Part of the answer to the question, How Free Exactly Do You Want to Be? lies in how vulnerable and authentic we are willing to be when and if we show up. We must know that all of our life experiences can be useful and instructive, much in the same way the words of our ancestors are for us now. What we write and share has the potential to be the very salt for someone else’s stew of life. Regardless of how hard we think we’ve fought, we can hardly be done.
Just one day after the 2016 United States Presidential Election, I was more than vulnerable. I still felt too raw to delve into the morass of what I felt – resentment, rage, anger, uncertainty, bamboozlement, fear, and suspicion. The reality that an agenda fueled largely by hate and fears of “dispossession” had won the election was beyond upsetting.
I was feeling too spent to speak, and too reluctant to explain my rightful fury to my youngest daughter who joined me while alone in my bedroom. I wanted to savor whatever wonder she had; perhaps in it, I could have reimagined an alternate interpretation that would pull me out of the apocalyptic shock I was feeling. I attempted to sort through some of my blue funk by writing poetry. I tried desperately to type the words into my phone, but not before long, I was interrupted by my youngest daughter.
“Whatcha’ doing, Momma?”
“Writing a poem.”
“Funny, I’m reading poetry.”
“Really? Something from school?” I ask, though I’m only half present.
“No, this is Maya Angelou!”
She held the book up high above her head to show off its cover. I couldn’t have been more pleased and she couldn’t have been more proud. She could have selected any of the number of books on her shelf, but this particular evening, my eight-year-old daughter chooses Maya Angelou’s book of poems. It was clear that my daughter and I needed each other, but it was the ancestral glue of Mother Maya that held us together, filling in the vastness where our words could not.
I plunked down on the bed, right across from her, and took my turn at flipping through the pages. We dug both of our elbows into the quilted cover and kept quiet. I called out the names of some of the poems. The Lesson, On Aging, Request, Just Like Job.
I returned to the poem she’d been reading, On Working White Liberals, and read it aloud:
I don’t ask the Foreign Legion
or anyone to win my freedom
Or to fight my battle better than I can.
Though there’s one thing that I cry for
I believe enough to die for
that is every man’s responsibility to man.
I’m afraid they’ll have to prove first
that they’ll watch the Black man move first
Then follow him with faith to kingdom come.
This rocky road is not paved for us,
So, I’ll believe in Liberal’s aid for us
When I see a white man load a Black man’s gun.
– Maya Angelou, On Working White Liberals
Like that of many other Black writers and creatives of her time – Audre Lorde, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Claude McKay, Rita Dove, June Jordan, Nina Simone, to name a few – Angelou’s poetry sought to process and push through some of the natural rage that came with living while Black in a largely oppressive, patriarchal, White supremacist state, while still daring to hold it accountable. I was now drawing my very strength from them, through the deep literary well of their written testimonies and narratives.
Their gracious legacy enrobed me and made me feel both powerful and capable. I could almost envision them nodding their heads in quiet disbelief and admonition, much in the same way a beleaguered parent would seem after her child encounters the very fate she warned against.
I hadn’t remembered the poem, On Working White Liberals, but it was timely as it highlighted the complicity and antipathy that I believed got us to this very juncture. Maya’s uncompromising commitment to humanity is dwarfed only by the invisibility and silence of those who present themselves as allies, as expressed in the poem’s last two lines:
“So I’ll believe in Liberal’s aid for us
when I see a white man load a Black man’s gun.”
Angelou’s words are unsentimental and direct. She does not ask anyone else to fight her battles, but rather, puts the responsibility for freedom squarely on the shoulders of all who claim to believe in its necessity, including the implied faithful. “Then follow him with faith to kingdom come.”
I thought if only more people showed up before now, if only more people spoke up, if only more people put their metaphoric elbows to the wheel and committed to reshaping the broader dialogue on what inclusiveness and humanity looked like, if only more people showed and proved themselves to be allies, if only more were willing to fight publicly for what they claimed to believe privately, in solidarity and visibility with the already vulnerable and seemingly expendable, if only…. but alas, it couldn’t end there.
This moment with my daughter was Spirit providing me with the very disturbance and counsel I needed; my daughter was merely the conduit. This special time with her was akin to the quiet time I remembered being set aside for reflection at the end of a Sunday church service. During this time, the pastor would encourage the congregation to stay in their seats and silently contemplate how it might better navigate the world once it removed itself from the hallowed walls of the sanctuary. Only this time, the pastor was replaced with a beloved community of literary ancestors.
I inclined my ear to their wisdom, for they had lived through far worse. Together, they came to deliver an urgent word that a sermon alone could not offer. Their expressions assured me that this business of writing as a tool of resistance is anything but a notion, anything but finished. I felt newly burdened, though in the best way possible.
Their charges to me, and now to you? Write the stories of our people; we need no allies to validate how we feel. Commit your whole selves to paper even as you seek to make sense of your pain. Write not only your pain, but be sure to also write your deepest joys, pleasures, and triumphs. Write of love and of truth. Write of betrayal and of redemption. Write of your faith and your doubt. Insist on your very wholeness. Show up even when you feel broken; this too, is part of your story. Continue…. even and especially, when it feels like the race is done.
How do you resist? How do you write/ move/ create/ love/ show up in spite of disappointment?
Featured Photo Credit: Alexander Lam @alxznder