By Joel Daniels
I bite my lips out of anxiety. It is the tendency to be lost in thought, my brain traveling into spaces and caverns that have been explored and excavated one too many times over. I am adept at overthinking, in this way I write best with too much on my plate, picking at lip and thoughts. Me, always trying to find the roots and soil sitting beneath all the other shit manifesting itself.
I bit the shit out of my lips the night Trump was elected. With no television, I put my 1-year-old to sleep. I used Google’s homepage and Deray McKesson’s Twitter feed as my nightly round-up, peering sadly at the gobbling up of red and blue votes; listening via mobile to the back-and-forth analysis of swing states, senate votes, and the like. I went to bed knowing Donald Trump would be the President of the United States of America, and that my daughter’s only concern would be food and diaper changes. I am not a fortune-teller, but I do envision the world mired in the tug and pull of America standing on its last legs. It is on these handicapped limbs that I foresee Black writers’ both issuing the call and heeding the invitation, to propel this new generation of seers and seekers to the new frontier of whatever the fuck this version of the America we live in will be.
History tends to reward those with short attention spans, or at least, a chronic attachment to forgetfulness; it is easy in this context, to try and imagine the world without Blackness — one void of light. Black is not the lack of light, but rather the cognizance of its existence. It is in this way that writers now face the task of many who came before us, all bearing the weight of a million souls and ghosts clawing through the rubble of false starts and empty promises by a tired vagrant better known as American democracy. There is a certain kind of tyranny that prevails when one is forced to question the need to write about the fire while the fire is still burning, still ripping the plaster, peeling the paint, prying the hinges from the door. Writing about Trump while Trump is still Trump-ing in the Trump era feels like a very cruel game of Operation, with each move followed by the next feeling like the end of a life, each move buzzing the hands to ensure us of the doom impending. It’s a constitutional amendment that with one motion of a pen and flick of a finger could either ban a visa or scurry a missile. This form of pseudo-democracy is projected onto walls, scratched with keys into color-bleached murals with names of dead gang members and broken policies taped to renamed street corners, scribbled in abandoned hallways, smeared with blood and bullshit and lactose, and waits for reapers and drunk old men hiding slur words like faggot and nigger behind pee stained project staircases with rickety lights, the scent of after-hour death and a broken economy lagging behind us like the tissue stuck to shoe bottoms.
Toni Morrison so eloquently encapsulated what it means to be Black now in America post-Trump while framing it within the idea that this has always been the Black experience; the blinds that once bound the lids of White America are now wide and open, the circus on full display for the world to see.
Blackness, brownness, queerness, feminism; the pieces of our person are all on trial, presently. The nation, by and large, is in the midst of a severe stress fracture, that is seamlessly splitting the country through its core; one look no further than the divisiveness that would have been Trump’s immigration ban, the recent ICE raids followed by the barring of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus members from meeting with the director of said ICE program, along with the incompetence of a president to pull the “I know you got Black friends” card with journalist April Ryan. Tension pliable enough to be pulled by infant's fingers, to be sliced through with butter-knife-like precision.
A headline from Fox News correspondent Sean Hannity’s show recently read “Donald Trump v. Propaganda Media”. Headlines like this only confirm the notion that leaving the saving of America to a white base is like leaving a fire to be tended by pyromaniacs – it will be up to Black voices to clean up the mess, firehoses, marches, lynchings and all. It has always been the role of Black America to save the souls of White America, mainly from the lie that is the lens of race discussions in our country. Oppressors do not view facts through the same lens as the oppressed; the vantage point of the one at the receiving end of the wounds inflicted has a vastly different account of the encounter than the one delivering the punishment. We, as in Black America, are the preordained cleaners of the mess that is capitalism, colonialism, imperialism and a trumped up democracy in this newest of worlds we inhabit – Black writers are the tools the cleaners use to fumigate the space.
I am fortunate enough to be able to say some of my favorite writers are all still very much alive and are all still very much persons of color with an immeasurable amount of Blackness and diaspora pouring out of their texts: the Sonia Sanchez’s, Nikki Giovanni’s, Toni Morrison’s, Zadie Smith’s, Junot Diaz’s and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ of the world. The giants before them: James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, they live on in documentaries and libraries, in Common songs and spoken word slam open mic stage performances, in big, thick literary texts that looks to summon up and conjure their magic through paraphrasing and bibliographies. We use them as road maps, as North Stars as we write our way through women’s marches, and potential women’s strikes and #NoMuslimBan protests.
We are finding ourselves still finding ways to circumvent the era that seems to now run abhorrent with alternative right racists, alternative facts served as real news, and idiocy served as a lamentation on an America that never was, but somehow still is. But, as the giant Angelou once proudly professed “Yet still, I rise”. Rather we do. We rise. Better, we arrive. We arrive with pieces on Beyoncé and what Grammy snubs really mean to Black power, the disenfranchisement that can occur when both disability and queerness intertwine themselves within each other; we find ways to make the unviable, very much viable, very much consumable, commodifiable and palatable for the audience, for the spectator, viewer, reader, whoever lends ears or eyes or sparse words and opinion to art. And while those who dissect Black art tend not to be Black, the identifiers for authentic Black writing and writers, the ways in which we know who is of color, of struggle, and of righteous cause, and who is just pretending to not see color or is wanting to be of color but cannot, and so appropriates color.
Writing this while heating Top ramen on a stove top, I get the feeling that I am paying for Blackness, that I am tithing no less myself, for the sake of scribing down parts of history, and being just above poor and a little below not there yet, and feeling like many of my contemporaries are doing the same. In a way that is not similar to those who do not share the pigment, who do not see this America in the way we have for years, before Trump, and after Trump. It has taken me years, but I have finally begun reading Michelle Alexander’s very important work, “The New Jim Crow”. The book serves, depending on when you read it, as either appetizer or main course when accompanied by Ava Duvernay’s powerful film, “13th”. Both seem to do what America has not yet and seemingly will not do - hold a microscope to the truth of an America built on the backs of Black prowess. If history prevails and repeats itself, as it so often does, then history will remember Trump in all his pervasiveness. And that history will continue to be told truthfully by pen-held hands helmed by Black writers.
Joel L. Daniels is a writer, actor, father, emcee and dreamer, and story-teller, born and raised in the Bronx. He was the recipient of the Bronx Council of the Arts BRIO Award for poetry, and his work has been featured in the Columbia Journal, The Boston Globe, Thought Catalog, The Smoking Section, Blavity, Huffington Post, BBC Radio, RCRD LBL, URB, BRM, AllHipHop, The Source, RESPECT, and HipHopDX. He's spoken/performed at the Apollo Theater, Joe's Pub, Rockwood Music Hall, Columbia University, The National Black Theater, NYU, Webster Hall, Pianos, and Brooklyn Bowl.