Tracy K. Smith and Kawai Strong Washburn on Biden’s Debts to His Base (Especially Black Women)
In Conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell
In this week’s episode of Fiction/Non/Fiction, co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan are joined by former US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith and novelist Kawai Strong Washburn, who talk about what the Biden administration owes the BIPOC and women voters who got them elected. First, Smith discusses building bridges as a nation, and shares excerpts of her award-winning collection, Wade in the Water. Then, Hawaii-born Washburn talks about the power of community organizing, and reads from his acclaimed debut, Sharks in the Time of Saviors.
To hear the full episode, subscribe to the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app (include the forward slashes when searching). You can also listen by streaming from the player below. And check out video excerpts from our interviews at Lit Hub’s Virtual Book Channel and Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel. This podcast is produced by Andrea Tudhope.
With Tracy K. Smith
V.V. Ganeshananthan: You say at the top of your Vogue essay [about Kamala Harris], that our institution and communities have to “do more to heed the perspectives of Black people and people of color in their midst.” I think that’s always been true just in terms of morality and social justice. But leaders like Kamala Harris and Stacey Abrams are now real power brokers in the Democratic Party, and voters of color were crucial to Biden’s primary and his victory in the election. And so Democrats really can’t win elections without those voting blocs. So what should Joe Biden and Kamala Harris be doing in practical terms to heed the perspectives of Black people and people of color?
Tracy K. Smith: Well, I like a lot of what Biden and Harris are proposing, thinking about raising the minimum wage, taking COVID seriously as a nation, rethinking police oversight and accountability. But I’m also really serious when I say listening is something that’s important. I think that leaders of every kind of institution have to make some kind of priority to sit down and listen to the people who have long been misunderstood or ignored. I imagine something like a listening tour of America, where leaders go into spaces and communities where Black and brown people live and letting those voices shed light on some of the policy concerns that are important. I feel like our vocabulary as a nation can’t change in adequate ways if we’re not drawing upon actual people’s voices and stories, and the urgencies that characterize their lives.
Whitney Terrell: I feel like that minimum wage is going to be a big deal. I think that maybe that’s being underplayed. But so many people have to work and live, barely surviving, and making almost double, in some cases, seems like it would be really helpful.
TKS: It would, and what’s also kind of shocking is how great the distance still will be between somebody who’s making $15 an hour and what we imagine life in this nation is supposed to feel like.
VVG: I love that idea of a listening tour, and it just strikes me—earlier I was in a meeting with a bunch of other activists and was missing very much the energy and trust-building of in-person meetings. Of all the reasons that the GOP and the Trump administration had to not take COVID seriously, we literally can’t meet in person, which is a way of organizing. The longer that it takes for them to address the pandemic, the harder that kind of organizing is going to be. Although in some ways, these virtual conversations are great—the three of us are connected from three different places.
TKS: Yeah. I’ve been teaching virtually for the last almost year now. And it has its disadvantages, obviously. But it’s also fostered a really different dynamic, which feels much more like actual proximity or intimacy with my students and with the other people that I’ve had to interact with in this way. When I think about it, I used to use FaceTime or something like this, talking to friends and close family, sitting in bed at night and talking to people in a really honest way. Now, we’re using these same platforms to do other kinds of work. I think some of that vulnerability, some of that spontaneity comes through in these other contexts. That could be a real advantage. And maybe that kind of communication can be one of the durable impacts of COVID.
WT: Maybe there could also be some listening from the media. Do you remember how right after Trump was elected—there were so many that it became a joke that, oh, here’s a Trump person in a diner that we’re going to interview and find out what they’re really thinking and why they elected this man. But you know, communities of color and women of color could also be interviewed and asked, why did they care about this election? Why did they vote for Biden-Harris?
TKS: I wonder what a piece would look like that brings people who have different perspectives, who voted differently, together into a space that’s not combative, that’s not a platform for talking in sound bites about the opinions that have been bolstered by social media. But like, what does your day look like? What are you worried about, or what are you looking forward to in the coming six months? That kind of bridge building is also going to be critical to whether or not we’re able to move forward as a union.
[WT, voiceover]: Hey, this is Whitney breaking in here to say that our esteemed producer Andrea Tudhope worked on a show just like the one Tracy is discussing, called America Amplified: Election 2020. It’s a six-part talk show with host Rose Scott from WABE in Atlanta. We’ll put links to it in the show notes. It was excellent, and I totally should have mentioned it here! So I’m mentioning it now.
WT: And Tracy, you did some bridge-building with your anthology, American Journal, which we’ll talk about later. But I want to talk right now about something a little bit less unifying: the question of accountability—that the Biden administration’s got to deal with eight senators and 139 congressional representatives who voted against certifying the results of the 2020 election, including my senator here in Missouri, Josh, lovely man, Hawley. The Senate is going to vote on Trump’s impeachment. Representative Mike Sherrill has said that members of Congress led some of the insurrectionists through the Capitol for reconnaissance before the actual storming of the Capitol. But Biden has been notably distant from the impeachment push and wary of the idea that his administration should prosecute Trump. What do you think is the right approach from the point of view of these important constituencies we’ve been discussing?
TKS: Well, I can understand why, as a candidate, he was distancing himself from that conversation. But I hope that he gets a little bit closer to it. I also hope the senate does impeach him because it really is a way of saying, never again, we’re not going to play this foolish game of lies and power and some fantasy of conspiracy again, we’re past it. I don’t know how realistic that hope is. But when I think about reconciliation in other contexts, other nations like South Africa or Rwanda, it seems like it’s both been about naming in transparent language the sins, the wrongs, the crimes. I think it’s also been about allowing the aggressors to acknowledge their complicity in these awful things, and then take the really interesting step of learning to forgive themselves, maybe even making that process public when it’s happened. I’ve been moved by a New York Times article that I read years ago about this process in Rwanda, where, of course, it was neighbors who were committing heinous acts against one another, and who had to continue living next to each other. And so that process was at the skin level. But I think there’s a version of that that we need to find our way to.
I really like the vocabulary that Biden has been using. He’s used words like love and the soul, which aren’t really political terms, but I’ve often felt that they’re better terms than tolerance, better terms than what we usually think of as defining our character or our determination as a group. And so maybe letting some of this stuff get in. Maybe it’ll be possible somehow. I love the vocabulary of the possible as it applies to art making. In some ways I get to write a poem and go up into that space. But I’m really curious about what it looks like in the nuts and bolts and how it gets actually sold to people who are voting.
VVG: One of the most infuriating and saddening images from the past few weeks were the pictures of men carrying Confederate flags inside the Capitol building, which was such a desecration. And it made me think of your 2018 collection Wade in the Water, where you have this whole section of poems that are taken only from the letters that Black Union troops or their family members wrote during the Civil War. Did you think about those troops, too?
TKS: Absolutely, I thought about them. I also thought about Black senators who were serving the nation during Reconstruction, like Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce. In a lot of ways, what those rioters represented was the very same force that undid Reconstruction, that brought about the rise of the KKK, that perpetuated the sense of this lost cause. And it breaks my heart to think that that’s alive at this moment in our nation, and that it will take some work to—if it’s even possible, and I hope that it is—convince people to let go of the need to—restore isn’t quite the right word, because I don’t think it ever existed, but step into a version of dominance, power, and subjugation of others that I think sits at the heart of these goals, the goal of white supremacy. My generous reading is there are people who feel so disenfranchised, that that’s the only kind of justice they can imagine. But it’s terrifying at the same time. And it’s terrifying that not only here but in other parts of the world, there’s this real backlash toward these kinds of movements.
With Kawai Strong Washburn
V.V. Ganeshananthan: In this episode, we’re talking about what the Biden administration owes traditionally marginalized voters that turned out for him in large numbers—Black and women voters really foremost on our minds—and wondered if you could talk a little bit about how you see those “big man myths” and the possibility of powerful change via community organizing playing out in our current political narratives.
Kawai Strong Washburn: There’s a lot in that question, obviously. I think it will take some time before we can really accurately have a complete political analysis of the outcome of the elections. But certainly, I think it would be impossible not to recognize the incredible organizing work that was done by several groups just in Georgia in particular, to see Georgia flip blue for the first time in decades. And not only to be blue but to have both of the contested senate seats swing blue was the result of a very concerted, organized, long running effort among many community organizations to generate enthusiasm and support from the Black community. And a lot of these organizations were run by Black women. Of course, the one that’s most widely cited and is most visible is Stacey Abrams’ group, but there are several others that were involved. I know that Black Futures Lab, which I’ve volunteered for before, had a hand in that as well. They were doing text and call drives and things like that to get out the vote both for the presidential election and in the senate elections. So certainly at that level, we can see the power of community organizing.
One of the places where I think about that most in the history of the United States is with the quote unquote “Civil Rights era” in the 60s and 70s, when the organizing groups in the South, all majority Black organizing groups—the Southern Leadership Coalition Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—were operating with Martin Luther King Jr. as one of the major figures. Most people focus all their attention on Martin Luther King Jr., or some of the major visible heads of the organization. But there was so much work that was happening in the background with all of the people that were organizing sit-ins and demonstrations and doing the work to register voters, despite all of the suppression that was in place to keep Black people throughout the South from voting. I think a lot of people forget about that, and they just want to go to the big speeches and the big messages and the big moments. I’ve seen documentaries and read biographies and interviews with people that were working on the ground, and sometimes they were like, it’s really boring, we were doing a lot of paperwork all the time. That big march at the end was the culmination of months of what was otherwise just a lot of paperwork and phone calls.
Whitney Terrell: I was just gonna say that the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests over the summer, it seems like a much less top down movement. I don’t associate one figure as a leader of that movement. It seems like it’s more communitarian.
KSW: I would agree with that. So you’ve got both of those things, the organization that happened just for this election, and the Black Lives Matter movement, which is a movement in the sense that it has outgrown centralized control in a lot of ways—different places have their own expressions of it and their own work that they’re doing. So I think that’s where you’re going to continue to see, or maybe not see, the transformations that happen politically.
I think that what is needed in marginalized communities is the same thing that’s needed in just about every community, it’s just some are getting it and some aren’t. It’s these basic livelihood necessities—having a good education system; having a health care system you can count on; living in an environment that’s conducive to health, meaning it’s a place that’s free from air and water pollution where you can trust that the water you’re drinking is safe. These are all very basic things, and I think that most people you’ll talk to from a variety of political spectrums, when it really comes down to it, those are the things they want. I think that those are more so important for the Black community, but they’re important for a variety of marginalized communities from a variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Those are the things that the Biden administration needs to focus on.
And to the extent you can take those further, specifically for the Black community, it means you should that much further invest in those communities, making sure that we truly look at how to reform our education system and how to unwind a lot of the high-level, codified racist policies that back some of these things up. Even now, I live in one of the most redlined neighborhoods in Minneapolis, and that’s starting to change, but it’s not changing with enough direct investment. Where’s the extra work to get homeownership rates up for Black people in a way that allows them to gather up the wealth that they were denied, starting with the GI Bill? I could go on and on. But it’s those basic livelihood measures that are the starting point to do the actual work, not just to say, oh, we’re gonna eliminate racist laws, but to take the extra step of then having to go back and undo that harm by investing directly in things that are going to undo it.
WT: I want to talk a little bit about Hawaii [where you’re from]. I did a little Googling—according to the sources that I looked at, there’s something like 1.1 million people there roughly, but the demographics are really interesting. Thirty-seven percent Asian, 24 percent white, 10 percent Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, 1 percent Black, and 23 percent list themselves as two or more races. You’re a mixed-race writer writing about mixed-race characters in your novel. I was thinking about how the Trump election was in a way a reaction to the belief that there was this demographic change that was going to put Democrats permanently in power. That was part of the narrative when Trump was getting elected—hey, the country is going to be much more mixed. The country is going to be more mixed, and Hawaii looks much more like what the future of our politics is going to be rather than its past. I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit.
KSW: I’m grateful that I was born and raised in Hawaii, because it was a place that inverts that racial dynamic in a way that allowed me to exist as a person without my race ever feeling like it was the primary determinant of my relationship to all the parts of the world around me, whether we’re talking about schools or police. That does not exist in Hawaii, or certainly didn’t for me—I want to make sure that I don’t speak for the entire island. But for me, in Hāmākua where I grew up, those demographics are even more skewed. I can count on one hand the number of my friends or people that I knew in my class that were white. Almost everybody I knew it was two or three races. There were a lot of Pacific Islanders. And growing up that way, there was never any sense of my race being an issue. I guess it’s the way it must feel for white people in other places. I was part of the culture of the place, and that’s such a wonderful feeling. And having experienced what I’ve experienced after that, it’s very interesting to realize how important that was in making me somebody that thinks very differently about the country and my place in it than I would have otherwise.
So I think it would be a great thing for us to continue to see an increase in the different racial compositions, and I think that’s fantastic and it’s a good trend. But I think that we also need to not jump to conclusions about what that means politically, because in parts of Texas and Florida, you saw very different outcomes among groups of Latinos, for instance, and this is just one of many demographics, than a lot of people expected. A lot of people were like, oh, as these areas become more Latino, we’re going to see an increase in Democratic representation, and that wasn’t the case in parts of Texas and parts of Florida.
Tracy K. Smith
The Cancer Journals · Life On Mars: Poems · Wade In The Water: Poems · American Journal: Fifty Poems For Our Time · Ordinary Light: A Memoir · Duende: Poems · “Poet Tracy K. Smith Pays Tribute to Kamala Harris,” Vogue
Kawai Strong Washburn
“Biden’s First 100 Days: Here’s What To Expect” by Elena Moore, NPR · America Amplified: Election 2020, a six-episode national talk show from the CPB public media initiative America Amplified · “Portraits of Reconciliation: 20 years after the genocide in Rwanda, reconciliation still happens one encounter at a time,” by Pieter Hugo and Susan Dominus, New York Times · “Kama’āina: Kawai Strong Washburn Interviewed by Kathryn Savage,” BOMB Magazine · The Autobiography of Malcolm X· Senator Ted Cruz on Twitter: “By rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, President Biden indicates he’s more interested in the views of the citizens of Paris than in the jobs of the citizens of Pittsburgh. This agreement will do little to affect the climate and will harm the livelihoods of Americans.” · “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich, The New York Times Sunday Magazine
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope and Shashank Murali. Tracy K. Smith author photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths.
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