November 2016 in Retrospect

Oh, friends, what can I say about 2016?

Last year, I wrote that the world changed in 2015. Now, I think that if the world changed in 2015, it imploded in 2016. Nothing is the same now. Nothing will be the same again. Coming out of the “shock” phase of the post-election, I see that this is a good thing. The world was always imploding. It didn’t happen suddenly on November 8th. It happened slowly, for years, among people we thought about often, disparagingly, and people we never thought about. It happened through our actions as much as through theirs.

And now, we’re thinking about them. We’re thinking about why they voted the way they did. We’re thinking about how they had to feel, what they had to suffer, the fear they had to have, in order to vote that way. We’re thinking about what kind of country we’ve built that stockpiles educated ignorance until we can’t see the suffering on the other side. We’re thinking about how we can reach out, to those who will be hurt by the aftershocks of this election and to those who voted for Trump. How can we listen? How can we help? How can we protect?

I still plan to write up my usual month-by-month nostalgic replay of the dying year, but first, I want to write about November 2016. Because election day fell just before my MA program’s finals stress began and so I never found the time to blog about it. I am not so delusional as to think that I will say something here that has not yet been said. I have been reading powerful accounts of the election across the Internet for months. But I need, well, not closure, but to set down my own account here. A retelling of what’s happened from my perspective, along with my promise for the future. I need to do this because I never want to forget November 2016. It is the part of my year that I want to reverberate the longest, not only into 2017, but throughout the rest of my life.

Along these lines, I feel lucky to be in graduate school right now. Historians have never been more vital. I dislike that old adage, “history repeats itself,” because it doesn’t. The same thing never happens twice in the same way; we are changing every instant. You, already, are a different person from the one who read the previous sentence. A better adage, perhaps, is “history never ends.” The past is powerful; it is intimately connected to our present. We can trace threads of politics, economics, culture, backwards and forwards in time. We can unearth rich examples to live by, we can preach the danger of old mistakes, we can find humor and wisdom and oh so much humanity in history. This work–writing stories, drawing connections, thinking of the present as part of the past–this is the work I want to do for the rest of my life. I am more sure of this than ever.

But back to November: in the wee hours of election night, after my friends had gone home and the remnants of what was supposed to be a triumphant party had been cleaned up, I wrote something down. It’s not much, but it’s my account:

It’s difficult to explain something I hardly understand myself. I don’t know how to react, how to comfort, how to write. What I do know is that at 3 a.m., Anna, sitting in the middle of my couch with Jon on one side and me on the other, grabbed our hands. It had just been announced that Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump to concede the election. CBS was flashing the news that Donald Trump was the projected 45th president of the United States of America. “I don’t feel safe anymore,” Anna told us, squeezing our hands and pulling her knees to her chest, “I don’t know what’s going to happen.” All I could tell her is that we’re still here. We’ll still be here tomorrow, and the next day. There are good people here, and out there, and we will not concede the truths that we know. But no words felt brave enough, compassionate enough. Even to myself, I cannot find the words. I cannot justify this with what I know of my country. I cannot justify this with what I’ve always believed about human goodness, about our essential desire to do right by others. When Jon and Anna left, the minute I turned the deadbolt behind them, I burst into tears. There, among wine bottles with labels like “The Velvet Devil,” which I had picked out at Trader Joe’s because I thought themed wine would be a delightfully ironic way to watch Trump lose. There, among scattered chairs where my friends had sat for hours with me, growing quieter and quieter. There, in a safe place that suddenly felt as if it were crouching against a roiling world. 

Future humans, do not make light of our shock, our terror, as we are sometimes wont to do with the past. Do not look back on this election and say, “That’s hilarious! Those stupid Americans actually elected Donald Trump in 2016!” Instead, try to understand how this happened. Understand this election as the end of something hopeful, the beginning of something much darker. Do not make light of what happened here tonight. Do not make light of a candidate whose platform was built on hatred, suspicion, racism, misogyny, fear. Do not make light of the millions who elected him. They have pain, too. They have fear, or they would not have voted for him. Do not let this continue. Do not let this happen again.

And then the next day:

Today, I alternate between tears and rage. It’s as if someone has died, and I forget for a few minutes at a time, drifting into the normalcy of schoolwork or sleep or even laughing with friends. And then I remember, suddenly, the weight against my heart, the terrible wrong that has been done. Everyone’s eyes look red. On campus, I see a history PhD candidate I don’t know well, and there are tears on her cheeks. We can barely greet each other, and my own face is wet as I watch her walk away. A student stands outside of the Sadler Center holding a sign that says “free hugs,” with a Hillary “H.” I see another student practically run into his arms. I consider it myself. I’m grateful, today, to be on this campus. It’s not perfect here. Not everyone voted the same way. Already some harassment has begun, bullies made bolder by a bully being affirmed. But the people who surround me – my cohort, my professors – are mostly like-minded. We have Historian’s Craft at 9:30 a.m. this morning, and can hardly talk about the subaltern. We cannot even talk about the obvious connections between Spivak’s essay and what has just happened. We can only stare hollowly at each other, and the professor dismisses us early. Her face looks even worse than ours. Everything is dark, still.

And the next:

A professor has called for a gathering of American Studies and History students, mostly graduate students. We huddle together in the library of the creaky old American Studies building. We hold plates of pizza and cookies on our laps. We don’t look at each other at first; we don’t know how to begin. And then, we talk about what has happened. We talk about the tragedy of it. But mostly, we talk about the shame of it. The shame of not suspecting this could happen, of being so entrenched in our own rightness that we didn’t reach out to those whose pain and fear was so great that they were tempted by such a candidate. They elected him because they thought he could protect them. Because he gave them a voice they didn’t have, a voice that we, each in our small way, contributed to silencing. I’m ashamed of that. I have been blinded by arrogance toward those I perceived to be ignorant. That is not the person I want to be. That is not the historian I want to be. In my work I strive to listen to those who have not yet been listened to, but how can I do this if I cannot practice it in my own life? Nearly everyone is crying as the weight of this settles. The professor begins to talk. He says something I’ll never forget: that the most we can do is to love honestly. To do so comes with a great deal of risk, but it’s a vital risk, a worthwhile one. He says that we’ll be okay, because we’ll protect each other. He reminds us of when Dumbledore said, “I am not worried. I am with you.” At that, some sob audibly. We touch each other’s shoulders, offer hugs, pass Kleenex. The professor hands a handkerchief to a particularly distraught student. On Monday, we begin the work of deciding what to do. Tonight, we keep each other close and let ourselves mourn.

These are the most important parts of 2016 for me. And I want, more than anything, for the most important parts of 2017 to be related. But I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I want to do the work. I want to be part of the change that this country desperately needs. I can give what I have. I can take up my torch, as I trust you will take up yours. We can change this country.

2017 is for us, not for him.

I want to leave you with a song. It’s been my anthem for the past few months, and is a hopeful, resolved, frenzied reminder that we WILL make it through this year. And the next, and the next.

I’ll see you in 2017.

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