I started my day with the news, and today was yet another day when the world–when Americans–were too much for me. What has sustained me through the last twenty-four hours is reading and rereading these enlightening paragraphs from Dr. Ibram Kendi’s latest piece in The Atlantic:
Slaveholders desired a state that wholly secured their individual freedom to enslave, not to mention their freedom to disenfranchise, to exploit, to impoverish, to demean, and to silence and kill the demeaned. The freedom to. The freedom to harm. Which is to say, in coronavirus terms, the freedom to infect.
Slaveholders disavowed a state that secured any form of communal freedom—the freedom of the community from slavery, from disenfranchisement, from exploitation, from poverty, from all the demeaning and silencing and killing. The freedom from. The freedom from harm. Which is to say, in coronavirus terms, the freedom from infection.
First of all, this is stylistically absolutely majestic, and I want to sit and marvel at what this prose is doing. I cannot wait to use these paragraphs as a mentor text to study writing.
But what I really needed was the historicizing of this otherwise inexplicable moment when some Americans are refusing to stay home or to wear masks and loudly protesting their “constitutional right” not to protect themselves or others. I have been so very angry this week. So very angry.
I knew I was looking at the legacy and current action of white supremacy, but I couldn’t connect the dots and understand why. Dr. Kendi has clarified the why, and so at least the part of my mind that kept restlessly circling on why, why, why has a better understanding. Understanding diminishes my rage, disgust, frustration and disappointment not even a little bit. But there is something at least mildly satisfying about being able to historicize a current crisis and place it within a context, however enraging.
Even white supremacy couldn’t dampen my joy at the announcement of the Pulitzer Prize winners yesterday. (Though it’s only fair to note that it did try. There were some really gross responses by white male historians to Nikole Hannah Jones’s Pulitzer.)
First, there was Nikole Hannah Jones’s Pulitzer for Commentary for her introductory essay to the 1619 Project. This is an incredibly important piece of writing, an essential and right reframing of the history and meaning of our nation. But this piece doesn’t just dazzle on argument alone: the writing itself is so beautiful, so haunting. Every time I read it, I learn something new about how to interweave personal essay, history, critique into one powerful whole.
Then, there was Colson Whitehead’s win for what continues to be the best novel I’ve read this year, Nickel Boys.
And then there was Jericho Brown’s win for his collection of poetry, The Tradition. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a poem as slowly as I read Duplex. That first line and where the poem takes you before returning to that line. Wow.
And THEN Ida B. Wells won a special citation for her journalism and I just broke out entirely in goosebumps. If you don’t know much about Ida B. Wells, start with Caitlin Dickerson’s excellent obituary in the New York Times.
I am looking forward to catching up on the rest of the journalism and books I missed this year.