Waking into Darkness
by Anne Moore
When I was seventeen, I was sick with ulcerative colitis, but I never told anyone, not even when I went to the doctor because I was so sick that I started missing my period. I’d been shitting blood for over a year. I never got a direct question about it, so I was able to keep it cordoned away in my mind, sealed off from the rest of my life. Once, I was at a friend’s house and the toilet was broken, but I didn’t realize this until after I’d filled it with bloody diarrhea. I stayed in the room with my hand on the flusher, watching the water spiral and slowly, slowly dissipate for at least 15 minutes. My heart was beating too fast to think anything; I just knew I couldn’t leave that room until all the evidence was gone.
Like most other white people I know, the strongest feeling I had on Tuesday night into Wednesday morning was shock. How could this have happened? How could we all (even Trump himself) have been so wrong? But my teenaged experience of disease should have been my guide. The consequences of having an illness that deep were unthinkable to me at the time, and I didn’t have the emotional resources to deal with the possibility, so my mind just shut it down. Along the same lines, the truth of how the American experiment is predicated on human suffering was too much. I’ve spent much of my life and my career working on the presumption that if I listen compassionately to people in power, they’ll do the same for me. This election has exposed that strategy as misguided, and based in my own refusal to admit not just how endangered I am by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, but how implicated I am by and in it.
My grandfather on my mom’s side was head legal counsel for Southeastern Drilling Company in Texas. On my dad’s side I’m directly descended from the people who first brought the cotton trade–and thus slavery on a grand scale–to Texas. My life–my particular life, here in this condo in Arlington, MA–was made possible by human suffering and environmental pillage.
In the past, whenever I’ve tried to look at my heritage, it’s been hard to see it clearly. It’s like the weight of the past changes the laws of physics, and the light around these facts gets bendy and distorted. I become overwhelmed by guilt, unable to see my way through it. It’s too much dirt for just one person to undo, and it’s infected everything.
On Wednesday morning, the first person I saw was a former professor, Christina Sharpe, who’d just gotten the first copies of her new book, which focuses on the idea of the “wake”–both how history works like the wake of the slave ships of the Middle Passage and the process of coming to consciousness. She was so kind to me–hugged me while I wept, and responded with patient honesty when I keened of how I had been “so sure” it would go the other way.
“I wasn’t surprised,” she told me. “Other people underestimated white supremacy, but not me.” Listen to Nina Simone, Gil Scott-Heron, she told me. Don’t worry about whether speaking out will get put my name on a list–it probably will, but being ruled by fear doesn’t actually increase one’s chances for survival. This is the same fight which has been underway since this country started. Later that week, one of my Black students put it differently. “That feeling you’re having?” he said, “That’s how I feel all the time.”
I’ve been up since 3, gripped by fear. The first thing I did once I resigned myself to being awake was read my favorite pop culture website, figuring I’d give myself a break before approaching the news–but I’m not even safe there. Sharon Jones is dead. Adam Yauch Park in Brooklyn was defaced by swastikas and pro-Trump graffiti.This feels like end times, I can’t lie.
But it’s felt like end times for lots of people in this country for ages, that’s the thing I’m only realizing now. And maybe it is–Trump’s relationship with the EPA certainly doesn’t make me feel confident for the future of this little planet. But people have made art and raised kids and been kind and made meaning out of their lives even from the darkest points in history.
So here’s my pledge: I’m done lying. I’m done covering up the effects of abuse and violence in my personal life, and I’m done playing nice with systems of power–even, especially the ones that I benefit from.
So I’m telling the truth to my students–that I’m terrified, that I’m committed to social justice, that I want to help them find tools to speak truth to power. I’m being frank with my family about the small violences that made growing up queer so hard. I’m here, writing.
And I’m doing my best to divest from whiteness. We’re giving away more money than we ever have, by an order of magnitude. I’m keeping race central to discussions about the election with other white people. I’m using the phrase white supremacy with other white people–even ones in whom I’ve observed subtle racism in the past. I’m wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt and hanging an Unafraid Educator sign on my office door, because these are the signs that come from within the communities they’re meant to support (unlike safety pins, which white people came up with).
There’s so much work to be done. Too much, maybe. I can see the ways that hatred and fear shape human behavior–and Steve Bannon assures me that this isn’t going away anytime soon. But I’m done lying–my commitment (and that of other nice white people like me) to covering over uncomfortable truths is part of what got us into this mess.
My life has been shaped by violence, and this is something I never wanted to be true. The weight of it felt unbearable. But if I tell the truth, I think I can bear it. When I was finally willing to tell the truth about my illness, I nearly died. I had to have emergency surgery to have my colon removed, and my life changed permanently. But I didn’t die, and the only reason that’s true is because I faced up to what all that blood really meant, and dealt with the consequences as best I could. So no more lying.