In the days after Donald Trump was elected, a poem trended on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The poem begins, “I want a dyke for president. I want a person with aids for president and I want a fag for president and I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so saturated with toxic waste that they didn’t have a choice about getting leukemia…” The piece is titled “I Want a President,” and was written by poet Zoe Leonard for a queer feminist publication during the 1992 presidential election. Yet the message of the poem, calling for an unorthodox president, remains salient today, 24 years later.
Anger and sadness for the outcome of the election has spurred calls to action and calls for activist movements. Activism is typically imagined as political rallies and protests, but the role of literature in liberation movements cannot be left out of this imagining. Just as Leonard’s poem allowed thousands of people to express their discontent with the election of Trump and the American political system, literature and writing have been historically crucial to expressing discontent and calling for change and liberation. At Tufts, many students and professors of color use literature and writing as a means to connect personal histories to political movements.
According to English Professor Natalie Shapero, literature works to “invite the reader to leap into previously unconsidered lives and viewpoints while also recognizing in those lives and viewpoints certain elements of human experience that are common to us all. Essentially, literature can argue for the humanity of each and every person.”
Tufts senior Jonathan Jacob Moore, a Black poet and Founding President of Spoken Word Alliance at Tufts (SWAT), evokes the spirit of the Combahee River Collective—a Black feminist lesbian organization—and their commitment to the phrase “the personal is the political.” For Moore, writing is important to both his being and his beliefs. “To say writing saved my life is cliché but also not entirely true—writing saved the life that it helped make possible, it saved me from (some, not all) of the selves I feared becoming,” he said. “Writing is saving my life, but it’s deeper than that. Writing makes sense out of me…it tethers my body to the ground.”
In a world where Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than White people and constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population, fear is a daily part of living in the United States while Black. However, Moore cites that writing helps cultivate a space of imagining a world without this fear. “[When] you’re young and Black in a world made for everyone but you, you feel it, hard. But no one holds your hand. You fashion some sense of self, some kind of love, out of what’s left behind. If you’re lucky to have kept your body. If you’re lucky to have space to be. Writing helped me mend the pieces, find things lost, imagine new possibilities.”
Senior Aishvarya Arora, an editor of the on-campus publication NightBrunch and an Asian American woman who emigrated from India, echoed these points. For Arora, her experiences as a woman of color in the US have constituted her as largely invisible and unseen, and through writing she “feels like [she] can claim [her] identities and see how they are present in [her] life.” Writing was where she first felt comfortable thinking about politics, and where she was able to express how her politics cannot be separated from her identity. “I write so that my sister will have art that reflects her experiences, that helps her make sense of them,” she said. “I write to validate parts of my life that otherwise I’ve been told to ignore or deprioritize.”
Writing can be a way to counter-force silence, according to Arora. She stated, “For marginalized people, every part of your life has silenced your voice. To write is to recover that voice, it can save you and help you understand yourself and your world. That understanding catalyzes change.”
Senior Rachel Steindler, an Asian-American woman, transracial, transnational adoptee, and member of the DISRUPT Slam Team, echoed these sentiments. “Writing poetry was first about expressing deep pain and anger that came out of seeing racism and raced sexism,” she said. “Since then, it has been many things for me: a call for help, a call to action, a demand, a call out, a way to heal, a space to imagine.” She explained that, through writing, she was able to take up space and feel empowered. According to Steindler, “For people of color, writing can be liberation. Validating the beauty and the importance of one’s own voice can be the most powerful form of self-love, especially when many of our voices have never really been heard.”
Writing can be not only a site for imagination and validation, but also a means to interrupt cycles of violence, especially against people of color. As Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison said at an award ceremony, “I want to remind us all that art is dangerous. I want to remind you of the history of artists who have been murdered, slaughtered, imprisoned, chopped up, refused entrance. The history of art, whether it’s in music or written or what have you, has always been bloody, because dictators and people in office and people who want to control and deceive know exactly the people who will disturb their plans.”
Moore mirrors Morrison’s words: “Writing, as much as it is a process of imagining, I think, is most successful when it demolishes, which is to say imagines excessively and illogically.” To imagine a world where oppression is eradicated, and then to write out this imagining interrupts the idea that violence and injustice will always be the norm, and that freedom is inconceivable. Writers have been doing this for centuries, and, as Morrison references, have been punished for it. Mary Karr, a poet at the New Yorker, adds to this. She said, “If you ever doubted the power of poetry, ask yourself why, in any revolution, poets are often the first to be hauled out and shot—whether it’s Spanish Fascists murdering García Lorca or Stalin killing Mandelstam. We poets may be crybabies and sissies, but our pens can become nuclear weapons.” This fear, and subsequent violence against poets and writers, reflects that writing is a powerful and necessary force in social movements, as both a means of knowledge production and validation that oppression is, in fact, real and tangible. Morrison finishes by saying that “[writing] is a dangerous pursuit…You have to know it before you start, and do it under those circumstances, because it is one of the most important things that human beings do.”
Arora speaks to this importance, not only in the production of literature and poetry, but also in the consumption of it. She said, “If reading and consuming art helps you understand another identity that isn’t your own, helps you know why you need to have an investment in a moment you didn’t before think was relevant to you—that’s great too. For me, the moments I have felt most propelled to action is after reading work by radical thinkers and poets. Who and what we read become the voices in our head. We need writers in social movements so that the voices in our head challenge us, make us invested in and accountable to acting.”
Thus, writing allows for the understanding and imagining of alternatives. Through literature and poetry, writers like Steindler, Arora, and Moore are able to imagine lives outside of and beyond oppression and forced silence. In writing, there is the capacity and catalyst for great change and the refusal to accept society as it is. According to Moore, writing encompasses this refusal: “There is no sense of Black imagination that makes sense—the only thing I’d say that makes sense to imagine as a Black person is dying, escaping the matrix. But I’ve decided that’s not an option for me. So here I am, writing. Once you decide what you will refuse to imagine, for example, living the good life as a venture capitalist, the floodgates open. The real work begins.”