echoes across fault lines
It is November 11th as I start writing this. Veterans' Day. Armistice Day. I am sitting in a light-filled café in south Texas, just miles from the border with Mexico, getting ready to spend the rest of the weekend and next week speaking with local high school students. Leonard Cohen follows Florence + the Machine on the radio.
My flight path today took me through Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport. I end up spending a lot of time in that airport, but today at 11AM it was the quietest I've ever experienced it. At a time of day when I'm used to straining to hear flight announcements over conversation and chatter, I could hear individual footsteps. People traveling together either spoke in hushed voices to each other or not at all. Kiosk staff took orders quietly. The line at Starbucks was silent.
I found myself trying to take up as little space as possible. I held my carry-on tight to my side. I didn't want to bump anyone; even vocalizing an apology seemed an intrusion into the quiet. But what scared me, I think, is that I was unsure of what sorts of conversations the silence might open into. Looking around at the assorted people in the terminal, readying for their flights to Austin and Seattle and Phoenix, I wasn't sure if we live in the same America. I wasn't sure if I was ready to ask.
Eleven years ago when I was a teacher in Morocco, I attended an Armistice Day parade through a WWII cemetery just outside Casablanca. One of the local French schools had a flag display; there were speeches in French, representatives from all the major consulates and embassies, and student groups from many of the international schools in Casablanca. At one point, the oldest living WWII veteran in Casablanca stood and was recognized; he led a solemn procession around the cemetery.
Afterwards, I walked alone through the cemetery with its ordered rows of white crosses, and then went down to the crypt. While the crosses bore detailed information of the French dead, including their names and ranks and years of birth and death, the crypt was a series of compartments to house the remains of Vietnamese, sub-Saharan, and other French colonial subjects. Their compartments were tagged with the words "Died for France" alongside their country of origin, and perhaps the year they died.
I remember walking through that cemetery in shock. Never before had I seen the effects of colonialism laid out so physically, so immediately recognizable. The difference between the crypt and the crosses was such a concrete illustration of how little the colonial subjects mattered as humans to their colonizers. They were not given the privilege of rank or name, and the crypt markers felt like afterthoughts: memorials to the mighty European war machine, but not to the people expected to fight in it.
I remember thinking, This cannot happen again. It won't. We have to be better by now.
But I am worried that all we have learned, collectively, is how to divide and not how to reach. How to argue and not how to listen. How to hate, and not how to invite.
Since the results of this year's election were announced, I have felt stuck, both in my head and physically inside my own body.
I am heartened that at Oberlin, there have already been so many community gatherings, from formal professor-led roundtables to conversations across coffee or lunch to more informal meet-ups. One student walked all over campus, giving out hugs and sitting with Obies she may or may not have already known. Conversation is active, with deep concern for safety and accessibility and holding each other tight. You can hear the thrum of movement at Oberlin, echoed by the affirmations of this community and its members.
On November 9th, there was a faculty panel to talk about the election. It had been planned well in advance, and the faculty panelists--representing Africana Studies, Politics, Psychology, History, the Conservatory administration, and the orchestra--each started with some variation of "we hadn't been expecting to talk about this."
It was standing-room only in Dye, the lecture hall that had been booked for the event. WOBC, Oberlin's college radio station, streamed the panel and set up listening stations across campus. I sat in the Science Center atrium, listening to the panel with four of my colleagues and a student who joined us, my tinny iPhone speakers taking us into the lecture hall.
Again and again, it was affirmed that this community is strong. That there is work to do, and that the members of this community are invested in that work. Students asked about how to bring more social justice work into their classes. Professors offered themselves as emotional and intellectual resources. The theme of the entire panel was that we will figure it out together. There is strength and comfort in holding each other up.
In China this past fall, I was asked "What are your expectations for international students who come to your campus?"
My answer is no different for any student who attends Oberlin.
My expectation is that you will work hard to learn, that you will challenge yourself and surprise yourself. You will change. You will make new friends, learn things about yourself and your communities that you didn't know. Struggle with new ideas. Develop your voice, in whichever mediums you choose to exercise it. Confront difference and grow from those experiences. I expect you to embrace new possibilities.
I expect you to be a part of this community. Be present. Be here. Show up to your life at Oberlin. That is all I expect and everything I want for you.
For those of you who are worried and feeling a whole host of other emotions: I am feeling many of these things, too. I am comforted in the knowledge that I work in an office of people who care, and who are committed to doing everything we can to help you navigate what is to come.
It is absolutely shattering to me that, come next August, I do not know what your physical journey to Oberlin will look like. There may be increased barriers to your access to education in this country, not just for Oberlin but across the United States. We simply don't know yet. But we can promise to do everything we can to support you, to make the admissions process as normal and easy as it possibly can be. Our entire goal is to bring a diverse class of students to campus who will thrive, grow, and become humane and thoughtful actors in their fields.
This is a college that has faced struggle before. We have made decisions that have conflicted with government agendas. We have adopted policies that have resulted in the institution becoming a target of outrage and vitriol. We haven't backed down.
In her May 2015 commencement address, First Lady Michelle Obama implored us to run towards the noise:
Today, I want to suggest that if you truly wish to carry on the Oberlin legacy of service and social justice, then you need to run to, and not away from, the noise. Today, I want to urge you to actively seek out the most contentious, polarized, gridlocked places you can find. Because so often, throughout our history, those have been the places where progress really happens -- the places where minds are changed, lives transformed, where our great American story unfolds.
These are the conversations we are having at Oberlin. We are seeking out the noise and its echoes. We have our own songs to sing back.
Every age lives and makes the history that they are in. My hope is that, when historians write about this election and the years that immediately followed it, they will detail the strengths we invested in, the pulling together, the changes we effected because we fought for each of us to have voice, rights, care, and love.