Around 2 a.m. on Monday, my roommate and I were going through a slideshow of quotes from Joe Biden and then Donald Trump, in desperate need of entertainment. Our aimless procrastination had us following her mouse to online galleries that burned into our eyes with the unsavory clumsiness of the two men who were competing for the prestigious misnomer of leader of the free world. It was supposed to be funny, and for a bit, it was. Until their words stopped painting an image of their indiscretion, instead telling ugly truths of their aptitude to cause suffering. My laughter was interrupted by a lump in my throat.
Four years fill up fast and hold a lot. Namely: A rough presidency, personal growth and the mind-numbing confusion and chaos with which each has been punctuated. Growing since I was sixteen has taken the trajectory of a balloon. I lifted off to a path that promised to float higher and higher, expanding my perspective and peering over an ever-widening landscape of myth and knowns and unknowns, but then all too suddenly touched back down in inevitable deflation, landing me squarely up the steps from the Oak Ave circle, staring at some well-intentioned chalk art that I couldn’t help but meet with a sneer. And a sigh.
Coming to college made me conscious of the problem of having an introduction prone to misinterpretation. Every “where do you live” since my first introduction to my freshman year roommate has made me wonder if my graceless attempts to illustrate the distinct small town-ness of where I was raised give people an entirely wrong impression. I grew up in an oxymoron. Rural New York is a descriptor so pitted against itself that it almost cancels out, diffusing into a vast Middle of Nowhere that disappears off mental maps when you’re tasked with telling someone where you’re from and where that is. My jumbled words between ‘um’s’ and ‘have you heard of’s’ could never capture the character of my piece of upstate in an icebreaker-friendly time crunch, so what follows is a hunch that feels like an itch that strangers walk away thinking of charming shots of green and hay from Hallmark movies instead of the slightly less magical reality I knew.
Before the whir of life-changing events and the unprecedented-ness that has characterized the past six months, I was bent over my notebook for Black Radical Tradition in the U.S., taught by Professor Russell Rickford, Africana and American Studies, rushing to sloppily jot down his last sentence: “Americanism is ahistorical.”
More recently, sitting on my couch instead of a desk and staring not at slides but the rolling credits for Spike Lee’s most recent war drama, Da 5 Bloods, I heard an echo of Prof. Rickford in the back of my head. And since then, I’ve been reminded of those three words so often that I now hear them in my own voice, as I read people’s denialism about the United States’ militant capacity to conquer civilians. Specifically its own citizens. Over videos of federal agents deployed on the streets of New York, Portland and Chicago, Homeland Security Investigations officers brutalizing protestors and plainclothes cops snatching people into unmarked vans, outrage and shock have been weirdly focused on where this is happening, and whose citizens it’s happening to, rather than the simple fact that it’s happening. These reactions reveal a need to create distance between America and the evidence before us, and to pretend that distance is as geographical as it is ethical: “A little graffiti and some toppled statues and we turn into freaking [Al]Fallujah.
A four-hundred-year history of American racial brutality has streets across the country demanding change. And yet unresponsiveness is still being wrapped up aesthetically as a concession. Instead of taking action, various establishments rely on sundry statements from the atonement assembly line to quiet rebellion and save face. Police murders and anti-Blackness are being met with a golden age of apology, in which Cornell is disappointingly and unsurprisingly participatory. Racism, and the magnitude of its gruesomeness, is uncapturable.
It’s finals season. Sort of. Which means I’m very busy gnawing pen caps beyond recognition, trying to figure out where the hours I promised to dedicate productivity ran off to and how my caffeine-high lent itself to more characters tweeted than words typed into docs. Evidently, and despite the circumstances that occupy the greeting of every email I’ve written since March, it seems my end-of-semester business is proceeding as usual. I mean, it isn’t.
Earlier this week I woke up with reddened, crust-filled eyes and strained to check my phone for the time. Class was in four minutes and counting down. Shit. But, online instruction brought slight comfort to this realization. I didn’t have to jump out of bed and start a chaotic race across campus or even worry about losing all the minutes that slip into the void the mirror of a public bathroom becomes when you’re agonizing over your reflection.
On Wednesday I woke up late, and to bad news. But I guess that second part isn’t unique from Tuesday, or Monday, or Sunday or whatever number of days came before that since this started, during which each day’s “good morning” is in the form of a new distressing headline that becomes weirdly indistinguishable from the last. You know this if you have the privilege of spending this mandated isolation period in constant search of entertainment, rather than in the much more dire, enduring circumstances which are a reality for millions of people across America. You’ll likely also understand the re-invigorated, childlike inclination to make games of nothing. So, let’s play.
I was in seventh grade and 12 years old, when my history teacher, Mrs. Saylor, paused and turned her attention away from the dirty whiteboard in a moment of realization to say that we, the cluster of restless preteens seated in front of her, had never known life without war. I’m still not sure if that statement was completely correct. I do know that she was right about the list events she subsequently rattled off to try to help us, children supposedly bombarded with unending violence on the very largest scale, understand the stuff we’d been through, the stuff we’d seen: 9/11, the Iran/Iraq War, ongoing military aggressions with Afghanistan, a hard-hitting recession, the Boston Marathon Bombing, constantly-stacking murders by our police force, Sandy Hook Elementary and so many shootings since that it’s far past the point of pathos to try to name them all. It was a lot. I almost hadn’t noticed.