The concept behind IT OCCURS TO ME THAT I AM AMERICA was simple: a collection that would bring together writers and artists to tell stories that addressed ideas, thoughts or simply impressions regarding civil liberties and freedom through race, gender, to what it means to be an American, with an emphasis on women—31 of the 52 contributors are women—published on the one-year anniversary of the Women’s March and all in support of the ACLU.
The results were not only diverse in subject matter—from dystopian worlds to hate crime and even hilarious satire—but brought up the very nature of what it means to tell a story. Alice Walker’s heartfelt “Don’t Despair” is very close to personal biography, a plea to pay attention at once skeptical yet ultimately hopeful. In its economy it manages to touch upon slavery, the history of Walker’s family, her father’s incredibly brave voting experience and even thoughts on the 2017 election. “Don’t Despair” makes us rethink the very nature of story, that one need not invent to have all the ingredients of powerful storytelling—narrative, a driving force, a moral. It makes one feel as if we are sitting in a room with Ms. Walker and she is telling us a cautionary tale, both profound and instructive.
— Jonathan Santlofer, Editor, IT OCCURS TO ME THAT I AM AMERICA (Touchstone)
“Don’t Despair,” by Alice Walker
When I was a child growing up in middle Georgia, I thought all white men were like Donald Trump. They too seemed petulant and spoiled, unhappy with everything they were not the center of, brutal toward the feelings of those beneath them and comfortable causing others to act out of hate. How did we survive this?
I think of my father, a poor sharecropper with eight children, so desperate for change in a system that left his family in danger of starving that he walked to the polling place, a tiny, white-owned store in the middle of nowhere, to cast the first vote by a black person in the county. Three white men holding shotguns sat watching him, for niggers were not supposed to vote and they were there to enforce this common law. My father voted for Roosevelt and a New Deal he hoped would also apply to black people.
I come from a line of folks who chose to live or die on their feet. My four-times-great-grandmother was forced to walk chained from a slave ship in Virginia, and carried two small children that probably weren’t hers all the way to middle Georgia. There she was forced to work for strange, pale people who could only have appeared to be demons to her. She was given as a wedding gift to a young married couple when she was advanced in age; what the story of this event was is a mystery to this day. All we know is that she lived to bury all these people and that it is she who is remembered.
My aunts and uncles learned trades, tailoring, bricklaying, masonry, house building, whatever was allowed for black people, and raised their children in homes of stability and even comfort, while the white world beyond their neighborhoods attempted to squeeze them into corners so tiny that to the majority of citizens of the cities they lived in, they did not even exist.
How to survive dictatorship. That is what much of the rest of the world has had to learn. Our country has imposed this condition on so many places and peoples around the globe it is naive to imagine we would avoid it. Besides, do Native Americans and African American descendants of enslaved people not realize they have never lived in anything but a dictatorship?
In this election we did not really have a healthy choice, as is said in a commercial for something I vaguely remember. Or, as a friend puts it: “The choice was between disaster and catastrophe.” If this puzzles you, here is the next step of my counsel: Study. Really attempt to understand the people you are voting for. What are they doing when they’re not smiling at you in anticipation of your vote? Study hard, deeply, before the internet is closed, before books are disappeared. Know your history and the ways it has been kept secret from you. Understand how politicians you vote for understand your history better than you do, which helps them manipulate your generations. It is our ignorance that keeps us hoping somebody we elect will do all the work while we drive off to the mall. Forget this behavior as if it were a dream. It was. In some way, many of us will find, perhaps to our astonishment, that we have not really lived until this moment.
Our surprise, our shock, our anger—all of it points to how fast asleep we were.
This is not a lament. It is counsel. It is saying: we can awaken completely. The best sign of which will be how we treat every being who crosses our path. For real change is personal. The change within ourselves expressed in our willingness to hear, and have patience with, the other. Together we move forward. Anger, the pointing of fingers, the wishing that everyone had done exactly as you did, none of that will help relieve our pain. We are here now. In this scary, and to some quite new and neverimagined place. What do we do with our fear?
Do we turn on others, or toward others? Do we share our awakening, or only our despair?
The choice is ours.