‘Writing a commencement speech demands that you say trite things with heartfelt conviction in front of a large crowd of people, some of whom might actually be listening and some of whom are absolutely being paid to record you.  However handsomely remunerated, this is a trying assignment for a person who sets professional and personal stake in the things they say and write. The only real non-monetary consolation for such a task is the knowledge that no one in their right mind would ever expect you to produce meaningful thoughts in these conditions, much less publish them in a hardcover book the minute you die.

But here we are. This is Water is often praised as being the best commencement speech of all time. This is plausible. What is less plausible is that the best commencement speech of all time, and so the best entry in a necessarily humiliating category, has been consecrated as actual Wisdom by Wallace’s casual and die-hard readers alike. This is Water is the best commencement speech of all time not because it has transcended the formula, flattery, and platitudes that a graduation speech trades in, but precisely because it has mastered them. Wallace does not conceal this. He tells you what he’s giving you upfront. “Stated as an English sentence,” says Wallace, the moral of his fish-parable “is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.”

 

 

 

 

In her essay on colonial sexual politics, Sandra Ponzenesi explores how the twin, sexualised images of the harem and the Hottentot framed almost all representations of women of Africa and ‘the Orient’ in 19th century European art and literature. Within these colonial scripts we can find many of the origin stories of contemporary racial grammars and start to unpack the power relations they reproduce. Most importantly, we can build an understanding of how ‘love’, represented as an apolitical, transcendent realm of affect into which you unwittingly fall, is actually deeply politicized, and linked to broader structural violences faced particularly by women of colour globally.

Embedded within the constituent discourses of love – of desirability, emotional labour, support and commitment – are codes of social value assigned to certain bodies; of who is worthy of love’s work.

‘But the oppressed do not owe the oppressor anything. I don’t owe white people anything. I don’t owe men anything. I don’t owe strangers anything. It is the luxury of the privileged to expect things, to feel entitled to things. Cis men often expect people to put out. White settlers expect black people to not remind them of invasion. Rich people expect poor to get out of their way. Heterosexuals expect queers to not make them feel uncomfortable with their hot queer love. People in power expect everyone else to be grateful for scraps.

The other night I was out and a white man who vaguely knew of me came up and asked for a hug. I said no and there was a very awkward three seconds that followed. When you decide not to play into the dynamics society expects you to the response is interesting. It ranges from confusion to anger. The irony of this is that the scale of justice is skewed to the oppressed. It is our existence and our oppression that enables privilege. In January I was at a museum in Brussels. I was pretty depressed in general but there was an Congolese art exhibition from the late 19th – early 20th century that made me cry. There were photos from the Congo that reminded me of old mission photos. I realised although I had questioned and challenged white supremacy I still seek to make people comfortable; letting comments go, dressing different, speaking in my best white English. This year I pledge to stop doing the things that are not my job.’

Much has already been written about the externalizing of the private individual—performing a life in public through media, the delights and dangers of that externalization. But perhaps the greatest danger is the withering of the inner space—a space that if not acknowledged and nurtured closes up until we can no longer enter, and then we have nowhere to go within ourselves to rest or reflect.

We live in an economic system where everything, almost everything is commodified—everything can be sold for a price. And almost anything can be threatened. But there is a place within us no one can ever know. Within that place we hold all the books we’ve ever read, the music we’ve listened to, the paintings we’ve gazed at, the plays we’ve watched, the poems we’ve read. All the important conversations. We have within each of us a great library, a concert hall, a cathedral, a temple, a mediation space, and a field.

This is a time when political action is necessary. Our nation is in chaos—our president appears to be so without an inner life that he acts cruelly, recklessly, and carelessly, without common civility.

But before and after political action, I want to remember to protect and preserve that space where moral action (and poetry) begins. To dwell within the space nourished by reading, by listening, by inner discourse, by music, by silence. To remember to sit still within that richness, and receptivity, and for a few minutes or more. To say and do nothing.

“Without community, there is no liberation,” the poet and activist Audre Lorde wrote, nearly thirty-five years ago. In our rallying and marching, we rediscovered community in one another.

Throughout the rally, because I seek solace in words, my thoughts kept returning not just to my beloved uncle but also to Jones, Hughes, and Brooks, whose 1971 ode to the singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson echoes the words in our chants:

. . . we are each other’s

harvest:

we are each other’s

business:

we are each other’s

magnitude and bond.

I also kept returning to Lorde, who wrote that “poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.”

Poetry, she said, is how we name the nameless. “It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”

Stripped of our usual bearings and sanctuaries, we must now decide on a daily basis what our tangible actions will be.

We must also reject calls to compromise, to understand, or to collaborate. We cannot and will not comply. Our number one priority is to resist. We must resist the instantiation of autocracy. We must resist this perversion of democracy. We must refuse spin and challenge any narratives that seek to call this moment “democracy at work.” This is not democracy; this is the rise of a 21st century U.S. version of fascism. We must name it, so we can both confront and defeat it. The most vulnerable, both here and abroad, cannot afford for us to equivocate or remain silent. The threats posed by settler colonialism and empire around the globe have never been more real, nor has our resolve to oppose these injustices ever been stronger. Concretely, within the U.S., we oppose the building of a wall along the U.S. – Mexico border, and the establishment of a registry for Muslim residents.

We owe this moment and the communities we fight for our very best thinking, teaching, and organizing. We must find creative solutions to address the immediate needs of those who will be acutely affected within the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency. We must push ourselves into new, and more precise and radical analytical frameworks that can help us to articulate the stakes of this moment.

The most important thing we can do in this moment is to make an unqualified commitment to those on the margins through our actions, insist that the media be allowed to do its job; and protect the right to protest and dissent. We recognize clearly that our silence will not protect us. Silence, in the aftermath of 11/8 is not merely a lack of words; it is a profound inertia of liberatory thought and praxis. So, who are we waiting for? We are who we are waiting for. We pledge to stand and fight, with fierce resolve, for the values and principles we believe in and the people we love.

When I began this column, one of the first things I did was to challenge writers and artists to create their own unique responses to our dismal politics. I will renew that call today. The protests we have participated in at the airports and on behalf of women’s rights, not to mention all of the phone calls, letters to Congress, and meetings of thousands of action groups across the nation, have filled me with a kind of euphoria and an abiding hope for the future of America. This political organizing is indispensible. We must have it in order to serve the sort of justice that we achieved when those who had done no harm to America, save for their religious faith and nation of birth, were once again allowed to come and go in this nation of ours. We must continue to serve as much of this justice as we can, but we must also remember the sort of justice that Berger wrote of and that is being perpetuated right this second as people who never before thought of reading 1984 now engage with a book that will change their world.

Books to Share with Everybody You Can

1984 by George Orwell

Ways of Seeing by John Berger

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

Aliens and Anorexia by Chris Kraus

Waiting for God by Simone Weil

Postwar by Tony Judt

The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

 

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