The Critical Importance of Hope During Times of Sorrow

Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in February. The 911 tapes were released not too long afterwards. There’s been constant discussion about his death (as there should be) on the news. Online. Amongst friends and families. But at the time of his death I remember feeling very numb. I knew it happened. I knew it was horrible. Yet, still I was numb. I didn’t make any effort to listen to the 911 tapes.

About a month afterwards, when about to watch one of the most recent episodes of Melissa Harris-Perry (a phenomenal show on
MSNBC that I recommend everyone watches at least once) in which she would continue to discuss Trayvon Martin’s death, I realized that I had to listen to it. It was my duty as someone interested in anti-oppression discourse and action. I couldn’t be numb any longer about this because to be numb is to let oppression win. To be numb is to become complacent, to say to one’s self “This is just how things are.”

What shocked me was my reaction. The second I heard his first cry for help I covered my face with my mouth in abject horror as tears immediately began to stream down my face. I haven’t cried like this in a while. When I heard that fatal gunshot ring in the background I cried even harder. Deep, painful sobs. The sobs that make your heart sore. After the 911 recording was over I stayed lying on my couch for a good amount of time, with my hands over my face as I felt the tears harden on my cheeks. I lay there in silence, stunned. It slowly set in that I just heard the murder of a young black man. Then it set in that I heard the murder of yet another young black man.

I’m not writing this to make myself seem like a saint, as if I’m special for feeling this pain. I’m writing this to declare my humanity. To declare my belief in the power of tears. Of emotions. The power of connecting to sorrow. Because to let yourself feel is a very radical act. Oppressive powers and actions can only operate because of a LACK of emotion. At least that’s the only way I can understand how the oppression of others can be justified. I know that anti-oppression is more complicated than simply “feeling for others”. But I still think the ACT of feeling for others is a very powerful act.

It’s hard to find hope in such disturbing moments. But I’ve come to realize if I’m going to continue engaging in anti-oppression discourse and action I need to always find hope. Not just any hope though. A hope rooted in reality. A hope that recognizes the oppressive histories and current socio-political contexts but that also acknowledges and supports the actions made for peace and justice. If you only focus on the negative it will consume you. It has consumed me. I’ve seen it consume my friends. Only focusing on the negative will make you numb. And that’s exactly what oppression feeds on, numbness. Because numbness is fear without hope. And fear without hope is a very destructive mindset to be in because it makes you unable to see the amazing acts of love happening around you. It makes you unable to see the thousands of people reaching out to Trayvon Martin’s family, the people marching with hoodies on in solidarity, the people full of outrage and sorrow. It makes you unable to see the thousands of people who feel for others pain as if it was their own. Those actions to me resemble hope.

I remember watching the film Freedom Riders, a “2010 American historical documentary film…based in part on the book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice by historian Raymond Arsenault” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_Riders_(film) At the time I watched it I was very depressed. I left the film feeling very negative, wondering to myself “what did they actually accomplish?” I even asked the director of the film, Stanley Nelson, why he had hope. From what I remember, his answer was something along the lines of “Because I’m a hopeful person.” His answer didn’t satisfy me, probably because to a depressed mind his answer just couldn’t compute. But as I began to slowly move forward and regain my belief in hope I understood his answer much better. You just have to be hopeful. Especially when your involved in work dealing with such intense, horrifying histories/current socio-political contexts. If you can’t be hopeful, as I’ve stated before, the negativity will take over and create a dangerous fog obstructing your mind and heart. Then you become like how I was then, daring to question why anyone dared to have any hope at all.

Even though the entire movie is very moving and inspirational, one scene haunted me. One of the buses that one of the group’s of Freedom Rider’s are on is set on fire, causing the people to desperately escape the deadly fumes, running outside in order to be able to barely breath. They are all choking on their hands and knees as the angry, violent crowd surrounds them. During this scene there’s a related interview with a middle-aged white woman who was present at this attack as a young girl, tearfully recalling how she did her best to get some of the Freedom Rider’s water. Here, amongst the crowd of angry white people so full of hate and fear that they tried to burn up everyone inside a bus, was a young girl who was still able to connect to her emotions, enabling her to do her best to get these Freedom Rider’s some water. You could hear the pain in this woman’s voice as she described experiencing the horrific incident. But it’s that pain that makes this moment in the film so hopeful because it’s very clear she knew then, as she does now, that those emotions she was feeling were a sign telling her to help her fellow human no matter how different she was told they were.

The United States is a country full of sorrow. We are a country with a very oppressive history. But within this history are numerous upon numerous anti-oppressive actions made by all walks of life. It is these actions we must cherish and learn from. Tragically, the death of Trayvon Martin is slowly being ingested into our collective history. But a major, critical part of this newly forming history are the many acts of courage by Trayvon Martin’s family and their thousands of supporters. It is impossible to say that another innocent life will never be murdered, but it is very possible to say that there are thousands, millions maybe, of people who are not willing to let this happen again. It is these actions of outrage for justice that hope is found and it is this hope that can never be taken for granted.

Jacob Dannett is a queer/cis/person of color/adoptee born in Asuncion, Paraguay and raised by a single white Jewish mother on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Because of his intersecting identities, and the ways he has experienced them have been validated or oppressed within the world(s) he's existed in, he is passionately interested in engaging in critical dialogue that seeks to understand, question, and fight oppressive institutions and ways of thought.

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