As I've shared before, writing can take so many forms. Sometimes it's a joyful and personal practice. Sometimes it's a letter to a loved one, offering a memory that would have been lost otherwise. Sometimes it's a story that cracks open a new world. And sometimes writing is a tool for change.
I'm thinking about that last form this morning, in the wake of another police shooting. In the aftermath of another black man dying. These are the times when it can be the most difficult to find the words. I recently read Elie Wiesel's interview with The Paris Review and was struck by how he reflected on writing about the Holocaust. He didn't want to write about the Holocaust, he said. He had to:
"I didn’t want to use the wrong words. I was afraid that words might betray it. I waited. I’m still not sure that it was the wrong move, or the right move, that is, whether to choose language or silence... If I had thought that by my silence, or rather by our silence, we could have achieved something, I think I would have kept silent. I didn’t want to write those books. I wrote them against myself. But I realize that if we do not use words, the whole period will be forgotten."
I haven't always known how to feel about writing as advocacy. I worked in the nonprofit sector for many years, but it didn't feel intuitive that my words alone could seek justice. When you're at the table with people trading money, influence, and political strategies to end homelessness or fight childhood hunger or get equal pay for women, one poem starts to feel small.
I've been rethinking that as I live into this space at Voice & Vessel and go deeper into my own writing. In my social change work, too often, I saw how all that money, influence, and political strategy still couldn't get people to wake up. Couldn't get people to stop protecting their own interests. Couldn't get people to see their neighbor's life as an extension of their own.
As I think about that again today, I think this may be the work of writing after all. This is the advocacy. The advocacy of waking people up.
So for my small part, I will say: Enough. Enough. Enough of the regular, unjust killing of black people in America. Enough of sentences like this: "A child, Ms Reynolds's daughter, was also in the car at the time."
What must it be like to send your babies out into a world that doesn't trust them, that all too often fears them? What must it be like to wonder if your boyfriend will get stopped this time, by the wrong cop at the wrong time? What must it be like to consider the possibility that your baby will watch someone die from the backseat of your car? That your child might get shot while he plays outside or walks home? What must it be like when the people who are meant to protect try to make your world so much smaller?
I don't think my lungs are big enough to hold those kinds of breaths. In this country, it's a privilege not to have to hold those kinds of breaths. It should be a human right.
This feels like a helpless, justice-less moment in America, one that we've been creating for over 200 years. We need to say we've had enough. We need to say black lives matter. And then we need to show it with our votes and our action. With our voices and through our writing.
Here is some of the writing that has been asking me to wake up:
- Claudia Rankine's Citizen, a must-read.
- "not an elegy for Mike Brown" by Danez Smith
- Advice for White Folks in the Wake of the Police Murder of a Black Person, by Justin Cohen
- Alton Sterling and When Black Lives Stop Mattering, by Roxane Gay
- Anything by Lucille Clifton, one of my longtime favorite poets
- The writing of Warsan Shire, whose poetry in Beyonce's Lemonade made me be quiet and listen on a new level