If you’ve never seen ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, the documentary on James Baldwin, go watch it.
I’m mentally replaying a couple of scenes from the documentary about when Baldwin was abroad, when he heard about the atrocities going on back home.
This post is being written during the time period of forced family separation and internment of Central American immigrants who are seeking asylum from the US. (They are not illegal).
Baldwin was abroad, and felt the call to return to bear the burden of a witness. I’m abroad, but I feel just as helpless now as I did in the US. Truth is, I’ve lived my life knowing that I was not the kind of person America was built for and enforced for. I’m not part of the America that the country’s wealthiest and Whitest citizens might first think of.
But I am no less American. I am no less human. I am not a mistake. I am an American that my country should be proud to have, and this is no less true for me than for the people and children who are, at the moment I am writing this, being unfairly detained, separated, tortured, abused, and exploited.
Growing up, I think it’s common to wonder how bad things in history happened. You think, ‘shouldn’t someone have stopped it? Why didn’t someone do anything?’
The fact is that this is the true test of democracy. Something is going terribly, horribly wrong. The US has lost all international standing. We are the scorpion that has poisoned itself. We are now the villains we told each other to fear, and yet we can’t seem to change course. Americans don’t live in a democracy anymore, if they ever did. We now bear the burden of witnessing. I bear it. I’m here, halfway around the world, enjoying a program that’s going to help me be better at French. I’m not in the streets back home, protesting. It seems almost silly when I think of it. It feels frivolous and monstrous to be here when I take in the full view of the atrocities back home. I, like everyone else, end up posting on Facebook because it’s what I have. I email my representatives because it’s what I have.
I’m trying to do what I can, but I wonder who it really makes me as a person to be here when there is so much pain back home. (And make no mistake, I am sure that there is pain here in Morocco, too). Morality gets messier as you get older. I don’t know that I can say that being here and being helpless is more or less moral than being back in the States. And by all means, as complicated as this situation is, I’m not saying that you should never go after life-changing opportunities. You should. Apply for these grants. Use them to do good in the world. Maybe my French will end up helping me become a tool for someone else’s liberation.
But it’s worth asking the hard questions. Because otherwise, I am no better than a frivolous recipient of my privilege.
I don’t know how other people have dealt with these situations before. Baldwin used it to fuel his writing. I guess that I am using it to fuel mine, too. I just need it down somewhere that not everyone stood by and watched the world burn. We are fighting, and it’s probably not enough, but it’s what we have. It’s what we can do when we still have to think of our own futures and families. It is a privilege to be able to protest. Never forget that. But it’s not an excuse to be idle. If it is my burden to witness and be resistant in the ways I can, then that’s what I’ll do.
There’s no clear cut answer, but my mother once showed me that in the face of extreme loss or heartache, it’s okay to find joy. It proves that whoever was trying to oppress you didn’t win. Joy is a form of resistance, and I hope it’s a lesson I can manage to learn.
I’m a queer woman of color. I resolve to be what I am triumphantly, loudly, and as proudly as I can manage.
Good luck and keep up the good fight.