One of the few silver linings in this new world has been my relationships with my students. They’re. Just. So. Great. Especially since my job is helping them find ways to abandon the siren song of high-paying corporate work for academia or service, I get all the good ones. Right now, we’ve just wrapped up applications for the Truman Scholarship, a super-prestigious national service award, and these kids are fucking amazing. Like, delivering speeches on the floor of the UN while also organizing a #noDAPL rally on campus and getting straight As amazing. Like, rewriting the curriculum for a mentoring program so that it doesn’t assume that the Black girls need to be saved, and then teaching that curriculum to the white girls who are cluelessly, good-heartedly working as saviors mentors, all with an open heart. Seriously–they’re so fucking good.
So I guess I believe the children are our future? However you slice it, it’s amazing to get spend time with young people who are just at the brink of starting their adult lives–they see the world stretched out before them, and they have a lot of faith in their ability to change it (too much, sometimes, but even that is beautiful in its own way).
As with everything post-election, my conversations with my students have gotten way more intense and real. And I see them grappling with how to maintain the optimism and faith that has so far structured their approach to the world. Like so many of us Good Liberals, most of them bought into a narrative of progress, and–more dangerously–the inevitability of progress. How do they step into a world that seems so broken, perhaps irreparably?
One of them shared this speech with me that she said she watches whenever she needs a boost. It was at an event called “National Moral Revival,” which the student (meaningfully) misread as “National Morale Revival.” And as you can see at 4:30, her central metaphor works as a major morale booster. “What if?” she asks, “What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” The crowd can’t take it, and explodes in applause.
It’s an incredibly powerful metaphor. But my response was unexpected–I felt inspired, but mostly had a resurgence of the grief that’s shadowing me all the time these days. Maybe part of this is because of the way the speaker frames her story as building toward a moment of revelation and improvement. The factual details of her story outline the relentlessness of American racism and fascism: her grandfather was incarcerated as a terrorist immediately upon arriving on U.S. soil; he watched his Japanese-American neighbors and friends get rounded up and sent to internment camps; her uncle was murdered in a post-9/11 hate crime. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and she’s terrified of what will happen for her son as he makes his way into this broken, violent world.
I feel this. I’m scared of how the world will meet my daughter, of the moment when she realizes that she’s seen as property because of her gender, of the way that toxic masculinity threatens to one day warp my infant son. And, more than that, even, I’m terrified that they’ll be seduced by the siren song of toxic whiteness (is there any other kind? I don’t know, I hope so): that they’ll see possibility of power without accountability and move toward it, that all my attempts to steer them otherwise will fail.
But when I got to the end of the video, to her idea that “our America is not dead but waiting to be born. What if this is our nation’s great transition?” I just couldn’t get on board. Maybe this is a failing on my part? A failure of hope, or of imagination? But this story: that the better times are coming, that we just have to push through and they’re right around the bend, feels dangerous to me. As we watch long-fought for advances getting thrown out the window, history seems to be shaped more like a wheel than an arc, and I’m worried that the next thing I’ll see is my loved ones getting run over.
Maybe it’s because I have a different relationship with her central metaphor. As a feminist with a non-functioning uterus, I find the symbol of the womb both powerful and fraught with grief. In my experience, the womb is a space of loss, of failure, of a confrontation with an inescapable truth: that my life wasn’t going to look the way I always thought it would.
But maybe grief is a kind of hope? Because one thing I’ve found is that grief is about honesty. I’m heartbroken because I’m forced to face a piece of truth that feels impossible: I will have to make it through the world without a loved one; this baby I’d felt so certain would come into our lives isn’t; my family loves me, but they also mistreated me terribly, usually both at the same time; America was built to sustain white supremacy and violence. The older I get, the more the world feels full of impossible truths. And so when Valerie Kuar compares the “magic we will show our children” with the magic of Santa, I have to pause. I don’t want to sell my kids a version of hope that depends on me constructing a world for them that is counter to reality.
Maybe this is the difference between hope and optimism, and why the former appeals to me so much more these days. Optimism is based on the assumption of a specific outcome: things will get better, everything will turn out okay. And since Nov. 9, we’ve had a powerful reckoning with optimism–those of us who believed that we were coming into the long-promised dawn (slowly, but making our way there) were baffled by the power of the forces pulling us back. Assuring ourselves anew that it is all moving toward a happy ending seems like another setup.
Throughout most of human history, after all, a womb has also been a tomb for women, in that most of us died in childbirth. And in some ways this still stands–having or being perceived to have a uterus marks you for a specific kind of violence. That’s an unacceptable truth.
Hope, though. Hope is a different thing from optimism. It lives in the moment, and while it holds the possibility of specific outcomes, it doesn’t depend on them. The focus isn’t on some wished-for future, but on the fact that we’re alive right now, in this moment. That my beautiful students and children and the things they do right now make me able to bear these unbearable truths. My son took his first steps yesterday. My daughter’s favorite movie is the one that is running all the time in her head–it’s called Black Bruise.
Maybe the simultaneity of the tomb and the womb is the way that grief and hope coexist? A womb is a way that we can bear things, now. Even if the bearing ultimately kills us, this moment–the bearing of it–is beautiful, sacred, and true.