2020 & My Writing
“This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” – Walter Benjamin
The deaths, the suffering, the isolation, the confusion, the ignorance, the idiocy, the greed, the corruption, the senseless waste, the sense of being trapped, the anxiety, the grief, the anger, the boredom, the endlessness—the language for this time of COVID-19 cannot do justice to what we have been going through. Of course, Trump and the Republicans have made a bad situation worse, and the anti-science and wishful thinking at the root of their response to COVID-19 is appalling and exasperating; as Masha Gessen, who grew up in Russia, has written in the New Yorker, our government’s response resembles more and more the propaganda machine of the Soviet Union where the purpose was as much to flatter the leaders as to maintain their power. Clearly, our country is doing considerably worse than the European Union, including a country like Italy, whose situation was once worse than ours and yet has turned things around in ways we haven’t. New Zealand, Korea, Taiwan have better numbers and yet those numbers don’t seem to matter. The fact that other countries are fulfilling the desire to open their economy and society sooner than the US doesn’t seem to register with Republicans—even though opening sooner is what they have wanted (as of course, does everyone else). Yes, I knew Trump and the Republicans don’t care about black lives, don’t care about brown lives, don’t care about children in cages—but you would think they might care about Aunt Ginny or grandpa or anyone in their family or themselves (c.f. the late Herman Cain). But no, let’s believe the doctor who hypes hydroxychloroquine and, as a bonus, alien demon seeds fertilizing the wombs of human women and entering the ball sacs of human men (oh, the sick part of me can imagine the porn parody version of this, with Stormy Daniels cradling the taint of an alien demon while Donald Trump looks on in approval).
And during the first few months of COVID-19, like so many others, I was of course depressed and anxious—but less so than I imagine for many others in America. My wife continues to have a job, we have health insurance, we held periodic dinners with our three children and my daughter’s boyfriend. I’m an introvert so in certain ways being in the house and not having to socialize was a sort of a relief.
At the same time, like many writer friends I’ve talked to, I found it hard to focus, and not just because of my obsessive consumption of the news—MSNBC, CNN, a flick through Fox to be aware of the craziness and mindless racist rage spewing there but not more than I could take. Of course, I knew our economy was cratering, and I feared more for the future of my children and others than myself. More personally, I felt that the issues I cared about—racial equity and social justice—were going to be relegated from the back burner where they always reside and instead tossed out back into a trash heap. If people are worried about money to live, money to put a roof over their heads, how they are going to finance their children’s future, AND COVID-19, I surmised that most white Americans would think, Let’s deal with first things first—and racial equity and social justice will have to wait (as they always have).
So how did this affect me as a writer? I’m now at an age where AARP sends me mailings, and since much of my own work deals with the issues of race, I imagined an immediate future where the concerns I write about would be further marginalized, and who knows how long it would be before that shifted. I’ve been working on a book of essays on race and another on Asian American issues, and I thought they would now be seen as even more irrelevant in an America which was involved with more immediate concerns—COVID 19, the economy. Much of my book on race dealt with how our racial past—slavery, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, white backlash against any racial progress—still shapes and determines white American responses to race in the present.
And then a few miles from my home in Minneapolis, George Floyd was murdered by four Minneapolis police officers. The country and indeed the world exploded, with thousands taking to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic racism in the justice system, and beyond that, to protest racism in all areas of our society; in two weeks, support for Black Lives Matter rose 25%--a shift on race so swift it was like nothing I’ve seen in my lifetime, and I’m old enough to remember the ‘60’s. Outweighing any fears of COVID-19, perhaps a little recklessly, I went to the demonstrations with two of my adult children, who work with young people from the area where George Floyd was killed. Indeed, one of my son Nikko’s students is the brave African American 17 year old Darnella Frazier who took the central phone video of George Floyd’s murder; Nikko also knew Frazier’s boyfriend who was with her and shouted at the police to stop their actions. Nikko was almost hit twice by rubber bullets and we invoked the rule: If you’re almost hit by a bullet, you need to leave the protest.
At a certain point, I took a couple trips to the intersection where George Floyd was murdered. There was a large mural of his face on the side of one building and another one store down, heaps of flowers, dozens of signs and other art work, a voting registration booth, free food stalls and commercial food stalls; a sound truck drove up with a group of hip-hop artists and people danced to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”--a mixed race crowd that included blacks, Latinx, Native Americans, Asian Americans and white people. I spoke to Andrea Jenikins, an African American trans writer-activist who is now on the city council, and Douglas Ewart, an African American musician and composer. Douglas and I recalled how, almost thirty years before, African American novelist Alexs Pate, artist Seitu Jones and director Ralph Remington and I created a performance piece that centered around the Rodney King video, a predecessor to the many videos of police brutality and killings which have led to the George Floyd demonstrations. Douglas and I talked about how we’d worked as artist activists in the community, teaching young people not just about art but about the conjunction of art and social justice. We talked about how what we was before our eyes was a result of the work so many of us had been doing for years, yes, especially with young people of color, but also with young white people who have grown up with a more thorough understanding of what systemic racism entails (my youngest son, Tomo, has observed that what he had to go away to college to learn in a sociology class on race, kids in high school are now learning).
A few weeks later, as I’ve done for 17 years, I taught at VONA, a writers’ conference for writers of color—only this year our two sessions were held virtually. I’d expected this distance learning would be a bit of a letdown from our usual in person teaching. But as the conference progressed, I realized how hungry the students were for a sense of community, for a sense of mutual purpose, for an opportunity to talk about what they have been going through with COVID-19 and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder; they were so eager and glad for a chance to do this with fellow writers of color in a space where they felt they could speak freely and be who they are (too many had had experiences in white workshops where they had been insulted and silenced, their aesthetics and communities consciously and unconsciously relegated to the margins).
When I wrote to my two classes at VONA before the conference, I talked about the purpose of VONA, how VONA had been instituted to foster the aesthetics and practices of writers of color, to allow them a place to learn their craft where the issues of race and identity were not regarded as minor nuisances, or extraneous to aesthetics, or some PC bullshit meant to silence and censor white writers, but essential to our craft. I told them that their voices, their writing, their stories, their lives and the lives of their communities matter, and that we were seeing evidence of that now not just throughout the country, but throughout the world. I quoted to them from Jeff Chang’s Who We Be, a study of the cultural changes in the post-Civil Rights era, and Chang’s observation on the conjunction of art and politics:
Here is where artists and those who work and play in the culture enter. They help people to see what cannot yet be seen, hear the unheard, tell the untold. They make change feel not just possible, but inevitable. Every moment of major social change requires a collective leap of imagination. Change presents itself not only in spontaneous and organized expressions of unrest and risk, but in explosions of mass creativity.
So those interested in transforming society might assert: cultural change always precedes political change. Put another way, political change is the last manifestation of cultural shifts that have already occurred.
I told my students that their writing is part of what we were seeing in the streets of America: Massive unrest and demonstrations, yes, but the groundwork for this call for change has come not just from the work of political organizing—which many of us have done—but also from our art, from our voicing of lives that have too long been marginalized and excluded from our portrait and sense of America, what it has been and what it is now.
And as I wrote these words to my student, I felt again why I myself write. I wrote the final essay for the book on race I had been discouraged about during the first months of COVID-19. This book opens with an essay on Philando Castile, a black man killed by a police officer just a couple miles from home and it concludes with an essay on the murder of George Floyd, just a few miles from my home. That my book starts and ends with the killing of two black men by police so close to me is a tragic, cruel and telling irony. But maybe, just maybe, we are on the precipice of a great change, and my job is to write towards that change, towards the future, even as I keep my eyes, like Benjamin’s angel, directed towards the past and how that past is propelling this moment to where and who we might become.