after trying to switch around her schedule; her boyfriend committed suicide a couple months ago; and she works for a school lunch program for $9.05/hour, struggling to make enough to support herself here in Gainesville (hence having to stay at a homeless shelter that has issues hosting her for the time she needs).
As we near the church, she asks me who I voted for. “Hillary Clinton…?” I say, with the expectation she was on the same page as me.
She laughed awkwardly. “Uh oh.”
“You’re not voting for Trump, are you?” I asked, horrified.
“Yeah, I am.”
The air seemed to escape my car. I couldn’t believe what I had done: I was giving a Trump voter a ride to the polls.
I had no choice but to keep going at that point; we were almost there, and to turn around would rob her of her right as a citizen of this country. But my heart and mind raced furiously. “As a woman, and as a homeless woman, PLEASE reconsider voting for this man,” I practically begged. “He is not looking out for you, he’s not going to install any programs that will help you, he is only running for President to further himself, he has no respect for women, he’s completely unfit to run our country” (etc etc)
“But I don’t think he even really has a chance anyway,” she said, seemingly unaffected by my ranting.
“No, he does have a chance, and we’re in such a critical and close county, your vote really counts,” I pleaded. “Seriously, you have the right to your own opinion of course, but a small part of me would cry if I knew I took a Trump voter to the polls.”
She just kind of laughed and shrugged, and we arrived, and she hopped out and I spent a tense sweaty twenty minutes trying to console my shattered ego, telling myself everyone who wants to vote should have the chance to vote and this is a democracy after all, though maybe I should have bribed her just a little bit, like $10, that wouldn’t have hurt anyone right?!
She got back in the car. “Ok, I didn’t vote for Trump,” she said, smiling. “You persuaded me.”
I’m not telling this to toot my horn as a persuader, people. I’m writing this to demonstrate that people are malleable, so much more malleable than we give credit for. Sometimes it just takes a shared space and sense of trust – and exposure to another side of reality – to change our minds. (There is a great episode on This American Life about this.) As we drove back into town, she told me that had only ever been exposed to Trump supporters – she helped her parents and her boyfriend (while he was alive) put Trump signs in their yard, and had always been surrounded by Republican ideals. I give this girl a lot of credit for being open to me and my ideas. We are vulnerable when we are open to others; it requires us to loosen our grip on our identity, and genuinely respect someone who has an “outside” mindset or worldview. It’s hard to be open and accepting, and it’s certainly not always in our nature. But I feel like in some ways, it’s what makes us human.
I regret some of the conversations I had with the black folks in Gainesville, because I don’t want them to think that racism and hatred prevailed over tolerance in this election. I think a desire for change prevailed. And I think a LOT of people don’t take their vote seriously, and just said well what the heck, why not? This is all joke anyway. I recognize that the girl who I met on Election Day was an extreme case; most people are not so lenient. But to label Trump voters as racist and sexist and homophobic etc is to label and limit them into a certain category, a certain box, that is not always fair or true.
And no matter what kind of belief system they hold, they will never listen if we come at them with anger. They will never listen if we shout at them, label them, diminish them as uneducated or unintelligent. They will never listen if they feel threatened or afraid. We must engage in these conversations with respect and create trust, lest we want this country to splinter into different unions (which I know some people are not all that opposed to). It’s the only way we will EVER stop this terrible reign of white supremacy.
We are facing a crisis of isolation. Forums that generally provide connections are failing us; the Internet polarizes and extreme-ifies us, our public spaces are designed to isolate us, our school system segregates us as kids. In spite of a “more connected world,” we are more isolated from each other than ever. I feel as if it’s my responsibility as a privileged white person to test my patience, to test my boundaries and sense of safety and talk to people who I disagree with. This is not about being accepting or passive to what’s happening. This is about heading into the next four years with as much maturity and intention as I can muster. It’s about letting the unstable anger heal in the ways that it can – through exercise and nature and playing music and time – and using what’s left (because there’s a lot) to put the work into this backwards, scary, upsetting world we face.
I hope you’re with me, and as always, thanks for reading.