All I Have is a Voice
By Macky Alston
Here we are again. Stunned. Whispering in twos and threes via text, in office kitchens, swapping lines from poetry as if we are in Fahrenheit 451 or some sci-fi movie in which we can be arrested, deported, disappeared for having a heart.
Last night, I attended a gathering at my church of people who wandered in from the stupor. We hadn’t done this since 9/11. Same time. Same place. Same terror in our eyes. Same need to know that we are not alone and that it is not illegal to be human.
And before 9/11, there was the first time I walked into an ACT UP meeting, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, back in 1987. 200 terrified souls were gathered on a Monday night simply to know what the hell to do and whether or not we were still human, whether or not there was any value to that, whether or not we could save our lives so suddenly vulnerable, and how it felt to be together, instead of so terrifyingly alone.
Some of my moments yesterday were when my co-worker erupted in staff meeting and said that he is afraid his child will be taken from him, that his family is so fragile, it only having been made legal within the last five years.
In the same meeting, a workmate leaned over and whispered that another colleague thinks she will have to leave by January, rather than be deported.
Another was at the gathering last night, sitting across from my friend, who is Muslim, as she described the call she was going to be on at 10pm to determine how to keep Muslim families safe for the next seven days. I wondered, what happens on the eighth?
Another was dinner last night when I made my parents-in-law, Jews who feel like we’ve been here before, promise not to talk about the election, so that our girls — for whom I am terrified — could have a little peace and feel held by our love. I failed. I lost my temper with my mother-in-law for the first time in 24 years when she said that what I am doing at work is not enough to save us.
So what is enough? What do we do? And if we are not the ones who are in danger, then what do we do for those who are, before the new policies begin to float down these city streets like death eaters, those lethal jailers in the Harry Potter stories who steal our souls and rob us of our desire to fight for all that is good.
The answer, of course, is in the poem to which I have turned since I learned what it meant to be human.
It is the time for poets and prophets and speaking our love for one another publicly, personally, politically, regularly, gratuitously, dangerously – to our neighbors, our workers, our estranged friends, our family members, the ones who voted with us and the ones who voted against us, who perhaps are just as terrified as we are and that’s how we’ve arrived at this moment.
We must have the moral courage to show up in places and for people we have not before yesterday bothered to visit. We must interrupt our routines and love one another. If we do not, we will find ourselves, as W.H. Auden writes in his poem, lost in a haunted wood, neither happy nor good.
I went to ACT UP because people everywhere were dying, people like me and not like me. The president and the mayor, along with most polite company, wouldn’t mention it. There seemed to be nothing to be done.
But entering a room of 200 people that Monday night, holding each other, doing things, lifting our voices, art, bodies made in the image of God – infected or not, felt like life in the moment, like hope in the lifting, like the world for which we longed in the room. And our coming together did change things, did save lives. Of course it did. That’s just how it works. We are only strong together.
And so last night we came together: the undocumented college student and the adopted child of gay dads, the Muslim mother of an American veteran and the singing rabbi, my friend from whom I am estranged who hugged me to tell me we are in it together, my husband, my broken-hearted pastor, and so many people I have never met before. I am praying we will meet again next week and until this nightmare is over.
For so many, it did not begin yesterday. May we gather, act up and speak out until it ends.
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
(W.H. Auden, from “September 1st, 1939”)
Macky Alston is Senior Vice President of Strategy and Growth at Auburn Seminary.