Suddenly the night has grown colder.
The god of love preparing to depart.*
The chill of the 2016 US elections is still in my bones. Glued to any and all forms of media, I watched what Van Jones and Judith Butler have called, “whitelash” unfold in graphs, charts, and all forms of measurable outcomes. I watched as the states of my country turned red one by one. This was not the first time I had seen this, but there was something unique about this time. This time, it was not just me and people who looked like me, who felt precarious, but rather I watched as the whitelash was aimed at and betrayed the white Left/Center Left. I watched and felt the hush over the newscasters in the newsroom as they realized the precarity of the first amendment, particularly of free speech and thus, their very existence.
Without intending to, I consumed/embodied that hush. I could not respond or say anything about the election. My inbox was flooded with messages of coping, my social media was a manifest of betrayal, blame, violence, fear, and ultimately action. I was still silent. For me, as a Muslim woman of South Asian descent who has been working for decades on issues of social justice, sometimes through decolonizing anthropology, sometimes through collective action outside the academy, these results were not surprising. I wish they were more surprising. I wish I was surprised by white supremacy in America. I wish my idealism in the human spirit could have learned to forget or misplace that constant in my life. What I found myself wishing instead was that this outrage on my social media feed had coincided with the mapping of police violence, particularly on black bodies. Or the ways in which indigenous people are being arrested and violated for peacefully protesting the Dakota pipeline. Or the rising issue of domestic violence, or really anything, except the reiterating fact that the (white) Left was taken by absolute surprise, and that they did not win. As a person of color in the United States, I have never won. Obama was probably the closest thing to winning I came to, and even he ended up with drone issues (among others).
As more political news flooded my world, I realized that the impact of our elections were not just about the American Left but a global crisis with the Left. This was clear as the far right parties from around the world started congratulating the President-elect, and a quick tally of all the countries that had already voted in right wing governments or policies (Turkey, India, Brazil, Ecuador, UK etc). The silence engulfed me as I realized the implications far beyond issues related to US race relations and white supremacy (although these are very serious, should not be taken lightly and can also be extrapolated globally). This impacts all of us everywhere. All of us women, all of us LGBTQIA folks, all of us differentially documented folks, all of us people of color, all of us anthropologists… all of us for as far as I could imagine who ‘us’ would/could be. This was fascism. This is fascism.
To mediate the violence of that realization, my silence had a meditative impact. It kept secure my small flickering light of idealism, hope, and love. I could not speak because every time I did, I found people lashing out and blaming each other. I was silent as a way to safeguard myself and my years of work. But suddenly, I was out of my league in terms of estimating impact and what it might mean to build solidarity across movements, and I was questioning if there was anything radical at all about the Left.
It was in that moment that I quietly entered the yard of Al-Serkal, to Cinema Akil, 11,000 kilometers away from where I sent my absentee ballot. I sat under an open sky to watch Malik Bendjelloul’s film, Searching for Sugar Man (2012). The co-founder of Cinema Akil, Butheina Kazim opened the film with a short introduction, talking about Leonard Cohen, the elections, their impact on the world, and with a voice full of emotion, she brought the words of Toni Morrison to lend weight to the enormity of the crisis, and located her own position within that discourse: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self pity, no need for silence, no need for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
Listening to the words of an American poet, in Dubai, as a statement of action of what we do in times of crisis, just before a film about a Mexican-American singer from Detroit who was big in South Africa, made by a Swedish-Algerian film maker, cracked my silence. But what brought me here, to this post, was the story of Sixto Rodriguez, who taught me through his actions that it could never be about winning in the here and now. The struggle is in the every day, and there is an intense beauty to that labor, and there is meaning in that action that makes it art. His seemingly seamless shift from manual labor in Detroit to concerts in South Africa demonstrated that for him these were not different actions. They were both poetry. They were both art. They were both part of the same struggle.
As someone long prepared for the occasion;
In full command of every plan you wrecked –
Do not choose a coward’s explanation
that hides behind the cause and the effect.
And you who were bewildered by a meaning;
Whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed –
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.*
I don’t know if Rodriguez knew Cohen personally. I don’t even know if they crossed paths. But the two of them, one by passing and one by pausing, created the space in my slowly collapsing world for Toni Morrison’s words to resonate, and for me to find meaning again in what I do.
And what I do is write.
And what I do is love.
And what I do is dream.
And what I do is resist.
And what I do is labor.
And what I do is anthropology.
*Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson, Alexandra Leaving (Ten New Songs, 2001).
Note: An edit has been made to the original post to correct information by the author.