Ever since the 2016 presidential election, America has been barreling headfirst toward a crossroads. Conflicting political, racial and social perspectives reflect a need to collectively define our moral imperatives, clarify cultural values, inspire meaningful change, and seek common ground. In that patriotic spirit, hundreds of writers, poets, artists, scientists, and political and community leaders are sharing their impassioned letters to America in a new anthology,?Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance and Democracy.
Driven by outrage, heartbreak, and determination, they write about topics ranging from racial injustice, immigration, climate change, misogyny, violence, the power of hope and renewal, and more. As America marks its 244th birthday this month, The Reporters Inc. is pleased to present five of these literary reactions to the tumultuous times we live in, all with a focus on civic action and social justice.
By Cherene Sherrard
Blacks have never been, and are not, really considered to be citizens here. Blacks exist, in the American imagination, and in relationship to American institutions, in reference to the slave codes: the first legal recognition of our presence remains the most compelling.
* James Baldwin, Evidence of Things Not Seen
But you said there was no defense.
Then what I do
Know it, and go out the yard. Go on.
Toni Morrison, Beloved
My youngest son is already grieving. Today men came to our home to cut down a very old tree. We will not know how old until we can count the lines on the stump, and even then, we can only estimate.
“The tree made our house a sanctuary,” he says.
His plea startles me. A sanctuary is a holy place, a refuge from one’s enemies. It’s true that the tree’s long, leaf-laden branches have shielded our 1922 colonial in Madison, Wisconsin from harm. And yet, fear has led us to remove it. Seven men, outfitted in orange vests and black helmets, swing among its branches as they must have done as boys. The work is laborious, precise, and slow. They navigate a cat’s cradle of ropes and pulleys with chainsaws. Whenever a branch careens into the exact spot they have identified they applaud. I explain to my son that in this age of the superstorm having a tree so large loom over not one but three houses seems like baiting the gods: Oya, the whirlwind, and Shango, the lightning. But the casual eloquence with which my preteen drops sanctuary gives me pause. I’m thrilled that he finds our home a safe and secure place of comfort, but I’m alarmed: From what outside these walls does he want protection
The tree is a silver maple, Acer saccharinum, also known as the swamp maple, water maple, silverleaf maple, white maple, and soft maple. It’s the sugar maple’s stepbrother; a less-loved half-sibling with sap too slow to tap, good only for shade; a genus that spews at least four different kinds of “fruits” in the slender window that is Wisconsin’s spring. It throws off an abundance of seeds that clog and warp our gutters, funneling rain into our basement. First, heavy clumps of spongy, red cotton, then helicopters’ ovaline seedpods that spin and waggle until they rest on every lawn on our block. Its leaves are the last to turn. On Halloween, they backlight our house in saffron.
Once, on a windless day, a branch so massive it could have been its own tree, fell. It covered the entirety of our shared yard, miraculously missing everything of value from the sungold tomatoes growing against our back fence to our newly installed cedar plank deck to the swingset upon which our neighbor’s granddaughter was being pushed by her babysitter. Afterward, as I laid my hand on the prone limb, wide as an oil drum, its earth-shattering thud became an illusory earworm, the answer to the perennial philosophical question. The granddaughter and our youngest son share a middle name: Sage. As in a wise person or mystic, or an herb that proliferates if you plant it in any amount of shade.
Shade is the most apparent loss we will feel. Our air-conditioning bills will skyrocket, our deck become less hospitable between the hours of the noon and five. But we won’t be afraid anymore. Not of the tree. Which will be gone. Left in its place: unimpeded blue, sharp as any sky above a desert. Like the earth may be one day in our near future. Treeless.
We counted eighty-one rings before the lines on the stump vanished. The tree was older than my mother, but younger than my grandfather, who died last year at 101. This tree had barely begun to sprout when he was born to Louisiana sharecroppers in Shreveport. Its thin sapling was stretching up from the weeds when he married my grandmother, just sprouting branches and leaves when they joined the Great Migration of African Americans heading west to California. Who did the silver maple oversee? How many has it safeguarded?
A sanctuary is a shelter. The evicted squirrels will fight to nest in the black walnut that is now our block’s undisputed heavyweight, living on borrowed time. The arborists with their beards and bronzed arms are fearless tree dancers. They sway and swing, limbs interlaced with limbs, unabashed as they fell the ancient giant. Elsewhere in our neighborhood, the culling continues. In the 1960s, ashes replaced the dying elms in the Midwest. Now, the emerald ash borer threatens to wreak the same havoc as Dutch elm disease. We lobby the forestry service for gentler forms of remediation, but treatment is costly.
Madison is technically a sanctuary city, but the designation has proved fungible. As rumors of ICE on the nearby campus where I teach flare, the university administration sends guidelines on how to dissemble and comply. Dissemble and comply is what I have taught my sons to do when confronted with outside authority.
Wisconsin is proud of its abolitionist history, of providing temporary shelter for contraband. In Milton there’s a tunnel beneath an 1844 stage coach inn that once served as a way station on the Underground Railroad. Visitors can walk 150 feet from the cavernous cellar to a small shed. The same path fugitives traveled by candlelight, which gave off a smoky gleam against limestone. In the anteroom, broken doll parts litter the floor. The key words are way station. Freedmen and women were not meant to settle. The state anticipated they would continue on north to Canada. But some did not. One such family laid claim to land that was once a gathering ground for the Ho Chunk and other First Nations. Notley Henderson purchased forty acres in 1880 and ran a dairy farm on land that now comprises the University of Wisconsin arboretum.
Hiking its many trails with my family, one day we take an unfamiliar path that snakes under the beltline. On the other side, we find a memorial plaque graced with the Henderson family’s portrait. Wearing their Sunday best, Martha, Notley, and their children are the very image of restraint and respectability. Their son Allen worked the land until 1927. On March 5 of that year, he and his son Walter were murdered by Charles Nelson, the son of a neighboring farmer: a “shellshocked” World War I veteran. Many thought Nelson’s real diagnosis was racism. Allen’s widow struggled to sustain the farm for thirteen years before she was dispossessed. Their square plot, parcel 33 on an aerial map from 1890, now lies under the highway that bisects the arboreal preserve.
What does sanctuary mean to a child in Mississippi coming home from her first day of fourth grade in August? She is eager to tell her mother how she won the spelling bee game with the word “asylum.” She uses the key tucked under the doormat. The apartment is silent, empty. Her baby brother is next door with the neighbor’s teenage daughter. All three sit unattended at the kitchen table, wondering, until someone thinks to turn on the news of the latest raid.
In the backyard of my family home in Los Angeles, lemon and apricot trees created a damp, buzzing glade of clover that I viewed upside down from the seat of a tire swing. Our lemons were the size of Florida grapefruits. Years later, when I first purchased a lemon from a Wegman’s supermarket in upstate New York, I was shocked by the diminutive size and exorbitant cost of the wrinkled, yellow fruit that fit in my palm. One of those California lemons from my parents? tree was enough for a pitcher of lemonade. Clusters grew so high and thick that passersby would jump our fences. To discourage trespassing, my mother left paper bags of lemons on the sidewalk. Sometimes we caught men selling our windfall fruit at an intersection adjacent to the freeway off-ramp: one for a dollar.
In Forest Hills, a sprawling cemetery two blocks from our house, my son and I locate the Hendersons’ final resting place. Their grave marker is just west of the section in which a sympathetic war widow buried 140 confederate soldiers who had been imprisoned at Camp Randall. After the Charlottesville incident, Mayor Soglin removed the Confederate monument that named the soldiers “unsung heroes.” Which parts of ourselves do we preserve and what do we take down? For a moment, we feel that we spiral like the silver maple’s helicopters, driftless, ever searching for new ground.
A few of the Hendersons? descendants still live in Madison; others have scattered. We find the stately black-and-pink marble slab with its precisely chiseled names reassuring.
“At least they still have their tree,” he says, pointing directly above the plot. Thick with sun-splashed leaves, a red maple stands sentinel
Cherene Sherrard is the Sally Mead Hands-Bascom Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of several books, most recently the poetry collection Vixen.
An American Question
By Lauret Savoy
To my country:
An old and perhaps unanswerable question has troubled me since childhood. ‘Now it won’t let me rest.
The Revolutionary War had entered its final years, still undecided, when J. Hector St. John de Cr’vecoeur asked, What then is the American, this new man? Most of the soon-to-be former colonists would probably agree with his response, published in 1782 in Letters from an American Farmer. “He is either a European, or the descendant of a European, . . . who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds.” He makes “a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
So many others were excluded from this definition: women, Indigenous peoples, as well as one-fifth the population of the fledging United States ‘whose labours’ had driven the economies of all thirteen colonies. Slavery and its profits, whether from tobacco, cotton, sugar, or rice, buttressed the new republic. National prosperity would continue to depend on exploiting cheap labor and exploiting land once dispossessed of its original inhabitants. Part and parcel of this, new mode of life, were adaptive prejudices: concepts of race, whiteness, and white supremacy. The social and political community imagined as the new nation by the founding property-holders had to be carefully guarded.
Although recent assaults on this country,s civil society might seem unprecedented, de Cr’vecoeur’s question has always been contested ground.
Any expanding membership in the imagined community of “we the people” was answered time and again by tightened boundaries. “Radical Reconstruction, for instance, defined and broadened the reach of U.S. citizenship with the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth constitutional amendments.” Those (men) once enslaved could now, in principle, enjoy equal protection under the law without regard to race. They could own land. They could run for office. They could vote . . . until the surge toward justice fell with the compromised presidential election of 1876.
A retrenching racial hierarchy promised white redemption, and not only in the South. It would take the 1964 Civil Rights Act to make into law again what had been gutted when Reconstruction was abandoned. And the era of Jim Crow would also see immigration quotas. In spring 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major federal law restricting immigration. That statute (with its extensions) would stand in force for six decades in the name of racial purity.
As a child I stumbled over with liberty and justice for all, wondering if there was an elastic limit to realized citizenship while my schoolmates recited the Pledge of Allegiance. These six words seemed at odds with the ceaseless media images. TV news alone brought into our home each night footage of war, assassinations, and protests by people who looked like me. I came of age doubting claims of incremental progress yet still wanting to believe in expanding tolerance if not equality.
But I wasn’t so naive as to believe the nation had entered a postracial, postracist age with Barack Obama’s presidency. Not when white supremacist and hate groups have proliferated in the last decade. Not when an opportunistic presidential campaign in 2016 could exalt ignorance, suspicion, and fear to feed racism, xenophobia, and misogyny and win. Not when many white voters, of all economic classes, perceived that campaign’s promise to be redemption.
In the age of Trump the clock has turned back yet again on civil rights. The rule of power and profit reigns supreme. White nativists vilify Muslim, Mexican, and other nonwhite immigrants as alien. A nuclear arms race and other military threats escalate. Environmental regulations and protected lands fall prey to oil and gas plunder or mining. Climate science and language are censored despite global changes more rapid than predicted. Perceptions of race cut sharper, more divisive lines.
Taking back the country to make America great again can mean many things. One, of course, is the monochromatic need of whiteness to believe this nation is what it never was, except in the minds and rhetoric of those longing for it to be so. Their public memory requires amnesia and selective erasure of different peoples and cultures long part of the American experience.
It is tempting, here, to exhort.To warn, to urge, to insist: We must . . . We should . . . We need to . . . But changing any situation for the better requires knowing what it really is. And key to this, I believe, is comprehending how forms of othering have always been central to the democratic project that is the United States. The seeming paradox between an American creed of liberty and justice for all and the realities of an American promise denied to members of marginalized groups is, instead, a malignant symbiosis.
Transgression in word and deed the root meaning of outrage has occurred each day in the polarizing age of Trump. One step toward confronting and defying injustice begins with grasping the paradox and contradiction in the heartwood of this society.
Innocence is not an option. Neither is hopelessness.
The first documented arrival of Africans in the English colonies on mainland North America took place in August 1619. Four hundred years later I don’t know if we the people can acknowledge, with honesty, our intercultural past-to-present and thus admit many varied responses to Who is an American? I had hoped, though, that more than half a century after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this nation might see itself more clearly.
Lauret Edith Savoy
Lauret Savoy is the David B. Truman Professor of Environmental Studies at Mount Holyoke College. Her book, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape won the American Book Award and the ASLE Creative Writing Award.
By Scott Russell Sanders?
The first television images I can recall seeing, as a boy in the 1950s, were of white southerners attacking peaceful black demonstrators with police dogs, fire hoses, tear gas, clubs, and curses. Even black children, neatly dressed and carrying books, were turned away from schools by white sheriffs and politicians and mobs. My parents could not explain those bewildering images to me. They could not explain why people with dark skin were prevented from going to school or sitting at a lunch counter or voting. According to my own skin color, I should have identified with the angry whites, but instead I felt the fear and bruises of those who were attacked.
That sympathy was instinctive, as in any child who has not been taught to despise some group of people defined as Other. The Other may be distinguished not only by skin color but also by gender, religion, age, class, national origin, disability, and any number of other markers. Our evolutionary inheritance predisposes us to divide the world between Us and Them between an in-group toward which we are loyal and protective, and one or more out-groups, whom we treat as enemies. Members of a tribe that exploits, enslaves, or slaughters neighboring tribes thereby acquiring more territory and resources are likelier to pass on their genes to future generations. At least they are likelier to do so in an era of low population density and primitive weaponry. Today, on a planet crowded with over seven billion human beings, and armed with murderous technology, from malware to missiles, tribalism may prove lethal for the aggressors as well as for their intended victims.
The risks of tapping into tribalism in the twenty-first century do not make it any less appealing to demagogues, as we saw in the 2016 presidential campaign. One candidate addressed his audiences as the in-crowd, while demeaning and demonizing various Others, and he stoked a penchant for violence against anyone he defined as an outsider, including rival candidates. It was a dangerous as well as a shameful strategy. After the election, rather than speaking to the press about his plans or seriously preparing himself for the presidency, he continued holding rallies laced with ridicule and contempt. Even if he wished to temper the hatreds he had roused, he wouldn’t be able to do so without alienating his core followers. Fear of the Other is easy to evoke, difficult to allay.
Fortunately, our evolutionary legacy includes not only a predisposition for aggressive tribalism but also a countervailing capacity: in its everyday form we call it empathy, and in its more refined, often deliberately nurtured form, we call it compassion. Without empathy, we could not have survived and flourished as social animals; language, culture, and cooperative behavior all rely on our ability to intuit the inner states of the people around us. Empathy alone, however, does not assure that we will treat one another fairly. Con artists are expert at reading the emotions of those whom they exploit or manipulate again, as illustrated in the 2016 presidential campaign by the demagogue who was declared the winner. What con artists lack is compassion, which involves not merely sensing what others feel, but sympathizing with them, caring for them, wishing to address their needs and relieve their suffering.
Figures famous for their compassion range from the Buddha and Jesus to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa. In each case, their caring for others reached across the supposed boundaries that separate humans into tribes. But this potential resides not only in saints and cultural heroes. We can see it demonstrated by countless followers of Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and other religions that uphold compassion as the highest human virtue. Quite apart from religion, we have all encountered unsung, dedicated, kind people whose actions defy divisions between black and white, male and female, native and foreign, straight and gay, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, and every other variation on Us and Them. This capacity for all-inclusive caring is as much a part of our inheritance as tribalism.
On the national stage right now, tribalism appears to be in the ascendant. A tyrant occupies the White House. He has surrounded himself with people who share his prejudices and flatter his vanity. Most of his nominees for cabinet posts are hostile to the public purposes that their agencies are designed to serve? such as defending civil rights, protecting the environment, assuring access to health care, and advocating for the poor. The dominant news media, having profited for years from publicizing his slightest and nastiest blurts, have been slow to challenge this betrayal of the public trust. The members of his own party in Congress either align themselves with the tyrant or lack the courage to stand against him.
The menace may seem overwhelming. But we should remember that the forty-fifth president does not represent the majority of Americans. His tribalism has drawn into the spotlight a throng of white supremacists, misogynists, xenophobes, anti-Semites, and others animated by envy and hatred, but such people constitute only a small, if dangerous, fraction of his supporters, and his supporters, in turn, constitute only a small fraction of our fellow citizens. He won the Republican nomination with votes from fewer than 10 percent of eligible adults. His Electoral College victory was decided by fewer than sixty thousand votes in three swing states, and he lost the popular tally by more than three million votes. Forty percent of eligible adults, over ninety million people, did not vote at all. He garnered 46 percent of the votes cast, which works out to just over a quarter of eligible adults. He did not come close to securing a popular mandate. So we should not allow his election, his divisive views, or his callous policies to define our nation.
With or without a mandate, the forty-fifth president has proceeded to shred the social safety net, reignite the nuclear arms race, replace diplomacy with military threats, set off trade wars, shun refugees, free global corporations from all constraints, abolish environmental regulations, and stymie efforts at reducing climate disruption. Compassion may seem too weak a force to counter so much malice. But compassion is not our only source of healing and courage. We should not underestimate the strength of neighborliness, generosity, and hospitality. We should not forget the power of reason, especially as manifested in science and medicine. Nor should we forget the power of imagination, as shown in the arts and humanities, and in the creativity that wells up in each one of us.
Vicious policies have inspired strong resistance. Churches and other places of worship are offering sanctuary to immigrants threatened with deportation. Cities, towns, and households are welcoming refugees. States and municipalities are renewing commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Citizens are organizing to defend public schools, public lands, the oceans and fresh waters, biodiversity, and other portions of the commonwealth. Scientists are collaborating with filmmakers to dramatize the reality of climate disruption and other threats to Earth’s living web, and to lay out paths for recovery. Writers and musicians are opposing tyranny by giving voice to our sympathies and affections. Nonprofits, buoyed by an unprecedented inflow of donations, are redoubling their efforts to meet human needs, advocate for justice, protect wildlife, and foster peace. These and many other efforts of resistance and healing are unfolding all across our land. Aided by reason and imagination, powered by love, they arise from our capacity to see beyond all seeming divisions, to recognize our common humanity and our membership in the web of life.
Everything we loved and cared about before the 2016 election, we still love and care about, only now we realize more vividly how endangered those precious people, places, creatures, and causes are. Now we realize we must defend them with all our heart and might. When my hope falters, I recall those TV images from my childhood of white mobs abusing peaceful black schoolchildren and demonstrators. Some of those whites are still with us, clinging to their prejudices; some have taught the same tribal hatred to their children and grandchildren. But they no longer rule our country, not even the South. Enough Americans of all shades and ethnicities have sufficiently freed themselves from racism to elect and then reelect an African American man to the presidency, a man who far surpasses his white successor in character, intelligence, and concern for human wellbeing. That successor, an accidental president, is a holdover from a cruder and crueler time in our history. We must not let him dictate our future.
Scott Russell Sanders is the author of Earth Works and 20 other books, and lives in the hardwood hill country of southern Indiana.
From the End of the Road
By Erin Coughlin Hollowell
Dear Prairie Dog Town, Dear Corn Palace, Dear Largest Potato in the World,
Dear worn-out sneakers,
Dear Little Gem Diner windows covered with condensation from a hundred conversations and three stale pots of coffee at 2 a.m.,
Dear giant wood roaches that press their bodies onto the hot pavement after dark in a parking lot behind a community theater in Macon, Georgia,
Dear red apples in the hands of three children getting on the subway at 135th Street Station,
Dear statue of the Virgin Mary in a rusted-out bathtub in the front yard,
Dear empty coffee mug on the desk of a woman still working in her cubicle at 3 a.m.,
Dear grocery carts, Dear pecans, Dear rhythmic tick of sprinklers on golf-courses,
Dear old roan mare carrying a teenage girl who wants to go to college and become a doctor,
Dear glacier missing the snow but insisting on blue shine even under persistent grey clouds,
Dear canvas jacket on the man nurturing the bougainvillea vine along the top of his unattached garage, his wife in the kitchen singing over dinner,
Dear bougainvillea with its blossoms like the memory of a first dance,
Dear origami cranes folded by a dancer visiting an arctic village after another suicide,
Dear old communist in his favorite threadbare grey cardigan opening up his bookstore with its shelves full of writing by Shakespeare and Milton and other long dead white guys,
Dear plastic bags on the feet of the woman sitting behind the Quick Stop on the turnpike,
Dear half-built house with an ocean view whose yard is subsiding into the sea,
Dear huckleberry milkshake sitting on a picnic table in Paradise, Montana,
Dear young man with the new snow machine that he bought with his summer salmon fishing wages,
Dear Trump signs in the yard of a big house where a tired man unloads a lawnmower out of his 1982 dented, once-red Chevy pick-up,
Dear jewel-green moss growing on the side of a fence in front of a mobile home on a back-road in Oregon, Dear goat cheese for sale, Dear thrown away folding chair,
Dear caskets, Dear malls, Dear AK-15s,
Dear mason jar of water on the porch next to the woman who just hoed twenty rows of beans,
Dear eagles on their nest above the front-end loader scraping the ground beneath their cottonwood tree,
Dear sound of pebbles being tumbled in surf,
Dear key-card being slipped back into the pocket as the elevator goes up fifty-eight flights,
Dear charred chili pepper, Dear Piggly Wiggly Grocery Store, Dear snow shovel,
Dear library book drop,
Dear brown bear sleeping in her den, cubs two months from being born,
Dear sunrise, relentless and shifting,
When will we open our eyes to our fellow travelers? When will we see?
one small person at the end of the road
Erin Coughlin Hollowell is an Alaskan poet, the executive director of Storyknife Writers Retreat, and a teacher for the Kachemak Bay Writers? Conference and the University of Alaska Anchorage low-residency MFA program.
By Catherine Venable Moore
I spent much of today reading about union activists in the coalfields of West Virginia a century ago, who found political salvation in the stick-together notion of solidarity at a time and in a place where nearly every instrument of democracy had failed them through and through. The old Wobbly poet Ralph Chaplin wrote the union anthem ‘Solidarity Forever’ in response to a coal strike he witnessed here in Fayette County in 1912, when mining families lived outdoors in tent camps for over a year, facing down the barrels of machine guns wielded by private police. We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old, for the union makes us strong.
‘Charming,’ I can almost hear you thinking. “Another leftist’s essay about solidarity!” But indulge me, America, while I try on this belief that my wellbeing and your wellbeing are mutually dependent. Indulge for a moment my romantic notion of wholeness through the many. The grace of belonging to a ‘we,’ entirely integrated by common concern. Today I actually ache in my body to feel close to you, my country. I have to admit, I’ve never felt more without a society. This morning, I read about tanks arrayed on the apron of the Lincoln Memorial and saw the pictures of the detention camps at the southern border, and sat stewing in our national shame.
My alienation from you is a loneliness I try to fill with other things. I fantasize about getting pregnant, or I imagine a man who’s going to come along and fix me. I eat delicious food from a container advertising itself as a ‘Deep Fried Box of Love.’
Antsy this afternoon, I headed outside, to the place I always seek relief when I’m feeling moody, a rock outcropping along the rim of the New River Canyon, its vastness usually a cure for my tiny woes. There’s a comfort, too, in the simple act of returning to the same rock ledge, over and over across a life. In the soft drift of the rhododendron blossoms that fall across the path, in the light that ripples along the finger ridges.
But here in West Virginia, the pastoral is never more than a field or two apart from a scene of human disturbance, as the blasts from the surface mine near my house remind me every afternoon at 4 p.m. In this way, West Virginia most resembles the nation. None of it, the vastness, the blossoms, brought me any closer to the kind of union I longed for. I walked back toward the road just as dusk began to fall.
Oh amnesiac country, let’s just agree that your freedom has always been suspect. Pretending otherwise is getting too exhausting. Across your brief 243-year life (154 if we count 1865 as your rebirth), that word has taken on various shapes and shades, some more benevolent than others.
Certain factions have translated freedom as independence, as in self-rule, as in the degree to which one can author one’s own life. In this sense, the fewer hindrances to our individual autonomy, the freer we are as a people. Yet what force on Earth is weaker than the feeble force of one? Ralph Chaplin sang, to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.”
Another conception of freedom locates interdependence at its core. Rather than self-interest, this school of thought organizes its decisions around a “common good.” In such a territory, liberty is measured by participation in public life and access to democratic practices. This is the one we’re starving for, America.
As darkness fell, I headed toward town for the fireworks, still hoping for some last-minute catharsis, cheap and commodified though it might be. An indigo storm cloud hovered over the park where the town’s display was scheduled to appear. People sent up their own little streams of light into the cloud from their backyards, as though egging on the thunder. Everywhere, police cars flashed their red, white, and blue lights, reflecting in the smoke of the fireworks. I heard someone say on a podcast the other day, “bullets are men’s tears,” and, under the exploding rockets, that felt true.
The union I hunger for is the same one that the labor agitator Mother Jones described to an assembly of United Mine Workers in 1901: “the school . . . where you learn to know and to love each other and learn to work with each other and bear each other’s burdens, each other’s sorrows and each other’s joys. America, can we build more schools like that”
In my foster parenting class the other day we learned that there are certain needs beyond food and shelter that drive us as humans; needs more emotional than physical. One of those is the need to belong. Without a sense of belonging, we quickly lose all motivation. And starved of love and human touch, a baby will quite literally die. I read in a neuropsychology book that the female brain is “a machine . . . built for connection,” hardwired to seek “social harmony,” unlike the competition-seeking male brain. In this way, America, women are the more dialectical sex, and perhaps the better suited to forging this new union, if it’s to be.
We also talked about building positive attachments to meet that human need for belonging. About pathways through the grieving process. When we got to the lesson on discipline, the trainer asked how many of us had been hit when we were children. Almost everyone in the overflowing room raised their hand. Most are grandparents raising the addicted children of their addicted children in a situation called “kinship care.” The trainer calls it “coming into care,” a phrase my tongue turns over to soothe itself.
Back at home now, I write three words on a slip of paper?
and stare at them as the night deepens around me.
The part of my soul that tries to make sense of life through language notes their common beginning, ‘s-o-l,’and hopes it might reveal some shared linguistic ancestry. Language, at its best, provides wiring for connection, unlike a bullet, the ultimate anticonversation.
I look up their Latin sources but find that they descend from three entirely different words: solidarity from solidus, meaning whole or solid. (Solidus also described a coin of the Roman Empire made of nearly pure gold.) Solace, from solacium, for comfort. Solitude, from solus, which is most commonly translated as ‘alone,’ though it had other senses as well. Forsaken, for one. Extraordinary, for another.
So I dig even deeper, trace the words to that theoretical ur-language, Proto Indo European, searching for a common root.
This dream of a unifying tongue is a strange, racist myth at worst, and a set of imperfect conjectures at best. Proto Indo European is an imagined language, like you and me and us, America, which we nevertheless use to parse our own very alive one.
It’s murky, but there appears to be some connection, deep in the past, between the idea of being whole and the idea of comforting another. We can’t say for sure, but some have theorized that solidarity and solace both go back to a single root, sol’, meaning something akin to “whole and well-kept.” I hold tight to this tiny piece of sense.
I fold up the piece of paper with the three words and set it beside my bed, like a charm to usher in good dreams.
There’s a glint of mirage to the idea of union; that we can be singular, uniform. That we can in fact be a you, America, seems in a lot of ways like a blind myth. That you were born on any particular day, independent or otherwise, seems increasingly impossible. There’s no you at all, I realize, no recipient of this letter, there’s just us, a bunch of I’s living inside a collective identity, which, like all identities, is a thing constructed over time, malleable like the flickering of consciousness within an infant, seeking love and connection to grow into itself.
Anyway, if you’re out there, America, write back soon.
Catherine Venable Moore is a writer and cofounder of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum in Matewan.
Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance and Democracy (Trinity University Press, April 2020), is a project from the online journal Terrain.org.
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