On Staying and Fighting, and Finding Strength in Poetry
Garnette Cadogan Refuses to Give in to Despair
“Where shall we go?” a dear friend asked the day after the election. “Are you going to leave?” inquired another. I lament to a neighbor how one man’s rise to high office feels like a descent for the rest of us. “If you don’t like the results,” someone then declared, “you can go back home to Jamaica.”
Well, I’ve spent over two decades making the United States home. I have no intention, nor any desire, to leave. There are many who would love nothing more than to see their country free of complexions, accents, and beliefs they don’t think belong. But here’s the thing: it’s not only their country. To leave would be to give validity to the lie they have told themselves and keep repeating to us. They’ve swapped their country’s aspirational motto of e pluribus unum for the belittling “Go home!” But this country is my home. I’m not going anywhere. They will have to deal with my foreign, accented, black ass.
I plan to stay put and fight. And fight how? By embracing, by invoking, by insisting on W.H. Auden’s suggestion: “You shall love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart.” Nonetheless, if they don’t like me being around, then they can find somewhere else to live. Meanwhile, as I stay put, I’ll sing along with Bob Marley, my Jamaican accent in full lilt: “You a-go tired fi see me face. / Can’t get me out of the race.”
It’s tempting to give the keys over to despondency. Or anger. I’ve withdrawn into numbness, unsure exactly what emotions envelope or rustle in me. But as I scurry to retreat in silence, I find that consolation keeps arriving through the words of others. Friends call. I swing by my favorite restaurant, which doubles as a home, and one of the employees reminds me of all that black people have been through in the history of this nation and reassures with a beguiling smile, “We go be alright! We can handle this.” Colleagues pop into my office: “How are you?” Well-thumbed books—old friends, all—are pulled from the shelf and asked to speak. “We have not stopped trembling yet,” James Baldwin wrote to his nephew in his open letter The Fire Next Time, written when his country, now my country, was wracked with turmoil. “But if we had not loved each other none of us would have survived. And now you must survive because we love you, and for the sake of your children and your children’s children.” If we had not loved each other… For the sake of your children… We fight, then, not only for ourselves, but we struggle to somehow coax the arc of the moral universe in the right direction, one in which fairness can follow us and those without the means or strength or will to fight.
I know it’s not enough to refuse to leave. I have to learn to love my neighbor with my crooked heart. The real fight, that. All the more so because the present feels like an unstable, constantly shifting ground where the future, which is always uncertain, feels all the more so, but with a strain of capriciousness thrown in. “Somebody chose their pain,” Auden once lamented about disastrous choices. “What needn’t have happened did.”
This is home; I have to fight for it; I have to do so out of love, with love: Of these things I’m certain. Much else lies shrouded in uncertainty. As Auden pointed out:
But the stars burn on overhead,
Unconscious of final ends,
As I walk home to bed,
Asking what judgment waits
My person, all my friends,
And these United States.
Feature image: Todd Webb, Harlem Sprinkler, 1946