Can we dream of a better, a new, a peaceful, a just, world, and if so, how do we make the dream into reality?
A book and an Op-Ed have given me some answers to those always timely questions.
The book is On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope (Viking 2018) by Deray McKesson and the Op-Ed, from the New York Times of September 21, 2018, is “We Are Not the Resistance” by Michelle Alexander.
Each has a distinct perspective and agenda—McKesson reflecting on his experience of being a lead organizer in Ferguson MO protests and then helping form #Black Lives Matter, and Wallace, in a much shorter space, talking about how the term “resistance” is being misused and is damaging efforts to create desperately needed social change.
For me, however, they converge in offering real life ideas and strategies for that change. And they each share truths and history about how those struggling for freedom, work for justice and wholeness in the world help bring about real change.
Let me begin with Wallace. Her powerful essay is classic Wallace (author of the enormously insightful and life-changing book about mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow, in that here she again uses history to show it is being ignored, misused and repeated.
A basic observation is that throughout U.S. history, the struggle that has created change is the work of oppressed and disadvantaged people to achieve justice, e.g., African Americans to end slavery and Jim Crow and gain freedom, workers seeking fair wages, reasonable hours, decent workplace conditions, and dignity, women seeking voting rights and an end to rape culture, etc. (none of these yet won, of course). That is the course of history, she says. The resistance has come from the powerful, the propertied, the privileged. In that sense, she writes,
Resistance is a reactive state of mind. While it can be necessary for survival and to prevent catastrophic harm, it can also tempt us to set our sights too low and to restrict our field of vision to the next election cycle, leading us to forget our ultimate purpose and place in history. The disorienting nature of Trump’s presidency has already managed to obscure what should be an obvious fact: Viewed from the broad sweep of history, Donald Trump is the resistance. We are not.
When I read her piece I was buoyed up. It makes so much sense. Those who are trying to take us back to some imagined golden time (“fake news”) are the ones reacting to, and resisting, the flow of history which has, here and elsewhere, pushed the world to new levels of justice, dignity, equality, and inclusion (even as there is so far yet to go).
We owe it to those on whose shoulders we stand who worked and sacrificed and died for more justice, more peace, more shalom to continue the march, even as we know many of the privileged and the powerful will resist.
And yet, of course, that means we who want that more have work to do. As former Attorney General Eric Holder cautioned several years ago, commenting on Dr. King’s memorable statement about the moral universe, “the arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.”
In slightly more than 200 pages, Deray McKesson—using the experience of creating with others a movement in Ferguson, his own personal history, and the dogged and ongoing pursuit by him and others of information about how white supremacy works in this country—gives us both information about right now that we need and how we can go about using what we learn to create real and deep and lasting change.
I learned a lot from this book—about the current realities of police violence against people of color, wisdom of how complicated coalitions are, and the importance of hope and faith (for him, as for others, including questions about whether God is in the struggle any more), as well as important perspectives on organizing and not being quiet—and I encourage all to read it. It is very readable, life on every page, and hope laced throughout.
I want to focus here on McKesson’s thoughts on hope. I have long said I am a hopeful person, a person who does not lose hope even in the midst of great challenges. But after reading this book I think I have been rather passive about hope, seeing it as an attitude, a perspective on life—good things, yes, but not enough.
“Hope is not magic,” he writes, “hope is work.” I saw this in his person when I heard him speak at George Washington University recently—he is a deeply engaged and engaging human being. I felt him reaching out to us, yearning for us to join the struggle.
He observes that many Black folks, and undoubtedly other marginalized and oppressed people, feel it is unfair to require them to carry the burden of hope in the face of huge obstacles to liberation and justice. I have heard this said along the way in struggles for LGBTQ equality as well.
“To this I say that the absence of hope, not its presence, is burden for people of color. If anything, blackness is a testament of hope: a people born in and of resistance, pushing against a tide meant to destroy, resting in a belief that this world is not the only one that can be.” (I remember the magisterial collection of writings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope, edited by the late extraordinary scholar James M. Washington).
McKesson says that faith is the burden that gets misnamed as hope. Faith is our choice. Whether we have faith or not is a decision to make—and it can be difficult if not impossible when we struggle and we see others struggle only to be crushed by the dominating powers. He says his faith wavers at times, and I know this to be true for me.
But then he says what caused me to stand up and cheer in recognition of a fundamental truth:
I think that in some ways the hope of black people is the fuel for this nation; that it is the creativity and ingenuity of a people who have had every reason to choose resignation but have not that fuels both the culture and cadence of this American life.
Amen. A truth of black lives and women’s lives, queer lives, disabled lives, elderly lives, youthful lives.
So we have work to do. We have to protest—surely protesting is the work of hope. And we have to keep nurturing and expanding the vision of what a world of justice and joy—a work we have yet to see in the flesh—will be. The world we want, the world we seek, the world to which all are entitled.
I go forward with renewed and stronger courage, and faith, grounded in hope. Read this book, read the essay by Michelle Wallace, and let us join the march forward.