I am a stubborn optimist. My optimism is partly delusional--an attempt to avoid feelings of sadness or despair, but I also find optimism rational. If the outcome of a situation is unknown, why meditate on the less favorable possibility? My optimism is also rooted in my faith, a religious belief in a God that is protecting me, but also the faith that comes from experience. When you grow up watching your Black single mother navigate circumstance after circumstance and still survive, you cannot help but to nurture a measured optimism. You might be skeptical, there might be a tinge of disbelief within you, but you are resilient, and your resilience forces you to believe, at least minimally, that things “will be alright.”
To date, there have been umpteenth unjust murders of Black and Brown men and women. Video after video has been released. Story after story. Statistic after statistic. These videos and murders were met with a righteous outpouring of anger. Things felt urgent. The sheer visibility of the deaths made me believe that surely things would be done quickly. And to date, though imperfect, things have been done. Body cameras have been instituted. Investigations of police departments have been ignited. Powerful political figures like Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy of Chicago and States Attorney Anita Alvarez have been ousted. The media is actually talking about police brutality, and even Hillary Clinton warbles out words like “systemic racism” at the Democratic National Convention.
Yet three steps forward are always punctuated by two steps back. Our two steps now exist in the form of the grotesque Donald Trump. And while Donald Trump is horrendous, the real tragedy is that Hillary is not much better. Many of us will settle for her, and those who are radical and progressive claim that she is just as bad. And what a shame, to be elected only in the negative space, to be chosen because no one wants the alternative. If this were a child’s kickball game, Hilary is essentially the second-to-last kid picked in the line up.
I hate that the scope of my political interest right now is basically summed up with the phrase “Sure, why not?” because this is truly a time where some of the most visionary things are being proposed. A coalition of roughly 50 organizations, the Movement for Black Lives, just released a series of policy proposals that call for truly visionary things like reparations, a living wage for everyone, and the abolition of prisons. Sadly, many of us have become so accustomed to the mediocrity that is the progressive reformist agenda that we can barely even imagine a world with some of these proposals. Let alone believe that these things can happen.
Nowadays, optimism seems futile. Will my people really be free because of this next protest? Who else needs to go to jail? Will electing this politician really bring about change? Won’t this next policy just be gutted? Won’t Donald Trump just win? Can we really bring about an end to capitalism, patriarchy, racism, heterosexism, ableism, and and and and…? The only thing, that makes any perceivable sense, is to remain inert and indifferent. Perhaps just to succumb to capitalism, find my way through it, and just stay buried in Netflix.
At times like this I think of freedom fighters like Harriet Tubman, who went back to the South roughly 19 times over a ten year span to free slaves. She went back for her brother. She went back for her sister. She went back for her husband (who had remarried!). She went back for her 70 year old parents. And of course she was not on a bullet train or a Greyhound. I wonder what kept this woman going? Was it her relentless Black womanhood? The Black womanhood we’ve seen from our mothers and grandmothers, and our aunties and cousins? That Black womanhood that just handles business because they have no choice but to handle business? I wonder about Harriet Tubman, what sustained her, and what allowed her to keep returning to the height of death. Maybe it wasn’t so simple as optimism, maybe it was just necessity.
Even at the height of my cynicism, I know that indifference can never be a real option for me. I am convinced that indifference, and its cousin pragmatism, are just weapons of the privileged who are mostly fine with the status quo. They essentially are quite comfortable with their way of life, and so see the urgent concerns of the marginalized as coincidental aberrations of an otherwise perfect society. With no serious pressure, they would be content with things as they are. For them, “change” means minor adjustments. The opportunity to get married, perhaps a new stop sign on a street corner, voting for the right politician, or a body camera on a police officer. They advocate incremental change, “policy” changes, they love meetings and task forces. They claim that moving slowly is the same as being rigorous and thoughtful.They seldom have any solutions to offer themselves, but merely chastise anyone else who dares to dream.
I can never be content with the way things are because I know that Black people, and any person suffering in this country, cannot afford to be practical. We must be visionary, we must be expansive, and generative. We must see all things as possible with enough effort and ingenuity. If it is possible to have the largest funded military in the world, if it is possible to have 20% of the world’s incarcerated, but only 4% of the population, then surely it is possible for everyone in this country to be free.
I want to hold onto my optimism. I want Black people and any other person who knows the truth about this world to hold onto their optimism. To be as strident in their beliefs about freedom and justice as Harriet Tubman was in her journeys back to the South.
But I don’t know where to put my faith right now. I do not believe it should be in electoral politics, and some days I believe in putting it in organizing and resistance, and somedays I do not. Some days I think it will be in policy and some days I think it it will not. Some days I think it will be in my students who I teach. Somedays I think it is in my writing. Somedays it is in my friends.
But I must admit, there are days when I am not sure if we will ever be free. I am not Harriet Tubman. And I know I do not have to be. But there are days when I feel like perhaps I would’ve been one of those skeptical slaves staring down the barrel of her shotgun, claiming that I am too tired or too afraid to keep going. And those days are increasing as of late.
I am looking for some place to put my faith. In the meantime, even if I don’t know whether to put my faith into a vote or a chant, what I do know is that I still have it. That my faith, my optimism will always be with me. I’m going to hold onto it. Eventually, a place will be carved out where I can set it down.
Aaron is a writer, activist, educator, graduate of the University of Chicago, and co-editor of the Newer Negroes blog. His work has been featured in Colorlines, Mused Magazine Online, the Feminist Wire, TruthOut.com, the Advocate, and the Black Youth Project. He currently is a member of the Black Youth Project 100 and teaches elementary school on the South Side of Chicago.
He is an only child, from Detroit, Michigan, loves RPGs and literature, is constantly envisioning a better world for black queer folks, and retains a deep and abiding love for his mother.
Follow him on twitter: @Talley_Marked