By Guest Contributor: Sudip Bhattacharya
“Sudip, what’s going to happen to us? Can he really create a registry…?”
The words stuck to my ribs as nausea gripped me.
It was meant to be a typical Friday night. My friends and I met at the local IHOP, as we often did, with plans to crack jokes about Nicholas Cage or perform impressions of Batman ordering pancakes. Instead, we sat, staring at our plates. I was the one studying politics in grad school, so my two friends — who are Muslim and South Asian American — asked me about what was next. We had grown up together in central New Jersey, where we had spent carefree weekends at shopping malls and exploring random towns along Route 1. Yet, that evening, I saw the lines on their faces deepen with anxious creases.
I would’ve been lying if I encouraged them to sense a light at the end of the tunnel, when clearly, everything we believed was collapsing before our eyes. I shifted the conversation, asking them about a trip they were planning. I tried listening, while realizing that since the election of Trump, my capacity for hope was extinguished.
* * *
In an interview with Oprah, Michelle Obama, said, “We feel the difference now. See, now, we’re feeling what not having hope feels like, you know.” The First Lady reflected the anxiety, and depression, that many Americans experienced with the elevation of racist and sexist forces into the White House.
Writer and activist, Rebecca Solnit, penned a moving tribute to the concept of “hope” and how it operates against rising bigotry and narrow-mindedness.
“It is important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and destruction,” she explained. “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.”
Solnit implores us to step back and comprehend the bigger picture: the fight for human rights isn’t built on major victories, but on minor achievements of the unsung. She states, “The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change.”
Heeding her advice, I’ve attempted to create distance between me and the moment, to begin the process of applying perspective. Clarity is necessary, especially when the news is overwhelming, and when it casts doubt over the inevitability of goodness prevailing.
* * *
In 12 Years A Slave, Solomon Northup – once a free black man living in upstate New York, and tricked into servitude — lays claim to his humanity and is whipped. “In fact, I was becoming almost unable to speak,” he recalls. “Still he plied the lash without stint upon my poor body, until it seemed that the lacerated flesh was stripped from my bones at every stroke.”
Northup lived the horrors of slavery, from the breakup of black families, to the ritual beatings and torture perpetrated by the owner. Northup was finally rescued and at first glance, serves as an example of endurance and spirit. Yet, my mind recently highlighted passages that reveal a man on the edge.
“The hope of rescue was the only light that cast a ray of comfort on my heart,” he writes, “That was now flickering, faint and low; another breath of disappointment would extinguish it altogether, leaving me to grope in midnight darkness to the end of life.”
Dr. King, whose story also personifies determination, advocated for drastic change against the overwhelming tide of apathy and torment. Unlike his mainstream portrayal, Dr. King was a radical, who challenged white moderates, and delegitimized capitalism. Most importantly, he recognized the despair.
“And so being a Negro in America is not a comfortable existence,” he writes in Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, “It means being a part of the company of the bruised, the battered, the scarred and the defeated. Being a Negro in America means trying to smile when you want to cry. It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death.”
Northup, King, Frederick Douglas, Ida B. Wells, Grace Lee Boggs: the history of America echoes with their dreams and aspirations. I’ve preached to friends and family that we are part of a grand narrative strewn with the sacrifice and vision of brave men and women, queer and cis alike. I’d reiterate stories about icons like Sojourner Truth, who confronted not only the sexism of American life, but also the bigotry of upper-class white women and their male allies. I’d narrate the persistence of freedom, how one generation adopts the struggle regardless of obstacles, like the Black Panthers did when the mainstream stumbled.
But, if I were to be completely honest, I can’t in good conscience implore others to trust it’ll get better. Although Solnit claims that history is a slow and steady march, of incremental change that most of us lose sight of, as a POC, I am unable and unwilling to promise anyone, especially friends of mine who will be most affected by this new regime, that there is a silver lining waiting to be recovered.
This is our reality: The new administration has cut funding to international organizations that support abortion. Not to mention the phasing out of the Affordable Care Act, which many black and brown Americans need. Families torn apart due to a mean-spirited and ill-conceived immigration ban, that targeted Muslim-majority countries. The scariest realization is the influence of Steve Bannon, a neo-fascist eager in combining the state apparatus with corporate elites to invest in certain neighborhoods while condemning us as outsiders.
It’s as if the past eight years didn’t transpire, and the small changes accrued since the 1960s, were washed away. Yes, one would be naïve to compare what’s happening to the pain and hurt of previous decades. Yet, I react with clenched fists when someone tells me to hope. I grit my teeth, and resist the urge to yell and scream, to simply tell the world to fuck off and leave me alone.
What am I even supposed to hope for in a place like this? A country manufactured by genocide that only recently investigated its police departments for racial bias. A country where every time, a black or brown citizen asks not to be shot and killed with impunity, to grow businesses in their own communities, to demand something as basic as access to clean drinking water, they are faced with rabid opposition from white racists and their allies. A country where both political parties want us to pretend that our concerns and fears carry the same weight as the voters who elected a fascist. We’ve demanded scraps, and in return, received spiritual death.
* * *
A few days after the election, friends and I rallied among thousands of others in Manhattan, channeling our grief. That same week, another protest bubbled up, this time at our campus at Rutgers University. I chanted, and shouted at the top of my lungs, while the bitterness boiled inside.
Time dragged, and I answered my phone more often, responding to anxieties and premonitions. I myself couldn’t transcend the trauma. I too would wake up in the dark, frantically flipping on the lights, and trying to distract myself.
Once at midnight, I started reading James Baldwin, since my head was bloated and my chest heavy.
“Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.”
Although Baldwin was addressing his nephew, I too gathered meaning, like collecting twigs and branches to start a fire, before night descends. The lines simmered.
I am the son of Bengali-Indian immigrants, who taught me the value of politics, of staying engaged. My teachers and professors introduced me to the names mentioned earlier, from Douglas to Davis, instilling in me an appreciation and awe of defiance. I witness every day, people rising up, distilling their rage. I am surprised at how swiftly thousands across the country picketed at the national airports, or the number of grassroots progressive groups forcing Democrats to oppose the right-wing agenda Mindful of Muslim and black Americans vulnerable to persecution, I’ve accepted that this is not about fighting for more, but defending the little we have. This is for existence.
* * *
Yesterday, I opened my eyes, brushed my teeth, showered, ate, read, ran on the treadmill, went to class, researched, and dumped packs of sugar into my coffee. By mid-afternoon, I received a text. It was a meme of Nicholas Cage. I chuckled.
While heating dinner in the microwave, I thought about my recent discussions.
“What do you think is going to happen in 2018?” another friend of mine questioned.
I paused, pressing the phone against my ear.
“Honestly, there’s little chance the Democrats will win the Senate, or the House,” I said, and held my breath.
My friend, a social worker, didn’t immediately respond. The silence festered.
Suddenly, he asked about the registry.
“It’s going to happen,” I answered, “And when it does, a lot of people will be affected.”
He sighed. “I know,” he replied, “I guess, we can’t stop it.”
“But we can register too, and overwhelm them.”
A lump formed in my throat. The microwave pinged. I snapped to the present, and quickly finished my noodles and nuggets. Another notification of a protest popped up on my Facebook feed. I scribbled a list of names I should invite to the event. I texted and called.
Sudip Bhattacharya is a PhD student in Political Science at Rutgers University. He’s also a journalist and writer whose work has been published in CNN, Lancaster Newspaper, The Daily Gazette, The Jersey Journal, The Washington City Paper, The Aerogram, and AsAm news. He mostly focuses on issues of social justice, race, and identity through his work, and is a fervent optimist, but not the annoying kind.
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