Essay: What We Must Become

by Marcus Harrison Green

(The following is an edited transcript of a speech given on 1/29/17 at Westside Unitarian Universalist Congregation. Audio of the speech can be heard here)

Marshaling my words was tough today.  Like most of you I’ve experienced a roller-coaster of emotion, spurts of hope mixed in with utter despondency -watching the news is a tortuous act of masochism.

 There are of course cracks of daylight to behold.

Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought that within a genuine democracy, each citizen would be so consumed by the state of the republic they would “fly to the assemblies” to correct the wrong done to the collective good. Last night saw them fly to the airports.

But most days since early November have seen me wait for hope to prevail inside of me. It’s said to spring eternal but these days it seems ephemeral.

I keep waiting for our current reality to cease leeching delirious optimism from my spirit while I cling to every last drop for dear life.

I keep anticipating a restoration of a sane country, a sharp shift away from this pandemic of the absurd.

 I want to halt the burial of the belief I placed in the society I thought we were.  And no, I do not at all mean to discount the magnificent displays of solidarity and civil disobedience taken forth last week when 2 million across the country gathered in solidarity for the Womxn’s March, nor yesterday’s protest at Seatac airport against the Trump administration’s poorly planned, and draconian Executive Orders effectively barring many Muslim brothers and sisters from travel.

 But truthfully I still continue to stumble around punch drunk most days, dizzy from the blow bestowed upon us by those too consumed by their own economic plight that it blinded any gleam of empathy for their fellow Americans a gradient darker, and by some whose love of country was overwhelmed by a lust for hatred.

And I know it continues to be force fed to us over and over that there were valid reasons to endorse the presidency of the person who now occupies the white house- but I’m rather tempted to say that doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, still amounts to the wrong thing, and absolves no one from its consequences.

I try to revive my sense of hope by remembering the spirit of those who came before me, the DNA swirling inside of me belonging to former slaves and natives who survived the inhumane horrors of a savage institution, and a merciless genocide committed in the name of a righteous destiny.

Yet even today I see the horrific ramifications from both American atrocities still lingering for a people who, yes, survive, but still find trouble fully living in our society.

Fully living in our society, free from oppression, persecution …. free from fear.

It never dawned on me how many of us took those entitled freedoms for granted thinking them ours by default. But now we question the fragileness of those freedoms even for ourselves – now facing a danger of their disintegration.  

But there yesterday was the image of young men and women- legal residents of this country-being handcuffed at airports, while their social media was reviewed, and they faced an interrogation on their views of President Trump.

Americans, descended from Iran, Iraq and Somali crying: Not here! Not here! Never did I ever believe this could happen in this country!

Obedient Federal agencies simply followed and implemented patently unlawful and unconstitutional executive orders without question.

And yes, I know even today the resistance grows against these grave injustices. But even now that opposition is might by the persistence of those who believe their actions just.

As Kellyane Conway, Counselor to the president said in the middle of yesterday’s chaos: Things are just getting started.

Those words transported me back to a conversation I had with two young children – a young girl and young boy- who my mother and I tutor every week.

Both are American, but also Muslim, and of Somali descent.

Three months ago they asked us, “Why, why does the new president hate us. We’re scared of what will happen to our family.”

I kept thinking God even here, even now… this moment can’t allow the children their innocence.

Our instinct was to wrap them up in our arms and flee, and as we fled picking up my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, sweeping up my cousins belonging to communities of color, and evacuating this country.

I didn’t want them to endure what I almost am certain they will. Treatment as abnormal citizens, hated for simply existing, the targets of a channeled, misplaced rage of those fearful of an evolving world.

I was tempted to say the hell with it, to look at the marches taking place in America’s liberal bastions, and shout unless we have the same numbers in Alabama,  Mississippi,  Missouri, and Kansas-which we didn’t during the unsuccessful protest of the Iraq war- would good will it truly do? What investment in a cause still dismissed by too many in our country return?

It was interesting then that I the found resolve to press forward in the unlikeliest place: from a person who saw greatness, where I saw horror in a vision of a future containing echoes of primitive times.

I interviewed a man for a forthcoming story, who identified as a patriot and fervent supporter of Donald Trump; who was able to perform enough moral contortions to see divine intervention in a man deemed a serial liar, narcissist, and sexual predator.

My interviewee said: “Any person can be used as a vessel for good. It can come from the most unlikeliest of people. America will be pro-life. I don’t have to fear my guns being taken away, they’ll be God in the schools, and terrorists won’t attack us anymore.”

He added: “Do you really think all of this is due to one man…happening because of one man?”

No… and that’s your problem, today was borne out of many todays of the past, out of a ceaseless commitment.

This is happening because of a commitment to an idea of who we are, the same who we are is what we believe this country should be. And we’ve believed that through countless defeats, myriad ridicule, and a world we thought had turned against us.

Even now, he said, even now, you rush to march; you resort to demanding any-one but Trump instead of someone forged from your unyielding beliefs, values and principles. How fragile those things become when you return to power.

Your problem is you don’t know who you are. Once you get power then what? What is this world you truly want, where is the affirmation of that world you seek? Hope and Change is one thing, He said. That’s easy to convey but often fleeting.  Precision and execution is quite another, harder, but ultimately more durable.

Our day has arrived he said, and we do not intend to relinquish it.

 Spit on us, curse us, call us what you will, we’re not afraid to be who are and, and do what we feel is right for this world.  Our time is now. I never doubted this day would come.

While there was much he vomited forth that I found repugnant, some of his words echoed truth.

Because it is true that our current President is simply just a man and this is just one moment in our epoch. And all men and all moments, no matter how gruesome, come to their end. That isn’t to trivialize what is anticipated to be a repugnant times for many, induced by this presidency.

But it does make me steer towards our future, asking just who is it that will emerge once this time is over – because all those forces that seemingly culminated in the rise of this president, have been alive and well before him, and will be alive and well long after.

And as much as we want to avert our eyes to the wrecking ball ravaging through our society, this moment is the most important of our lives, because it is the one we know we have. The one we know that so many have finally awakened form an apathetic slumber.

This is the moment to be seized to finally have a collective reflection to face the truth of who we’ve been as country and a society, to finally ask who we are now, and who exactly it is we wish to be.

This moment is one in which we can finally examine the truth, closely inspecting the claims we make now for the desire to never be willfully isolated from the persecution of all of America’s kin. Now is the time to ask if our admonishments of equity for all, and radical love towards all will stand even after this oppressive Executive Branch falls.

People say now is the time to find hope, to find vision, and new doctrine for American society. I don’t doubt that we do, but I know those things will never properly materialize without us first finding our collective character.

Because to paraphrase Heraclitus, it is character that is our destiny. It is character that leads to truth. It is truth that leads to light that outlast any evil no matter its unique brand of wickedness.

And we must trumpet a character that blares so loudly it leaves no residuals from a past marked by slavery, genocide, anti-Semitism, and homophobia with ramifications that refuse to die.

Who we are can be a country that embarks on an economic system that will never allow 8 men to control more wealth than half the world’s population.

Who we are can be a society that exempts no one from the glow of America’s kindness, lavishing its civility on all of its citizenry, where every unearned privilege subordinates itself to servicing the marginalized amongst us.

It is this who we are as a society that can demolish our current social architecture that was erected so long ago, the same one that continues to make the floors of some the ceilings of others. We can replace it with an egalitarian social construction that shuts no one outside its doors.

Who we are can be a people who call wrong for wrong no matter if it is conducted by a Democratic president overseeing drone strikes that kill innocent brown children, or a Republican president who seems the embodiment of incompetence run amok.

Who we are can be people who realize that there is no darkness so massive, that cannot  be thwarted even by our slivers of light – because love may lose battles, but it wins wars.

Who we are can be people who, now awake, must be vigilant against slumber; an engaged, informed, skeptical citizenry ultimately impervious to lies and the liars who weaponize false claims, and alternative facts.

Who we are is so much more than one moment the night of Nov 8th

Who we are can write our future’s history right now, today, this moment, this hour, this second, exchanging the status quo for what can be a future bereft of a past we were too scared to walk away from.

That conception of who we are is what persuaded me to stop fleeing in my imagination with the children I tutor. It made me put them down, and clasp their hands as we walked together to face a future, armed with something greater than hope.

No, I found something much better than that passive emotion.

I found determination in my Muslim brother and sisters who continue to prove that unapologetically existing at this point in our nation’s history can mount a fierce rebellion.

I found love, in communities of people who sacrifice their wages, and their time and their stations in life to open their doors, and hearts to people they would not have spoken two syllables to only months ago.

I found courage in our past from the marginalized and oppressed men, women, and gender non-conforming who bled, and fought, and died and imagined for what we could be, even with no clear cut evidence at the time things could be transformed – so that I, so that we could imagine now what we can be.

Because this is your country, this is my country, let that fact never be forgotten, never be taken for granted again, never be surrendered to those unwilling to acknowledge our ever widening reservoir of justice.

There is no need to wait for a congress, a president, a messiah, nor an army because who we are is a choice we have the agency to make every single day we live.

And the day is coming, when we will be who we will be, who we can be, who we must become. And on that day who we are will speak so loudly, will rumble so deeply inside the core of every citizen of this country, and beyond this country.

Rumble so deeply that our ethics, our compassion; our conscience won’t require words for expression.

Our character will speak loudly enough for itself.

 That day will come, that day will reign. That day will triumph.

Let us make it so… Let us make it so.

mhg-colorMarcus Harrison Green, is the editor-in-chief and  co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald, a former Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, a past- board member of the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be found on Twitter @mhgreen3000

Featured image belongs to the Public Domain