On a rainy April evening, as Barnard students stumble past one another, unable to see over their open umbrellas, Claudia Rankine and Dionne Brand convene for a symposium on the poetics of justice. So many people have showed up all the seats are taken, leaving no option but to line up at the walls. The conversation between the two poets and activists becomes an inquiry on the power as well as the limitations of language to address injustice. Speaking with vigor about the possibilities of the written word, Brand states that the beauty of language, specifically poetry, is in its ability to uproot a thought.
In that it forces you to be deliberate with words, Twitter can often feel like its own form of poetry. This April, only weeks before Rankine and Brand meet for their lecture, high school student Brigitte Yasamin posts a photo on Twitter of the shattered remains of a classmate’s art project. “Oops” the tweet reads above a photo of jagged pieces of pottery painted in the Confederate flag. Immediately following is another tweet explaining that Yasamin has “no sympathy for racists.”
Yasamin isn’t just a pottery student. She also has double the followers of Thinx underwear, and only 10,000 less than Wrigley Field. From a cursory scroll through her re-tweets, it becomes clear that she has many fans, and isn’t unaccustomed to strangers telling her she is the most beautiful girl in the world. It’s also clear that she is an apt storyteller of tales 140 characters or less.
Despite this, Yasamin states she is genuinely surprised at the social media war that ensues after the pottery incident. Some applaud her for destroying the racist symbol. Others slander her for inhibiting freedom of expression. One Twitter user proudly announces they’ve reported her to ICE, and Brigitte asserts that she was born in America.
Should we be worried? I type to a friend who lives on the other side of the country, linking to an article that details the feud over Brigitte Yasamin’s tweet, and realizing I could follow a sentence that vague with a thousand other articles published today. But there’s reason to be especially worried about the knee-jerk quality of online arguments about things that are otherwise considered non-events – after all, didn’t Trump become president because Twitter?
Being definitive, even offline, makes me anxious. It always has. I was the kid who kept thinking I didn’t need to choose a college major until an angry advisor shoved a piece of paper in my hand junior year, demanding why I hadn’t yet filled in the form.
In meditation, they say if you get good enough at sitting, you’ll eventually lift off the ground. In my tiny corner of the world in Queens, New York, I’d never seen anyone float. But once I started deciding, I decided I liked it. I started laying my knife down so steadily, things came apart right down the center. And once a target split open, I came away with sides. I was for and against. I started hanging out with activists. I found myself in new circles.
Still, I was always unsure of using my voice. I was always a little scared that someone would see me from where I’d tried to perch not on a seat, but a window, one leg dangling halfway out. It was more comfortable, and feasible anyway, than trying to find a fence.
Recently, as I tried to fade into a wall of one of these meetings, I heard a white woman say her white privilege oppressed her. What does this mean? In my mind, I rearranged the words. My white oppression. My oppressed privilege. I am oppressed by my privilege. I rolled it around in my head, where it got sleek with brain juice and made traction.
In that gathering of organizers and activists, I thought of offering this: I never wanted to be part of any particular group.
And then I wanted to say: I never wanted to be part of a marginalized group. Then I thought of how that was a ridiculous thing to say.
But when language fails me, it makes me afraid. Like when I don’t contribute because my words are all stuck at the top of my head like stalactites and I’m afraid of what they’ll rip apart if I let them fall. Other things make me afraid too, like acting in haste.
That day, I remembered another white person from my past confessing that in high school they wished they were Latina like me. Did this white woman want to be one of us? Before we found out, the woman was asked to leave the activist council. I didn’t protest, relieved yet again, that a decision had been made.
In the great campus hall, Dionne Brand says, in discussing how we will reach liberation: Why do we need to teach them?
Truth doesn’t always speak loudest. It doesn’t come up to the surface like buoys. In time, many things will never be revealed.
I went to a small liberal arts college. My friends and I are all Latina women who hung out in the diversity office (and less joyously, in the financial aid office). We were the kind of college student that conservative talk show hosts like to call snowflakes. We would be deemed “coddled”. We utilized safe spaces. We set de facto parameters around who could and couldn’t join our club.
We treasured this safe space. It was where we went when we felt invisible on a campus of predominantly white, wealthy students. It was where we went whenever we felt unheard, whenever our opinions in class were drowned out. But we weren’t echoes of each other’s voices. We debated. We didn’t always agree.
Ideally, these spaces don’t exist. Ideas aren’t weighted down by identities. Ideas float up to the surface equally. Without a faceless white person pushing and pushing until they’re completely submerged in the water. We used to cry over this dream, and I remember why I tiptoed into activism, despite all my hesitations about choosing which finger I’d point with for the rest of my life. Until I realized all ten were the same shade of brown.
This year, the year I return to campus for my five year reunion, two Latinx students are found dead in their dorm rooms. The incidents are separate. Low-income students write a list of demands. On the phone, when the college calls to collect donations, I can hear my voice shake as I say I will not contribute until these students’ demands are met. An act of solidarity. Of defiance.
As those standing in the hall shift their weight from one foot to the other, Claudia Rankine says that as a black woman, she is oppressed by the inability to explore fully her nuances. White supremacy kills dreams first, then moves onto bodies. I think of the accusations. Coddled.
In these instances, I scare myself into thinking my capacity for anger will always outweigh my capacity for love. Even as I keep talking and talking, somewhere at the end of miles of wire, I swear I hear a woman scoff. I might only be imagining things, I push myself to think. Don’t worry about her.
But the list of things to worry about is endless. My cousin is worried that the rich will only become richer. My boyfriend is worried that the world is on the brink of nuclear war. My friends are worried that despite the thousands of pledge allegiances we recited throughout school, freedom will never truly ring. Our conversations will go forever in circles.
I’m told that the thing about difference is that if we want to get along, we have to see past it. It’s how we find common ground. The person who is ‘othered’ is only acknowledged when not seen for all they are.
Love becomes an exercise in evasion. We aren’t our full selves without reservation; we learn to ignore what we don’t like. We meet new people seeking the human essence, and not knowing intuitively that it is there. You are not me, but.
What would change if we knew Yasamin’s classmate’s Twitter handle and forced her to answer to us? Dionne Brand says, in reference to Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket”: you cannot retreat behind art. At this point in the lecture, Brand and Rankine are both speaking so slowly, it’s as if they are selecting their words from a dwindling supply, as if they are afraid they’ll run out of them.
What if there’s no shattered flag on the floor at all? What if it’s all make-believe? The posts weren’t actually investigated, and all I know is as much as Yasamin will tell me. Her bio, underneath the header of “Azteca Princesa,” includes a link to a PayPal account that instructs you to send her money – for no reason explicitly listed. Her image is meticulously practiced, almost mythical. Her long eyelashes make me think of porcelain dolls.
I imagine blacking out sentences in a novel. I imagine screaming at a television. I imagine not realizing nothing will change the outcome of a movie or book, no matter how much noise I make.
I imagine how gratifying a life could be shrouded in fantasy. Afraid of the way that words constantly fail me, those who speak become characters. As characters, their capacity to act is determined by mine to imagine. Some are villains and others are heroes. Many more are surprising, flawed. Some are like me, searching for the right words, but braver than me, they speak even before they can find them. Somewhere in America, a teenage girl waves a Confederate flag, and I grab a pen as if she’s popped out of my head, thinking I’m God, that I will rewrite her.
Stephanie Jimenez is a writer from New York. Her work has appeared in Yes! Magazine, O The Oprah Magazine, Vol 1 Brooklyn, Label Me Latino/a, Vibe, and is forthcoming in The Guardian. In 2016, she completed a novel-writing intensive at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, and is working on her first novel. You can find her at @estefsays.