The following commentary is one in a series from KCET and Link TV writers and contributors reflecting on how the incoming president will shape, change, and redefine the future of California.
As the American presidency transitions from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, there are countless questions emerging. I have heard many of them first hand over the last two months as an 11th and 12th grade English teacher. Most of my students are from South Los Angeles, Inglewood, Hawthorne, and the South Bay and they are very curious to see what Trump is going to be doing about immigration, health care, freedom of speech, and everything else. Though my students and much of the school faculty seemed to be distraught by the election results, I have recently seen signs of hope in both my student’s response to Trump, and in a slew of literary, theatrical, and musical events across Los Angeles promoting resistance and creative expression. The legions of students and creative individuals using this time to protest and dream up an alternative reality they would like to see is a reminder that not only will America survive Trump, but eventually, after his reign is over, better days will arrive because most American people do not support racism, sexism, and other similar policies that Trump has espoused in his rise to power.
Creating the Country They Want to Live In
In the days following the election, I, too, found myself with many questions and a lingering sense of uncertainty. Amid not knowing quite what to do or how to answer my students’ questions, I found myself taking solace in literature and seeking wisdom from great authors and thinkers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and, at the end of last week, Martin Luther King Jr. Reading these texts reminded me that the xenophobia of Trump is not new. Perhaps more importantly, though, is the inspiration and empowerment that these writers gave to my students. The response writing that my students have been producing reflects their desire to improve America and create the country that they want to live in.
After watching a documentary about Walt Whitman and discussing his poem “Song of Myself” in class, my students wrote response poems using a few of Whitman’s lines as a starting point. I did not specify exactly what they should write, but I told them to use the spirit of Whitman to go in any direction they felt that would connect to their own life and how they feel in this moment. 11th grader Adriana Arroyo started her poem using Whitman’s phrase: “It is time to explain myself — let us stand up.” The next nine lines of her piece exclaim, “I am a woman, fighting for equality/We are women screaming to be recognized/This may be the 21st century — but it sure doesn’t feel like it/We’re forced to think all you can amount to is a mother/Well I think otherwise/We can be business women, teachers, doctors, lawyers/Anything you’ve ever dreamt to be/It’s time for gender equality/It’s time for the end of misogyny.” The piece went further on this theme and reflected her strong perspective. After reading her piece aloud in class and everyone applauding her poem, she told us that she wrote it after thinking about Trump’s ongoing comments about women and how she does not subscribe to that vision.
The legions of students and creative individuals using this time to protest and dream up an alternative reality they would like to see is a reminder that not only will America survive Trump, but eventually, after his reign is over, better days will arrive because most American people do not support racism, sexism, and other similar policies that Trump has espoused in his rise to power.
I have seen several other examples of similar empowering and thoughtful works in class not only on women’s issues, but addressing racism and people of color. Another one is from 12th grader Camille Jacome. In her poem “Skin,” she writes, “These ‘minorities’ you look down upon are in actuality the underdog contributors/Food recipes, music genres, artists, architecture; can't name just one thing in particular/Think twice before you segregate based on skin color, an accent, or the way someone's dressed/Keep in mind, we're supposed to be the land of opportunity, not the land of the oppressed.” I have been very impressed by all my students taking on these issues in their work.
There is a collective conscious brewing and I have even seen students begin their own publishing projects and podcasts. Jacome co-hosts a podcast with another student of mine, Rosalinda Flores. They started it right around the election because they wanted to create a dialogue with other conscious youth. Flores explains, “As a high school student, I realized that though I may not be able to vote and essentially have my voice heard, I can still do other things to make an impact in my world.” They created a podcast called “Indigenous Omnipotence,” that discusses poetry, current events and contemporary culture. “We reach out to teenagers,” Flores declares, “to let them know that we all share similar experiences and encounters in today’s world. Our podcast isn’t necessarily about being noticed, it’s about being heard.” And being heard they are. In addition to their podcast, these two have begun hosting weekly open mics that get more popular every week.
Pulling Together for Strength
Students, poets, and writers across the nation are sharing this spirit. Many of my friends are also teachers and they have reported to me that their students have been writing extra-thoughtful and incendiary pieces regarding the election and the state of national affairs. Moreover, every time I open my email, there is another invite to another literary event or art show protesting Trump. On Sunday January 15th, the event “Writers Resist” at Beyond Baroque drew over 300 people and there were so many attendees that there was an overflow seating area in the back garden with a television screen broadcasting the reading. What’s more is that there were "Writers Resist" events all over the country. The L.A. edition included an all-star lineup of Pulitzer Prize Winner Viet Nguyen, Douglass Kearney, Lynne Thompson, Naomi Hirahara, Victoria Chang, and a few dozen other prominent writers. This important event was a part of a nationwide campaign.
Sponsored by Pen America, there were "Writers Resist" events in 32 states and over 90 cities across the country. There are other similarly themed events organized by kindred organizations later this week at Avenue 50 in Highland Park, Da Poetry Lounge on Fairfax, and another one at Beyond Baroque. Beyond poetry, there are several theatrical events with a similar theme. The Santa Monica Rep is doing a staged workshop reading of a play based on John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath on January 20th at 8pm at the Miles Memorial Playhouse. Their co-founder, Jen Bloom, told me via email that “It will begin with a sing-a-long of Woody Guthrie tunes, followed by a reading of the play and a talkback. It is the night of the inauguration and our hope is that this event will be a place where people can remind themselves of what can happen in America when people pull together for strength and push away fear.”
The venerated author Rebecca Solnit’s volume from Haymarket Books, Hope in the Dark, propagates this theme of pulling together for strength and pushing away fear. Originally published in 2004, but republished in 2016 with a new foreword and afterword, Solnit shines a light into the darkness and offers an optimistic vision even amidst the obstacles and political despair that exists around us. Near the conclusion of her book’s new foreword, she writes, “When we wake up, we are no longer only the public: we are civil society, the superpower whose nonviolent means are sometimes for a shining moment, more powerful than violence, more powerful than regimes and armies. We write history with our feet and with our presence and our collective voice and vision.” Solnit continues in the next paragraph, “Together we are very powerful, and we have a seldom-told, seldom-remembered history of victories and transformations that can give us confidence that yes, we can change the world because we have many times before. You row forward looking back, and telling this history is part of helping people navigate toward the future.”
All of this is to say that on the eve of Trump’s presidency, we shall overcome even though it may appear particularly dark right now. Writers like Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Rebecca Solnit, urge us to resist fear and pull together. This is exactly what I see students, poets, and writers across the country doing. As Barack Obama said in his final presidential speech last week, “If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes, and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Persevere.”
I plan to keep teaching, writing, and encouraging my students to lace up their shoes and do what their spirit urges them to do whether it’s a podcast or writing their own book. The next four years may not be pretty, but the collective energy brewing will culminate and the American people will pull together to make our nation better. It has happened before. As Whitman, Hughes, and Solnit have shown, transformation is possible and I see this hope around me every day in my students, writers and activists navigating the future with their energy. The road ahead may seem unclear now, but the collective energy I see all around me reminds me that a new vision of the future will prevail.
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