Since the election, I have been trying to think. Like many people I love, I am afraid for the country I live in, and I’m afraid for people I love. And I feel a need to talk, and to listen to people who feel afraid — to find and share stories with you. Because at the heart of what shakes me tonight, I am more than sad and more than scared by the ways hate and exclusion have been made central to this campaign.
People across the country are saying in different ways, I feel threatened. I feel alone. And people are saying that hate is not mine. I want to stand with you. I want to be an ally. I want to live in a country of the people, by the people and for the people — in a country where we can all live ordinary lives, where we can freely love and work, pray or not, speak, play music. People are saying we need to talk to each other.
And I want to help. As a writer, a journalist, and a woman living in the Berkshires, I want to help any way I can. I remember Martyna Majok this summer, as her new play opened, telling me that she wanted to be of use. So do I. What can I do, now, that will do some good?
As I ask that, I remember a night not long before the election. Men and women stand in a circle with bass and fiddle and drums at their backs, and they sing. A lament keens like a field song. A Spiritual takes on a call to action, as people in the cane fields once sang Swing Low, Sweet Chariot to spread the word that the Underground Railroad would leave soon to lead its passengers to freedom.
But these are today’s songs. Toshi Reagon brought her opera in progress to Williams College on Nov. 4. In “Parable of the Sower,” based on the novel by Olivia Butler, she is drawing on 400 years of black American musical traditions, soul, Afro-beat, jazz, rock, R&B. She moved me to breathlessness that night. She moved me to trembling. She moved me to sit tall and listen. Her music calls to me now.
Butler set her novel in a collapsing world, and her people have come together to protect each other, to keep going. As I write to you tonight, I can hear her characters, Lauren Olamina and her father and step-mother, singing to each other to Toshi Reagon’s beat, the voices around the circle growing low and tense and urgent: You don’t know the time.
They’re right. They were right about me. I didn’t see this election coming.
This is a hard time for me and for many people I love, and for many across the country. On the day after the election, in the early morning, in the first shock after the results came in, I told my mother nothing has ever scared me this way. I know many people feel the same — just as clearly as I know how lucky that last sentence makes me. I have never had to be fundamentally afraid.
And many people in this country have. Williams professor of Africana Studies Rashida Braggs, talking with me about Toshi Reagon, brought up James Baldwin’s essays in “The Fire Next Time,” and we both remembered Baldwin’s open letter to his nephew, his brother’s son.
“I have known both of you all your lives and have carried your daddy in my arms and on my shoulders, kissed him and spanked him and watched him learn to walk. I don’t know if you have known anybody from that far back, if you have loved anybody that long, first as an infant, then as a child, then as a man. You gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort.”
Baldwin was a novelist, poet, playwright and voice for Civil Rights, though he protested against that name. A citizen would already have civil rights, he said — making the movement a fight, and a call, for citizenship. He wrote about this country in strong, aching essays, calling white America to account. And he wrote to his nephew because he loved him, and he was afraid.
He is looking ahead to the world his nephew will grow into and seeing its dangers — all the ways the boy he loves may have to face people who will try to make him less of a man. And he imagines the divisions overcome. “… We with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it, for this is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it. Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become.”
Baldwin wrote this letter in 1962, and I have had it bookmarked on my computer since the Progressive, the magazine that first published it, re-published it to honor him in 2014. And he could have written it today.
If you are reading this, sit here with me and think of the people you have known from that far back. Imagine sitting across from Baldwin at a cafe table in Harlem or in Paris and asking him what world they will grow into.
Sit here with me and listen to acoustic blues. Let me tell you what I’ve seen here in our town, what we have to hold onto.
I love living in a world where I can hear the harmonies and spare, layered words of Toshi Reagon’s music. In her “Parable,” Lauren Olamina faces a world falling apart. And she survives by seeing what is real and acting on it. Everything you touch, you change. Everything you change changes you.
And I love walking across town on a summer night to hear Jose Llana play the gentle long-distance runner in Poster Boy at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. He played a natural leader moved by a need to answer someone in pain, as I would be, because I’ve been an older sister as long as I can remember — and I can hear him holding the stage alone and singing in a tenor that filled the theater. He was singing in anguish because he was too late to keep a young gay man from jumping off the George Washington Bridge.
Jose Llana’s character also felt a deep need to do something more than sit in silence. He invited people to meet face to face. And when I talked with Toshi Reagon before her performance here, for a story, she told me that communities need to work together, to build structures on the ground. We need to reach out to each other. I want to do that.
I want to say in some way that matters, I hear you, and I want to live in a world where you are strong and vividly alive.
I want to say what can I do to help. And I mean that directly, actively, not as an excuse or as self pity, but as a real question. That morning after the election, when my mother and I were both hoarse with shock, my mother told me that letting myself get put out of commission now would not help in any way. And I began to think about what I can do.
I’m a writer. So I think in stories. And I think of the people I have met and talked with in more than 15 years as a journalist in the Berkshires — Emel Mathlouthi, who sang a Tunisian anthem to the Nobel Peace Prize winners before she came here and made an auditorium at MCLA vibrate with her voice; and Sherry White of the Stockbridge-Musee Nation caring for these hills; and the women of Ecuador and Oaxaca, Mexico, who told me about their Easter traditions for my first On the Bridge column in the Eagle and made me a bowl of hot soup with 12 kinds of beans and bacalao.
And I remember the night Ishar Patkin came to Mass MoCA to speak in the retrospective show he had imagined with Agha Shahid Ali — a Kashmiri poet inspiring an Israeli artist in a New England mill. They had worked together on the art and poetry of “The Veiled Suite” as Ali was dying of brain cancer.
That night at the museum, the Hoosic River ran under the street lights outside the window. In the long gallery, scrims turned the vast, worn space into phantom rooms. Images floated on the walls, blossoming trees and fishing boats on the coast of Tel Aviv. Professor Iqbal Ali read his brother’s poetry. I remember his voice and the dancing images he read, a sense of the city at night, friendship and loneliness, and the fine patterns of Bengali weaving. When I looked up I found I was holding my hands tight with the brightness of it.
The work I do leads me to many warm conversations I want to share. Now more than ever, I want to ask you — come with me and listen to the music, hear the stories, dance to the djembe and marimba when Kusika and the Zambezi Marimba Band perform together. Come with me and see how much we have among us.
As we move toward the holidays, I am going to bring some of these stories back to light, and tell you what I’ve known about people who live here and people who have come here to share their making and their souls with us.
I love the place where I live. I love the mountains and the pastures, the farmers markets and maker spaces, the mill city neighborhoods and the hilltowns. I want to know the people who lived here 400 years ago, and the people who came 100 years ago to work the marble quarries, the people who have come from Africa and Europe and South and Central America and Asia and made a home here, the Brooklyn musicians and artists who visit and the students who come today to learn.
And as Baldwin wrote to his nephew, I don’t want to leave. I want anyone who lives in my town, my state and my country to feel we all belong here. I want to live in a world where anyone in this country can hear Baldwin saying this is your home, my friend.
I don’t pretend that I can say it as he can write it — but if I can do anything to make it real, I want to do it.
If he were here, I think he would feel a deep sadness and anger that his letter can still cut to the quick so hard. But he might also find some concrete signs of change. We have seen that when someone who has not felt at home here makes the country his own, people can embrace it. It is possible. Look at Hamilton.
So as a beginning, let me make an offer to the Berkshires. If you feel there are stories that need telling, let me know. It’s what I’m here for. If you want to talk, I’ll listen.
Photo at the top: Candela al buio. Photo by Luca Casartelli