By CHLOË HAWKEY.
RECENTLY, I WENT to see In the Countenance of Kings, a ballet by New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck. If ballet can sometime seem frivolous, it also can feel vital and powerful, and Peck’s ballet was a testament to that latter potential; the energy from the stage made the air in the theatre hum. As the music built in intensity, the dancers moved with greater and greater urgency, until it seemed that the music was in their limbs and driving their movement.
As I sat in the darkened theater, surrounded by a crowd so different from that which had gathered nearby just a few hours earlier to protest Trump’s travel ban, I was struck by the similarity in the energy in the room. At the protest, people had gathered to respond to the hate and fear of the executive order in the only way that seemed possible, with shows of solidarity and kindness. And at the ballet, the dancers moved in response to the music as though the choreographed movements were the only ones possible. The dance, precisely like the protest, felt inevitable.
I AM NOT new to protests, exactly. My degree is from Barnard College, a progressive school in a progressive university in a progressive city. Protests were daily occurrences: graduate student unions, contingent faculty unions, fossil-fuels divestment groups, Students for Justice in Palestine, and socialist groups all held rallies and protests on campus; city-wide marches were far from unusual.
But while I was almost always sympathetic to the causes at hand, only rarely could I bring myself to set aside the time to actually show up to them.
Only now do I realize that what I was missing—maybe because it wasn’t there; more likely because I was oblivious to it—was the sense of immediacy and necessity to those protests. They always struck me as somehow inauthentic, like the vain grasps of the student body to reclaim its image as 1968 radicals.
And only now do I realize what a tremendous privilege it was for me not to feel any sense of urgency. I was comfortable, financially and socially, so I was unable to feel the energy that drove those who were less comfortable.
IN HIS INTELLIGENT and provocative Tears We Cannot Stop, Michael Eric Dyson addresses my comfort-induced oblivion as it manifests itself with regard to race. He writes, “One of the greatest privileges of whiteness is not to see color, not to see race, and not to pay a price for ignoring it.”
He’s right, of course: it was an enormous privilege to sit with my Latin grammar books and my history reading and not need to worry about racism or poverty or any of the other evils that haunt many students in America, and to know that even without worrying, I would be safe and well-fed. It’s an example of what William James called “a certain blindness in human beings”: we can’t intimately feel the pain—or the joy—that drives others.
Perhaps, though, we could equally call it a certain deafness in human beings, an inability to hear the pleas of those around us–an inability to hear the music, if you will. And just as dancers can only move convincingly when they are responding to the force of the music, even sympathetic people can only protest when the cultural music demands movement of them, when they feel it in their bones.
AS YOU’VE LIKELY heard by now, from sources more or less sympathetic, young Americans of my political persuasion now feel that music to be in us, and the once-frivolous protests no longer feel silly or optional.
It’s a strange thing to experience such a sea-change of feeling in yourself over something so supposedly distant as an exchange of political power. Suddenly I find myself marching far more often than ever before; week after week, I seek out gatherings of thousands of people, people putting aside personal agendas and individual actions to join the collective cause. And every time that I return from one of these events, I find myself thinking of Meridel La Sueur’s 1934 essay, “I Was Marching.” In it, this American political activist and writer records her first experience participating in a strike, writing, “I believe [joining a protest] stands for an important psychic change that must take place in all. I saw many artists, writers, professionals, even business men and women standing across the street [from the strike headquarters], too, and I saw in their faces the same longings, the same fears.”
Those would-be protesters knew, in some powerful way, that they could no longer remain disinterested: the Great Depression had been going on for five years, and plight of working people had become so severe that this sort of a strike came to feel inevitable.
As she begins to march, La Sueur writes, “I felt my legs straighten. I felt my feet join in that strange shuffle of thousands of bodies moving with direction, of thousands of feet, and my own breath with the gigantic breath. As if an electric charge had passed through me, my hair stood on end. I was marching.”
IN THAT MOMENT, the cultural music made one choreographic movement inevitable: the dance of thousands of feet on pavement, the coordination of varied bodies and varied ideas of the future, the convergence of individual life paths for a few hours. It is this same urgency that so many of us feel now, a new urgency, electric, as La Sueur wrote. Our protests feel authentic; we can’t imagine another response to the rhetoric of nationalism and intolerance.
Like Mr. Peck’s choreography, like Meridel La Sueur’s strike, our action feels necessary, immediate, inevitable. We, too, are marching.
Associate editor Chloë Hawkey studied American History and Latin at Columbia University. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area and works as a whitewater river guide on the Rogue river in the summer months. Her previous note, on the American ‘coloring book’ craze, is here.