a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
August 15th 2019
The wildflower season of 2019 in my corner of Colorado has been like no other. Purple penstemon, paintbrush in every color, from the ubiquitous orange through the deep reds into purple, from a neon green to white with tawny edges. My pasture has been covered with blue flax from late June into mid-August, and blue, white and yellow columbine are in thick clumps along the trail that rises from the end of Middle Creek road all the way up to Copper Ridge. Bright pink skyrocket lines the driveway, yellow composites I don’t even know the names for blanket either sides of the road and silvery lupine and alpine daisy cover hillsides so thickly that when I drive past, it’s like moving through a tunnel painted by Monet.
We have had so many years of drought, so many years of fire, so many years of unprecedented heat in a row that this year of late snow and spring rain and cooling afternoon thunderstorms—the way it was, 25 years ago when I first came to this valley—feels like a mirage, some dream of better times, maybe a last-minute gift from Mother Nature before she gives up the ghost for good.
Far to the North, Alaska is burning, along with millions of acres of boreal forests in Russia. Greenland is melting many times faster than even the most dire calculations predicted and Iceland is having a ceremony to mourn the death of its first major glacier as heat wave after heat wave hits the highest latitudes. This month’s National Geographic cover story is A World On The Move: Seas rise, crops wither, wars erupt, humankind seeks shelter in another place. But there is no other place. The earth is in climate freefall—a cursory glance at international weather maps prove that—but for whatever reason, this summer, southwestern Colorado has been given a reprieve.
When I was a teenager, I listened to Jackson Brown albums over and over, For Everyman, Late For The Sky, Saturate Before Using, until the words got so far inside me they made me who I am. These days I listen to James Baldwin on repeat, Going To Meet The Man, Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time, and his words are inside me now as deeply as the lyrics to Fountain of Sorrow and For A Dancer. Baldwin tells us, more clearly and patiently than any other American author, all the truths our Caucasian/capitalist/colonialist-fueled denial has tried so hard to eradicate.
“All hatred,” he reminds us, “is self-hatred, and there is something suicidal about it.” “Whoever debases others,” he tells us, “is also debasing themselves.” “Hatred,” he adds, “which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated, and this was an immutable law.” And possibly Baldwin’s most quoted passage: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
Currently, in the USA, we are literally dying from hatred. In addition to the 33,000 gun deaths a year, the 45,000 yearly suicides, there are the rest of us leaching a little life each day as we witness our president tweet his hate daily, for black and brown people, for women, for LGBTQs, for the earth, for clean air and clean water, for salmon and bears, for children, for the arts, even for Amtrack, for every single thing that was once good about this country, each tweet another brick in the wall of his own crypt, and, unfortunately, ours.
Last week, upon hearing that three more countries have issued travel warmings to its citizens against coming to the United States, Trump vowed “retaliation.” An eye for an eye, a hate for a hate, never stopping to consider those countries’ leaders might simply want to keep their citizens from getting caught in the crossfire of our gun violence epidemic, because the safety of his citizens never comes near his radar screen. Safety, love, brotherhood, charity, compassion, empathy, the greatest good for the greatest number: the president and the men who run him have no use for these values.
In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin writes, “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and will not be today and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
And though Baldwin often said that being Black in America and being relatively conscious necessitated being in a state of rage all the time, he had almost unending patience with his white audience as he tried to teach us (self) love, (self) tolerance, and (self) compassion.
“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” (The Fire Next Time)
I listened to The Fire Next Time, for maybe the 50th time, last week on the way to the Denver airport, and upon arrival learned that a young male white supremacist, fueled by our president’s racist rhetoric, had driven all the way from Dallas to El Paso with the specific intent to shoot as many brown people as he could before the El Paso police force stopped him. Twenty-two people were killed and twenty-four more were wounded, their ages ranging from two to ninety. Among the wounded were some who neglected to seek medical care because they were afraid they would be deported or be put in detention centers run by the US government where they would face unsanitary conditions, inadequate supplies, and sexual assault.
I know there are some American citizens cheering on the gun-wielding supremacists, celebrating the torture chambers this regime has created for refugee children who are in such desperate need. I understand that racism in America is incessant and on the rise, and the rise is enabled and encouraged by this president, who might, speaking of self-acceptance, be the most desperately insecure human who has ever lived. I also know that all too many white Americans who call themselves progressives turn a blind eye (as I did, for too long) to the micro- and macro-aggressions that black and brown people suffer in American every day.
But I also know one strategy all dictators have in common is the ability to convince their citizens that they are more irrevocably divided than they actually are, convince them to hate one another as an act of loyalty to the hateful dictator, convince them, even, to kill one another, to prove, somehow, that their hate is justified. It’s the oldest dictatorial trick in the book. The president and his party understand all too well that if they keep us busy hating each other, we will not collectively turn on them, and they will be able to continue to rob us blind, of our wages, our rights and our freedom.
I’m still hopeful that the president and the men who run him are wrong about us. I don’t believe that half my countrymen are celebrating that twenty-five-year-old Jordan Anchondo gave her own life in a Walmart in El Paso in an attempt to shield her child from bullets. I don’t believe half of my countrymen are cheering the 4,500 cases of sexual assault that have been reported from the border camps where children are kept in cages without toothbrushes, without blankets, without comfort of any kind. We know from endless surveys that it is only a small and rapidly shrinking percentage of citizens who believe that the freedom to walk into a store and buy a weapon of war that can kill dozens of people in less than a minute is what makes America great. I reject the notion that half of my countrymen are enraptured with blood lust, are mesmerized by hate speech, are titillated by the notion that men in power can take and rape and pillage anything and anyone they want. I refuse to believe this even though AND because there is a multi-national multi-billion-dollar Russian/NRA/GOP-funded Twitter/Facebook campaign trying to convince me it is true.
Our legislators have failed to honor their promise to protect us from such dictatorial pressure, such attacks from foreign governments, and our media, the supposed fourth estate, has been compromised, as most things in American have, by greed and a consumer culture exaggerated to a cartoonish extreme. And still, I refuse to play by rules I never agreed to. I will not become a casualty of my own easy hatred. I will not give this president or anyone the satisfaction of making me smaller and less broad-minded than I am.
The day the man drove to El Paso, fueled by Trump’s hate speech, with the intent of killing as many brown people as possible, I flew to Alaska. I have been there for eleven days now, and the temperature has climbed into the eighties every single day. Trees are dying, salmon are dying in droves from the elevated ocean temperatures and there is not enough water in the rivers for them to spawn or feed the bears.
As we consider what this administration is calling “an invasion” at our Southern Border, we might pause to consider how the Inupiaq, Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Tlingit, Haida, and Athabascan people have lived, fished and farmed sustainably in Alaska for anywhere from 2,000 to 20,000 years. How we, the invaders of North America, are going to effectively destroy the Alaskan ecosystem in less than a hundred years from statehood. Just this morning, Trump gutted the Endangered Species Act, the bedrock of environmental conservation in America and one of the few things standing between the world’s largest salmon fishery, 14,000 jobs and thirty native tribes, and the Pebble Mine, which, if Trump gets his way, will have the potential to poison half a million acres of pristine wilderness and kill in the neighborhood of 62 million salmon. Another broken promise to native communities, another act of violence toward wild fragile things, another assault on the health and wellbeing of Americans. Contrary to what the oil and gas industry owners—who already have more money than they could spend in a hundred lifetimes—would have us believe, we are of the earth, and when we complete her destruction, we will have not just destroyed our only home, but we will have destroyed ourselves, both figuratively and literally, in the process.
Our greatest failure as a citizenry, I believe, is not division but denial. We deny a history that is built on genocide, lynching, slavery and broken treaties we are complicit in, by, among other things, the casual way we live on stolen land. We deny climate change daily, acting as if it is too great an act of imagination to reconsider the wasteful way we live our lives. Most adamantly, and most consistently, we deny the fact of our own death, which Baldwin calls “the only fact we have.” The weight of our collective denial has made us so inert, so sad, so hopeless, so lonely. We have given up on the idea that we can participate in the making of our own country, our own democracy, and resigned ourselves to a life in which we desperately grasp whatever bread crumbs of wealth or safety or comfort the current regime dribbles out to keep us docile.
But the end of denial, I know from experience, is actually a beginning. It opens every possibility and makes the real healing begin. For many years I was afraid to talk about the abuse, physical and sexual, I suffered at the hand of my father, a man very like Trump in his insecurity, his self-hatred, and his way of turning everything, even love, into a financial equation. For years after leaving his house, I neither thought, nor talked about, spending the majority of my fourth year in a ¾ body cast, nor the surgery I had at 17 to remove scar tissue from my cervix. It was as if I was dangling from the rim of a giant drinking glass, afraid if I spoke the words aloud I’d fall to the bottom. But the great thing about falling to the bottom of the glass, is that once I got down there, it was nice and solid. There was nowhere left to fall, and instead of using my energy clinging to a lie, I had the truth on my side as I figured out how to get up and get out of that glass.
If we can tell the truth about the violent urges at the center of our gun culture, we’ll be free to admit our children were happier before they had to endure weekly active shooter drills in school. Once we admit we’ve been terrible stewards of the earth, we can decide that clean air and clean water is more important than a few more dollars in a rich man’s pocket. If we look honestly at the fact that we are a nation of immigrants, we might take the babies out of their torture cages. We might have more respect for Native Americans, and give them a real voice in what does and doesn’t happen on this land. We might decide to stop hurting and killing one another at the behest of a sick and inadequate man. We could break the barriers of climate denial and tend to the earth in her convalescence and to the people who are suffering as the temperatures rise. We might live like people who, knowing the fact of their death, choose to be remembered for their generosity rather than their greed. And even if our efforts are all in vain and climate-driven scarcity and war takes us out sooner than later, wouldn’t we rather go out lovingly, with our eyes wide open, than sitting on a raft full of dirty misbegotten dollar bills?
If we have learned anything since the 2016 election, it is that our institutions will not save us. It is left to us, we the people, to make the country we want. I believe there are more of us who would choose to risk our safety and comfort rather than end their lives as torturers’ accomplices. At this moment we still have the freedom to act and think as individuals, and we can encourage others to do the same. If we don’t, you can be certain this regime will take that away from us too.
Although he was a wise and tolerant teacher, it was never Baldwin’s responsibility to educate white people. It is white people’s job to seek an education; it is white people’s job to shut our mouths and listen, to bear witness, and when possible, to educate each other. Though we will get the tone of it wrong sometimes because of the privilege embedded in our language, we must use our position of relative safety to speak, not for but on behalf of those who are being silenced and belittled and threatened every day by this administration. More important, we must create platforms and venues in which those who are being othered can safely speak for themselves.
This is how we redraw the lines of division and of gerrymandering, by listening to the voices who have been silenced, by asking people to reacquaint themselves with their own humanity, by asking them to engage their independent minds, to reject denial as a strategy and to embrace action, to resist the fascists and make a country where freedom means the greatest good for the greatest number. Truth, as the great Toni Morrison reminds us in her essay Peril, is “trouble for the warmonger, the torturer, the corporate thief, the political hack, the corrupt justice system and for a comatose public.” It is time to wake up from our stupor.
There are those who will say it is easy for me to say that the divides aren’t as deep as Trump says they are because as a white person I am not the constant recipient of racist treatment, and I recognize the truth in that accusation. Sexism, of which I am a constant recipient, has been inflamed as well. And make no mistake, there is no difference between the impulses that want to destroy the lives of black and brown people, women and children and the impulses toward wringing every bit of profit out of the earth.
So on this day of mourning for the people of El Paso, and the people of Dayton, and the people of Gilroy, and our sputtering democracy, and our wolves, bears, eagles and spotted owls, our gasping shuddering planet, I commit to educating myself and helping to educate others. I commit to having the difficult and uncomfortable and painful conversations, to speaking the truth and to calling out denial. I commit to finding common ground, a place where we all might let love take off our masks. In my town, this summer, the wildflowers might be a good place to start. Everyone agrees there hasn’t been anything half as beautiful in years.
Pam Houston is the author of Deep Creek: Finding Hope In The High Country, as well as five other books including Contents May Have Shifted and Cowboys Are My Weakness. Her stories have been selected for The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Short Stories of the Century. She teaches in the Low Rez MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, is Professor of English at UC Davis, and co-founder and creative director of the literary nonprofit Writing By Writers. She lives at 9,000 feet above sea level near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.