Election Day Reads for a Better America (please add to the list…)
November 3, 2020 § 1 Comment
By Joey Franklin
If the past several years of political rancor have demonstrated anything, it is that Americans are not often at our best when talking politics (I know I’m not). There seems to be so little room for compassion, nuance, or even a basic acknowledgment of a common humanity outside our own tribal boundaries.
Tania Israel, author of Beyond your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, writes: “If we cannot survive outside of our bubbles, if we cannot tolerate listening to our friends and families and neighbors, if we cannot see beyond our own perspectives; if we view our fellow citizens as enemies, how can we sustain our relationships, our communities, our country?”
And if you are anything like me, you read those questions, and you imagined friends and family that you sometimes can’t tolerate listening to; and you probably imagined people you know who have trouble seeing beyond their own perspectives (and you probably didn’t count yourself among them). But these are essential questions to ask ourselves at the peak of one of the most contentious and significant presidential races in modern history. No matter which candidate prevails, the health of our nation will depend a great deal on our ability to speak across socio-political boundaries, to recognize our own blind spots, to accept one another as fellow human beings, and speak clearly and powerfully about what it is to live in this strained and divided country.
Given this imperative, I offer here five essays that demonstrate the kind of poignant, challenging, socially conscious invitation to empathy that is so essential to the health of a diverse citizenry. Change comes as we learn to see one another more clearly, when we reclaim patriotism in the spirit of the essay—not a flag-waving zeal based on myth and convenient narratives, but a skeptical hope in the power of individual experience to lift us toward our loftier ideals.
Election Day Reads for a Better America:
- “How to Erase an Arab,” by Julie Hakim Azzam
“It’s bad to lie your way through life. But this is easier, better. What’s worse is how it keeps happening. We build it—our lives, a city, a home—we break it down. Over and over.”
Azzam’s stunning lyric essay captures the way racism, fear, and a desire for belonging can complicate allegiances and life for immigrant families in the United States.
- “Who Gets to Be Afraid in America,” by Ibram X. Kendi
“I just don’t think Americans fully realize how terrorizing it is to black males when we are falsely suspected as violent criminals. All Americans seem to be thinking about is their fear of us—not our fear of their fear.”
Kendi examines the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and the irrational white fear that led to his death and that continues to threaten people of color across the country.
- “Dawn and Mary,” by Brian Doyle
“If we ever forget that there is something in us beyond sense and reason that snarls at death and runs roaring at it to defend children, if we ever forget that all children are our children, then we are fools who have allowed memory to be murdered too, and what good are we then?”
Before Brian Doyle died, he came to BYU and read this essay about the heroes of the Sandy Hook school shooting. He passed out copies and told the audience: “Walk out of here with ‘Dawn and Mary’ in your pocket. Then read it as you like, and then copy it a hundred times and give it to everybody you know.”
“No matter what we write, white people can turn our stories into weapons, an excuse to be paternalistic . . .No matter what we do, we’re still Indian, and often we don’t get to speak for ourselves.”
Mailhot reflects on the long history of white culture appropriating, denying, exoticizing, erasing, and demonizing native cultures, and expresses a desire to speak on her own terms.
- “A Piece of Cotton” by Anne Fadiman
“After September 11, I saw for the first time that the flag—along with all its red, white, and blue collateral relations—is what a semiotician would call ‘polysemous’: it has multiple meanings.”
Fadiman considers the roots of her bias against flag waving, and reconsiders the possibilities of patriotism and the nature of her own belonging in a post 9/11 America.
On this election day, as the frenetic energy of the campaigns come to an end, and we sit in what we hope is the calm after, and not before the storm, it is good to read something that challenges us to be better Americans. These essays here are just a primer, and I hope in the comments below you’ll share titles, and maybe links to essays that inspire you on this election day. Heaven knows we all could use a little of that.
*And a quick note of thanks: To Dinty for inviting me to inhabit the Brevity Blog over these past few days, and to the Brevity community at large for taking the time to read, think, comment, and share. It has been a pleasure. Happy reading. Now go vote!).
Joey Franklin’s new book Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays is on sale now at University of Nebraska Press. Use discount code 6AF20 to get 40% off.
Joey Franklin’s newest book is Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays. He is also the author of My Wife Wants You to Know I Am Happily Married (Nebraska 2015). His articles and essays have appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine, Writer’s Chronicle, Hunger Mountain, Gettysburg Review, the Norton Reader, and elsewhere. With Patrick Madden, he co-edits the literary magazine Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction (accepting submissions now), and he teaches at Brigham Young University where he coordinates the MFA program in creative writing. His current projects include a memoir about the saints and scoundrels in his family tree, and a professionalization guide for creative writers. He can be found online at joeyfranklin.com.