“… Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end. You must make your own map.” Joy Harjo [A Map to the Next World]
“… won’t you celebrate with me … that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.” Lucille Clifton [won’t you celebrate with me]
“… And who will join this standing up … we are the ones we have been waiting for …” June Jordan [poem for South African Women]
“… Who stole the hearts and minds of the humble hard-working folk until they too became moralistic and self-righteous: senators, bishops, presidents, missionaries, corporation presidents?” Simon Ortiz [From Sand Creek]
“… Blessed/are those who listen/when no one is left to speak …” Linda Hogan [Blessings]
“… sadness is a chemical one atom away from joy/heroism is a spiritual one history away from slavery …” Peter J. Harris [Complete Already]
During a pandemic, I remain dedicated to Wreaking Happiness, in the spirit of human ancestors on this land – especially Indigenous and my own cultural ancestors – who set a magnificent example, that can be studied empirically, of lifting every vision and voice into song and action despite encountering social ugliness of epic proportions.
I remain dedicated to singing in the chorus of human beings keeping their eyes on the prize of public health and wise governance. I remain dedicated to working for the world we want, and to the work covered in this succinct statement from Yes! Magazine: “We must be willing to get our hands dirty, to both try new things and trust age-old knowledge, and to be uncomfortable.”
I will continue to sing with the chorus of cultural workers, journalists, Inspectors General, loyal opposition, and Everyday People who see it as our ethical duty to illuminate and resist the anti-democratic, racist, self-serving, truth-deformed, and power-grabbing politics radiating from the White House and from demagogues and policy makers from Brazil, Hungary, India and other national houses of power around the world.
“The study of happiness never was a luxury to be postponed until more serene, peaceful times,” writes Sissela Bok in her bookExploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science (2011). “… From earliest times, views of human happiness have been set forth against the background of suffering, poverty, disease, and the inevitability of death.” [Page 5 and 6]
“Trying to envision “somewhere in advance of nowhere,” as poet Jayne Cortez puts it, is an extremely difficult task, yet it is a matter of great urgency,” writes Robin D.G. Kelley, in his book,Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. “Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down….” [Page xii Preface]
“… And my mama – not one to traffic in metaphors, usually, being a very scientific woman – would add, ‘Yeah, speak your speak, ‘cause every silence you maintain is liable to become first, a lump in your throat, then a lump in your lymphatic system,’” writes Toni Cade Bambara, in ‘The Education of a Storyteller,’ from Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, Fictions, Essays, And Conversations [page 255]
As I take daily walks during the pandemic, I wave to many folks out with children and dogs. What a joy to exchange well wishes with men and women exercising their bodies and smartly claiming public space. Also, I see folks, fully masked, whose body language suggests they are terrified. They lower their heads. They practically scurry to cross the street, to stride away from my path, or to accelerate past me, as if Covid-19 could simply leap between us like a vile ninja! It takes all kinds, as Moms used to say!
Folks can get sick, be sick, without inevitable death and social dysfunction.
Society can choose democratic disbursement of our tax dollars, wage replacement grants to small business. Leaders can communicate with an overall rigor and candor on behalf of public service beyond the platitudes of Instagram notecards (although I especially co-sign this IG notecard: “If you think artists are useless try to spend your quarantine without music, books, poems, movies paintings and games.”)
Society, in the elemental sense of that word, doesn’t have to embrace fealty to Boeing or the hubris of other so-called too-big-to-fail brands, or real estate moguls, or Dark Money puppeteers. Society doesn’t have to privatize production of medical equipment, or tests, or the production of vaccines, or eliminate the oversight of disbursement of public dollars.
We have evidence of so many more humane visions. You no doubt are a witness through your own prisms, your own analyses or processes for change. You no doubt can pinpoint welcome examples of resistance, persistence, and humane existence.
Among mine: Center for the Study of Political Graphics, with its collection of political posters “advancing the power of art to educate and inspire people to action.”
The alternative or People’s Budget produced in the U.S. House of Representatives by the Progressive Caucus, representing a vision of what control of public resources could do if We the People were the focus of national expenditures.
The Poor People’s Campaign – A National Call for Moral Revival has proferred a humane agenda both during the pandemic and as a larger motivating vision.
Through whichever lens you view Life on this American Earth, it’s important to remember – as a starting point – that government is ours, and that our ideas, our insights, our priorities, are as important as those whose income allows them obscene access, criminal influence, and quid pro quo after quid pro quo.
“Radical change for Ella Baker was about a persistent and protracted process of discourse, debate, consensus, reflection, and struggle,” writes Barbara Ransby in her book,Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: a Radical Democratic Vision.Ella Baker, like Bayard Rustin, is one of those human ancestors whose life-long, often anonymous, service instructs and inspires me. “If larger and larger numbers of communities were engaged in such a process, she reasoned, day in and day out, year after year, the revolution would be well under way. Ella Baker understood that laws, structures, and institutions had to change in order to correct injustice and oppression, but part of the process had to involve oppressed people, ordinary people, infusing new meaning into the concept of democracy and finding their own individual and collective power to determine their lives and shape the direction of history.” [Page 1]
Even with obvious anti-democratic, racist, self-serving, truth-deformed, and power-grabbing politics radiating from the White House, I am grateful I can find in my life, on social media, in journalism, examples of inspired Mutual Aid, Mutual Encouragement, and nationwide evidence of a society inspired to see beyond pandemic. I’m grateful I can see folks all marshaling digital tools to mitigate isolation during Shelter in Place orders.
Thank you dancers, poets, musicians, political thinkers, health care professionals, urban gardeners, moral and spiritual practitioners. And thanks to my own relatives zooming our stories, history, laughter, and political commentary from D.C.-Maryland down I-95 to North Carolina and Florida and across I-10 to California, where my youngest daughter and I live and work.
In Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s bracing book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, she mentions a term called “Terminal Narratives” by anthropologist Michael V. Wilcox: “accounts of Indian histories which explain the absence, cultural death, or disappearance of Indigenous peoples.” [Page 42]
Dunbar-Ortiz critiques a school of thought asserting that the Indigenous-European Encounter would inevitably have debilitated and disappeared Native folk, because of their lack of immunity to what were, to them, ‘novel’ virus [e.g. smallpox, measles].
“Such an absolutist assertion renders any other fate for the Indigenous peoples improbable,” Dunbar-Ortiz states, because it fails to account for the impact of relentless structural forces [military, ideological, religious, political policies, among others]. [Page 39] Terminal Narratives “… emphasize attrition by disease despite other causes equally deadly, if not more so,” according to Dunbar-Ortiz, and refuses to “accept that the colonization of America was genocidal by plan, not simply the tragic fate of populations lacking immunity to disease. In the case of the Jewish Holocaust, no one denies that more Jews died of starvation, overwork, and disease under Nazi incarceration than died in gas ovens, yet the acts of creating and maintaining the conditions that led to those deaths clearly constitute genocide.” [Pages 41-42].
For me, Wreaking Happiness means resisting any type of Terminal Narratives during the Covid-19 pandemic. And pointing out that the early impact of the disease on who survives, and who thrives, is being (and will be) affected in such a manner that even trillion dollar ‘investments’ of our tax dollars are more akin to schemes mostly benefiting the same folk and institutions currently profiting from contemporary inequitable social circumstances, such as prison overcrowding; lack of health care for all and an effective, compassionate service superstructure for all; less-than-livable wages and overpriced housing; courts stacked with pre-fab judges who fail Bar Association muster; targeted sweeps by ICE, Border Patrol, and local police; and the disappearing of undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, and homeless neighbors.
“The mandarins who are managing this pandemic are fond of speaking of war. They don’t even use war as a metaphor, they use it literally,” writes Arundhati Roy in her essay, ‘The pandemic is a portal.’ “But if it really were a war, then who would be better prepared than the US? If it were not masks and gloves that its frontline soldiers needed, but guns, smart bombs, bunker busters, submarines, fighter jets and nuclear bombs, would there be a shortage?”
Robin D.G. Kelley entitles one chapter of Freedom Dreams: ‘Keeping It (Sur)real: Dreams of the Marvelous,’ tracing rich connections and influences of Black creativity and surrealism, which he describes as a “living, mutable, creative vision of a world where love, play, human dignity, an end to poverty and want, and imagination are the pillars of freedom.” [Page 158]
Cultivating the Marvelous is a liberating way to activate my brain’s biochemistry and supercharge my quest to weave hopeful stories, and seek lush motivation to live a life that will make proud my late mother and father and the other unpretentious aunties and uncles who imprinted me with Each One Teach One.
Cultivating the Marvelous is my antidote, neutralizer, and converter against cynicism, doubt, and anxiety, amidst the onslaught of mythological greed, selfishness, and supremacies of all kinds from power elites implementing social strategies drawn from the abysmal laboratories of feudalism, slavery, colonialism, Nazism, and their vile scapegoating justifications.
“When we become immersed in a story, the brain shifts from attending to our immediate surroundings to imagining the details of the narrative world,” states a summary of research on the website of the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC. “Understanding this process and its underlying neurobiology may be a key to understanding how stories exert their influence.”
Though I don’t need brain scans to know that a well-rendered story enraptures, I welcome rigorous science on the impact of envisioning another world, and “the brain mechanisms that mediate narrative immersion.”
For now, in closing, I echo the question in New Edition’s hit song: Can you stand the rain?
I can, I believe, with Hope and History, and so I resolve in communion with uplifting words from two generations of the inspiring Harding family, heirs to Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin’s legacy. Rosemarie Freeney Harding and Dr. Vincent Harding, compassionate participants in the Black-led human rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960s, make me proud to be a human being.
First, scholar Rachel Elizabeth Harding on her mother Rosemarie Freeney Harding:
“Mama had an acute and gentle intelligence about navigating the world…,” writes Harding in the intro to a book she co-authored with her late Moms, Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering. “…Her understanding of social justice activism situated struggle very comfortably alongside hospitality and mothering. This is a meaning of activism I have not seen widely discussed among scholars, but the women of the Southern Freedom Movement (and their families) know about it. More than anything, it is an activism based in “being family” – bringing people into the house, literally and figuratively. Making room and making welcome. Letting people know there is room for them in the vision, in the struggle, in the nation, in the family.”
And from Ms. Harding later on in Remnants: “One of the most exciting things for me about being in the freedom movement was discovering other people who were compelled by the Spirit at the heart of our organizing work, and who were also interested in the mysticism that can be nurtured in social justice activism. …There was an energy moving in those times. Something other than just sit-ins and voter registration and Freedom Schools. Something represented by these signal efforts but broader. As I traveled around the country in the sixties, it seemed to me that the nation – from the largest community to the smallest – was permeated with hope; that people can bring about transformation; that what we do matters. [Page 168]
And from our late Big Brother, Dr. Vincent Harding, from Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement:
“Somehow, in a time like our own, when the capacity for imagining appears to be endangered …, it seems especially crucial to introduce our students to the meaning of such a question as, “Is America Possible?” … Indeed, it is precisely in a period of great spiritual and social hunger like our own that we most need to open minds, hearts, and memories to those times when women and men actually dreamed of new possibilities for our nation, for our world, for their own lives. It is now that we may be able to convey the stunning idea that dreams, imagination, vision, and hope are actually powerful mechanisms in the creation of new realities. Especially when the dreams go beyond speeches and songs to become embodied, to take on flesh, in real, hard places.” [Page 178]
… Like during a pandemic — when we need all citizens of witness and liberation to become alchemists of our most humane future …
BONUS EXCERPT from my book, Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ WINNER, 2015 AMERICAN BOOK AWARD: “… I dream of The Black Man of Happiness…. He is vibration, receptor, animating force. He wants to be well, to paraphrase Toni Cade Bambara’s opening line in The Salt Eaters. He is drum major of The Turn. Healing Trajectory. Bedrock. He is quest for perfection, the rumble beneath our doubts, the resonance of anticipation, heroic sensibility, point guard. Just standing there, you can hear the tone of reconciliation and resurrection emanating from his spiritual combustion …” www.blackmanofhappiness.com/shop