“What about you? Are you content?”
My friend E and I were taking a walk, catching up at the end of summer–most of which she had spent away.
E is one of my closest friends, and though we aren’t great at keeping up regular contact while apart, her question took me aback: shouldn’t she know whether I’m content?
Also: shouldn’t I know?
Am I content?
Do I–should I want to be?
“Um, I guess so,” I think I said, then. I mumbled something about how I was feeling overwhelmed, per usual; unstable, per usual; uncertain in assorted ways about teaching and writing and community–but also happy, in many moments, finding nourishment in relationships and art and work, whatever that all means.
For the last six Saturday mornings, and for four more to come, I have and will sit in a circle with a group of adults in a room at a church in north Minneapolis.
We gather there to discuss texts, watch videos, share personal stories: to work toward a deepened knowledge of this country’s racist history, and toward unlearning the racist conditioning we’ve all–all of us–received.
I’ve been appreciating that space. And feeling drained by it. Sometimes frustrated. Always thankful and humbled, often overwhelmed.
Our reflections and learnings often lead me to a similar dilemma: how to hold, at once, the vast magnitude of the problem (what bell hooks calls “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”) alongside a belief that much of the most important work must take place on a small, intimate scale: settings like that church room.
(Yes, the change we need is systemic, but in order for folks–white folks, mainly–to work toward that change meaningfully, we’ve got a lot of internal work to do, too. I think.)
How, in other words, to know that no amount of resistance will ever feel like “enough,” while maintaining a commitment to resist as much as we can? Or: how to see that we are unlikely to witness the transformative, systemic change we believe necessary while continuing to take part in the work?
Oh, right, and what is the work? Is it introducing my composition students to anti-racist concepts and texts that many of them won’t hear? Emailing my parents movie reviews that critique Hollywood’s romance with colonialism, then drinking bloody marys instead of attending an organizing meeting? Teaching poetry classes in prisons I’m not sure should exist, nodding while a guard tells me he respects the incarcerated men who he’ll deny water or bathroom privileges during class? Catching myself as I make racist assumptions about a young, Asian-American woman beside me in the sauna while I smugly read a chapter from The White Racial Frame? Talking about writing poems that address whiteness while finding every excuse to not actually write them?
Like most writers who teach (personal) essays, I often introduce my students to the roots of the word–from the French essayer: to try. An essay, we’re told, is an attempt, an effort, a try at answering some question: what does it mean to feel joy? How to be a black man in America without getting swallowed by rage? What does it feel like to witness a bombing and manhunt on television while incarcerated?
That they begin with questions doesn’t mean good essays arrive at clear answers; those aren’t really a thing in the world, and nor (us omniscient teachers say) should they be in print.
What we look for in essays, then, and what–I might assure myself–we look for in life, is the grasping: purposeful, thoughtful, reflective seeking.
This takes some pressure off: who needs to worry about clear answers (like what the hell “the work” means) when it’s the questions that matter?
The problem with this framework, as Leslie Jamison eloquently puts it in her introduction to this year’s Best American Essays, is that it lets us off the hook: “If anything counts as attempt,” she asks, “what could possibly count as failure?”
And of course, as she goes on to explain: “essays aren’t immune to failure. They can fail in a thousand ways–by failing to offer insight, by offering insights that feel too easy, too tidy, too shopworn. They can fail to enchant….They can fail to render their subjects with sufficient complexity. They can declare themselves done too soon.”
Similarly: if we know we won’t see something like “success” when it comes to the work of liberation and justice, then how will we know when we’ve failed?
In some ways, we won’t: it’s often (if not always) impossible to fully know the true, short or long term impacts of any kind of social justice work.
But it is certainly possible to fail by not doing what we can. Too easily, if I extend Jamison’s metaphor, I can applaud myself for asking hard questions while failing to take the pursuit–of insight, of knowledge, of the work itself–as far as I have capacity to do.
It is always easy, after all, to slip back into complacency: to shrug and shroud myself with the comfort that there isn’t any “right” way to resist or any measure of “enough” work. To slip back, in other words, into a notion of success (or of “content”) that isn’t mine.
Our culture–and most of our families–doesn’t teach us to prioritize working for radical change: most of us weren’t told to measure our success by how much we commit to uprooting toxic masculinity or abolishing the construct of whiteness. We were (mostly) taught, rather, to pursue our own passions, to create our own families, to seek fulfillment and comfort and happiness for ourselves.
That’s a teaching I’m trying to unlearn–but I’m not there yet.
Put another way: I still don’t know, for me, what it means to be “content”–so how can I claim something I don’t yet understand?
At dinner with a pair of friends the other night, the term “woke” came up. I shared that I wasn’t sure it was okay (read: socially acceptable) to use the term as a white person, but struggled to put words around why.
Rob came to my aid: saying, in effect, that, as white folks, we’ll never really, fully, be “woke”; most of us have spent the bulk of our lives oblivious to the mere truth of our whiteness–the journey, as anti-racist folks often say, is lifelong, there will always be more learning, more unlearning to do.
Perhaps “half-woke,” he suggested, is a better term.
I thought of that the very next day–and how much it fits–when I found myself startled, naively surprised by some basic historical facts around American slavery presented in this podcast–one I’d just sent to some relatives, days earlier, because I thought it would be “accessible” for them (read: people I consider “less woke” then me).
There are multiple ways in which I could explain what prevented me from claiming the mantel of “content” that day: job insecurity (#adjunctlife), poetry rejections, relationship struggles (love is hard!), etc. And perhaps some combination of those was really what drove my response.
But maybe, too, it had to do with that idea of grasping: with the (relatively new) understanding of how half-conscious I am and always will be, with the awareness that I am trying to learn and internalize whole new understandings of what “success” and “work” and “content” really mean.
With the sense that, while I might be finding some insights along the way, I’ve got a very long way to go–and a destination that will always, in some ways, elude.