We are grateful to Aurielle Marie for helping our organization be more accountable to the values we espouse, and we hope their insight sparks robust conversation in more literary communities around belonging, activating personal responsibility, applying lessons, and change as a practice. As a nonprofit, we offer the caveat that this essay series reflects the author’s opinions and lived experience as an organizer and literary citizen. The Offing as an organization does not endorse political candidates.
This was the second letter in a series of 10 dedicated to engaging The Offing’s literary network in social justice and a value shift toward equity within our respective organizations. The letter was originally sent on November 30, 2020.
I heard it loudly the evening of November sixth. Faint and distinct. Unmistakable. A roar, launching itself from the rooftops of homes across America as if I had laid on my back in a forest and overheard millions of leaves whispering into an uproar… Sighs of relief expelling from lungs across the country at the exact moment the Associated Press called Joe Biden as the projected winner of the 2020 presidential election.
Look, I get it. I understand the attraction of political victory. After all, in the wake of all we’ve been witness to, a Biden presidency offers us something irresistible: the chance to seemingly, finally, rest. But this great relief, this celebration, scared me. In light of what the past four years have revealed about the failures of this nation, now is the time for a concerted effort to shift the social and political landscape toward freedom. We can not afford to underestimate the hard work that our futures require of us. And I worry that’s exactly what is up ahead.
I knew from the beginning that November’s essay would be unavoidably difficult, and would test the limits of your trust. I think, more than I want to impress you, I want to always remain honest with you, reader. No matter what it may cost. I offer my reflections as a window. I welcome your critiques, your questions, your responses. Allow us to begin with the most honest thing I can manage: I did not vote for either presidential candidate in the 2020 election.
Are you still there?
My organizing began with the murder of young Michael Brown in 2014—under a different president, plagued by identical violence trademarked by the current administration. Organizing for racial justice in 2014 wasn’t easy. It involved sleeping out at the jailhouse and courthouses in the dead of winter, shutting down highways under threat of vehicular assault, kidnappings by police, and police retaliation upon the activist community. Anti-protesters would train the scopes of their openly carried assault weapons on the bodies of teenagers and young children. When a new head of state was sworn in, these tenets and modalities of our organizing did not change. I learned then, I think, that our strategies and intentions could not depend upon the whims of whoever held the highest seat in the nation, but must persist despite its occupant. The world I envision involves the return of power and equity to the hands of the people, and no president can or will ever offer that. As Coretta Scott King said: “…freedom is to be fought for and won within every generation.” Not voted in. Not endorsed or elected. Fought for. I believe we each have a fight, specific and distinct to us. I do not believe that toil begins or ends at the ballot box.
I sat for months with this decision. I read up on analyses by well-respected scholars and organizers: Cathy J. Cohen’s Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, and even Unapologetic, written by activist and speaker Charlene Carruthers. I listened at the feet of elders-in-struggle who spoke of voter registration in the South during the first decade in which Black folks could submit a ballot. My grandmother, my matriarch, was so moved by the calling of civic duty this year that in the midst of a global health crisis she found the strength and courage to organize a neighborhood voter drive. I, too, searched these wisdoms for courage and purpose. I searched for strategies that forgave my deep skepticism, and offered a way through.
This year there was not a presidential candidate on the ballot who condemned white supremacist violence and vowed to investigate and dismantle those extremist groups. There wasn’t a presidential candidate on the ballot who believed in closing down prisons, decreasing LEO budgets, and demilitarizing police units in a decisive move toward prison and police abolition. There wasn’t a candidate who vowed to nullify the rise of nationalism, populism, and carcerality. There wasn’t a candidate who backed issues critical to me, and of course not. Because, as Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” And so, having no more capacity—with all the marching, and bailouts, and city council meetings I’ve weathered this long year—to stomach the impossible, egregious false choices white supremacy necessitates from me, I abstained from voting for a president. I carried in the tradition of southern, Black radical freedom fighters, like the incomparable Ella Baker who taught us that fighting for freedom “…means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.”
From the outset, the 45th president has used dog-whistle rhetoric, fear-mongering, and bias pandering to maintain power. When we weren’t fighting against the children of migrants and asylum seekers being thrown in cages, we were fighting for the Black and brown trans people thrown into “I.C.E. boxes” at detention centers. When we weren’t mourning those lost to the coronavirus, we were facing mass layoffs, evictions. This doesn’t include the mass uprisings this summer in light of senseless police killings, kidnappings of local activists in multiple cities, and the surveillance of youth organizers by militarized police. Not to mention we lost over 25 young people at the hands of police and vigilantes at protests this summer. But I am of the belief that these atrocities expand upon a ceaseless legacy of fascisim, disinformation, antagonization, and inequity that stretch back to this country’s inception. I am of the belief that our work to thwart these violences has been necessitated by oppressive systems, for generations. What, then, does it say about the utility of a president, if social justice must be fought for no matter who sits in the oval office?
In our own literary communities even (or, especially), the American legacy of otherism thrives. We fight a government that exploits its working class people, and yet reputable literary organizations have been held to account this year for workplace discrimination, sexual harassment, and exploitative labor practices. Leaders in the writing world, people that shape the minds of writers and thinkers on the rise have written that Black and brown people are culturally predisposed to poverty and criminality, or have called Black poets “third-rate minds” during petty arguments online. If Trumpism is what we were hell-bent on voting out, then do we also begin to vote our collegiate department chairs, former literary heroes and local community leaders out from their positions of influence? This is the fight Coretta Scott King spoke of, the freedom to be won in all our respective places of leadership. These are the places to continue working toward change.
The emotional impact of an ever shifting Overton window surely has taken its toll on us. I know ethnographers, cultural analysts and health researchers will be documenting the impact of blatant facism on the American public for decades. Just as Trump’s presidency wasn’t the beginning of white supremacist terrorism and violence, his transition out of office doesn’t signify for us its end. The 45th president is (was!) no more racist, no more cruel, no more xenophobic or trans-antagonist than our country’s dominant culture. A culture that allowed him to campaign, win an election, thwart an impeachment, then run again, successfully. Because he didn’t engineer fascist governmental strategy, or white supremacist extremism, we must be ever-vigilant of the coming storms we’ve yet to weather. Vigilance takes dedication, and earnest investment. In other words, mind your relief, Reader. What comes along with it is, unavoidably, complacency and we can’t afford that now. We have so much to lose.
As the election fades into the rearview mirror, we have to ask ourselves: have I earned the right to disengage? Have I fought enough? What is the cost of my relief, sweet through it must feel… and who pays the price?
Simple Tasks For All of Us Because It’s Been A Hard Month:
1. Watch Ella Baker address a solidarity rally in a gutting speech about “Making the Struggle Every Day.” Then, watch this video of Ella’s on the responsibility of folks who experience white privilege to check their complacency.
2. Dedicated to voting? I understand! Because local politics impact all of us, and local elections are at a critical point, consider volunteering with a local leftist political organization to root your political analysis in the community surrounding you.
3. Not ready for that deep dive? Many Georgia organizers could use your support in the critical runoffs happening early next year, which could completely flip the senate. Organizers are excited to hold democrat senators to their promises (once they get into office, that is) and could use your help getting them there. Check out:
- New Georgia Project
- Fair Count GA
- Georgia Shift
- Any organization on this list, compiled by Atlanta’s Desis4Dems community!
Finally, check out this great article by Lara Witt, a writer I really respect, on how political theater should impact our engagement as voters. Lara asks us to be more imaginative, more trustworthy, and less carceral in our dreaming for the world. Her article also comes with a STUNNING “further reading” guide that will keep you chewing for the next few months.