We promise each other
—Audre Lorde, “Depreciations”
Because ready / is never a question just a reminder / to breathe / and jump
—Shailja Patel, Migritude
Writing on hope in 2012, a few days before the U.S. election, feels like dancing the Macarena in 2012: embarrassing, shame-filling, out of sync and out of time, even ethically questionable. After all, we live in a far different time from 2008, presumably. A time when this exchange from Migritude feels much more appropriate:
Why do you live in the US when you’re so critical of it?
Because I’d rather be in the country dropping bombs than in the country the bombs are falling on. (88)
Against the fuzziness of hope, the certainty of mortality. Or at least a carefully staked wager.
Those who, like me, wrote on hope in 2008, feel compelled to apologize for a naïveté that I’m not sure we had. If (revisionist?) memory serves, hope was less something incarnated in Obama than it was something (re)activated as energy and possibility. As I tried to situate it in the Kenyan context, hope offered an alternative energy to the enervating and debilitating politics of cynicism and patronage. It activated and suggested possibilities that we could not have envisioned then, possibilities whose long temporality might mean that even now they are not visible. The possibilities of hope could be untethered from Obama’s first term. This is, I confess, a revisionist account, or seems like it.
The turning away from hope, the (re)embrace of a “practical” politics that is, variously, abrasive, ironic, cynical, inevitable, bitter, realist (think of the genre), even naturalist (think of the genre), or, rather, the (re)embrace of a “grown-up” attitude toward politics in which hope is attributed to the silliness of first-time voters who didn’t yet know how to feel politically or what politics is supposed to feel like, should give us pause. The glee with which some writers have proclaimed the inevitable “end” of hope and the embrace of politics as it “ought” to feel worries me.
Must the political be the site of bad feeling?
Could hope be a placeholder—as all words are—for a desire to feel otherwise about the present and the future, not a mystification, but a much-needed jolt of energy? Must hope always be something tied to bad faith? And what would it mean to read hope’s histories as it continually flies from Pandora’s historical box to re-energize emancipatory and participatory projects?
if we win
there is no telling.
—Audre Lorde, “Outlines”
I (re)turn to hope to find something other than what I’ve been told politics feels like. Acknowledging that feeling is multivalent: anger and rage are also about hope.
Down Wall Street
the students marched for peace
Above, construction workers looking on remembered
how it was for them in the old days
so they climbed down the girders
and taught their sons a lesson
called Marx a victim of the generation gap
called I grew up the hard way so will you
the limits of a sentimental vision.
—Audre Lorde, “The Workers Rose on May Day Or the Postscript to Karl Marx”
When I started re-reading Audre Lorde a few years ago, to teach her work, I was stunned by what felt like the absence of hope in her work. I wanted to be inspired, to find a language of boundless possibility, unbounded optimism. But Lorde’s work felt much too angry, too attuned to the materiality of bad feeling to provide the quick pick-me-up I wanted. My desire for a quick poetry of transcendence/transfiguration that would make me “feel good” or “feel understood” rubbed against the thick difficulty of other kinds of feeling. Her formal difficulty—Lorde is impossible to paraphrase—refused to let me treat her work like poppers or 5-hour energy.
Hope is not absent from her work, but one must contend with the difficulty of finding Pandora’s box. One realizes why hope must exist, what it means to take it seriously, what it means to desire it. As I contend with her work—here, one must imagine Jacob wrestling with an angel, and being marked with a limp—I think about the difficulty of hope, the labor of hoping, against the easy certainty of knowing “things are never going to change” and “there is no winning.”
if we lose
someday women’s blood will congeal
upon a dead planet
if we win
there is no telling.
—Audre Lorde, “Outlines”
Shailja Patel teaches me how to re-read Lorde, dares me to plunge, again, into a moment of feeling that seemed to come and go much too easily: “Make it / to find out / what your own hands are good for” (“Making It,” 122). “Making it” thinks through the labor of persistence incarnated in creating art. With Lorde’s “Outlines,” “Making it” shares the scale of those conditionals—“if we win,” “if we lose.” It is precisely the scale of those conditionals that returns me to Pandora’s hope.
Pandora’s hope is difficult, necessary hope. Hope claimed in the thickness of everything that stands against it. Hope as a kind of labor, even, and perhaps especially, when one’s humanity is being judged.
Yet, if hope has been lost as a shared vocabulary of feeling, what it activated continues to thrive across a range of movements and engagements. Hope’s energies persist, or struggle to persist, even as they traffic under other names. At least I hope so.
To speak of the afterlife of hope—of hope as spectral or zombie-like, differently configured materialities—feels tautological, to the extent that Pandora’s hope is already imagined as spectral or zombie-like, even as it energizes and activates. Hope is what remains. I wonder what it means to turn away from what remains, or to believe we have, or should.