Finding my elsewhere: Going beyond what is by imagining and creating what could be
April 22, 2021
Eddie Glaude writes in Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, “Elsewhere is that physical or metaphorical place that affords the place to breathe, to refuse adjustment and accommodation to the demands of society and culture, and live apart, if just for a time, from the deadly assumptions that threaten and smother.”[i]
During the summer of 2019, I made a decision to leave my job. I had reached a point in which I was convinced that I could make a greater impact doing something else, with an eye toward disrupting long-standing systems. As a society, we fail to admit that it is nearly impossible to be extraordinary in environments not designed for difference. I, like many, have felt a need to adapt who I am in order to secure and maintain work. Along my journey, I had the fortune of joining the Harwood Institute as a Studio on Community Associate, a unique yearlong learning experience. It provided me the time and space needed to develop some of my own ideas.
Understanding this moment
Many of us have long known that our institutions and organizations are, too often, out of touch with reality, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated the gaps that we were already aware of. This is particularly alarming when we consider the vast number of societal issues facing us. Despite numerous efforts, the current approaches to address complicated social challenges are largely not generating the impact necessary. We are in a critical moment within the great experiment of American democracy. How we choose to respond will determine our place in history.
This moment is calling for unlikely approaches, and society needs leaders who will offer new approaches and perspectives. While many want to jump into action, we must reflect on who we have been, who we are now, and who we can become. We cannot simply call for patriotism often grounded in a nostalgic remembrance of a past that never existed. Instead, we must forge ahead to a future that better reflects the possibility of America, no matter how much it challenges the notion of who we believe ourselves to be.
We have to embrace the discomfort that true patriotism requires and be willing to contend with difficult questions. An example of this would be to ask, how do African Americans hold in tension the legacy of systemic racism and have pride in this country? This is when hope and faith are truly exercised.
In doing so, we must move beyond performative patriotism. Our nation is clearly debating what it means to be patriotic. Rich Harwood of the Harwood Institute took on this issue in The New Patriotism Project. He writes, “the word patriotism means to hold a love and devotion for one’s country. We believe that such devotion is at the root of improved political conduct. To be truly devoted to something means that you hold such pride in it, that you work to improve it, even when you no longer like what it is, or what it has become. Patriotism flows from a sense of love of nation so deep that one is willing to search for what is good and right, especially when the path is hard.”[ii]
One clear example of this is the 1619 Project. Nikole Hannah-Jones, its creator, asserts that her work “is patriotism, but not that type of blind, performative patriotism that is simply about trying to camouflage the nation’s sins and not trying to fight for the true ideals. But the type of patriotism, that says: If you love your country, you have to fight to make your country the country that it should be.” We have to let history decide who gets deemed a patriot and not our personal preferences and myopic remembrances. We are always evolving, and only time can determine who is on the right side of history.
Black Lives Matter
As we look at the continual attempts to mute or police dissenting voices, let us take a moment to name the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. While many choose to simply challenge BLM, there is much to learn, for no other reason that they are the most disruptive force (and I use disruptive in an affirming way) insisting that we look at the issues of inequality in this country.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would often put forward this idea of creative tension. He defined ‘creative tension’ in his Letter from Birmingham Jail as the result of nonviolent direct action and a constructive, but also disruptive means of creating a crisis that would create so much tension, that it would be inconceivable to not respond.
James Baldwin allowed the Black Power movement to challenge him in such a way. Baldwin reflected, “Now, I may not always agree with Stokely’s views, or the ways in which he expresses them. My agreement, or disagreement, is absolutely irrelevant. I get his message. Stokely Carmichael, a black man under thirty, is saying to me, a black man over forty, that he will not live the life I’ve lived, or be corralled into some of the awful choices I have been forced to make…”[iii] We must find value in our different perspectives and how they work together to create ‘our’ best ideas.
The America I hope for requires work that cannot be completed in a lifetime. We must forge ahead to a future that better reflects the possibility of America, no matter how much it challenges the notion of who we believe ourselves to be.
We ought to pay close attention to BLM’s focus on leaderful organizing, which was greatly influenced by the philosophy of Ella Baker. Baker stated, “You didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.”[iv] As we examine the need for leadership, we have to name and put a stop to our habits of waiting for a ‘savior’ (often a politician) to take us to the promised land.
Rituals of hope
These thoughts are, ultimately, an extension of my own hopes. When we attribute messianic visions to leadership, we create aspirations beyond our abilities. I found myself waiting to achieve certain milestones before assuming leadership. This was a great mistake because these leaders had their own set of imperfections and they were just as much made by history as ones who made history. We can no longer wait for someone else to provide or give us permission to initiate what we have always needed, but rarely afforded. We desperately need to go beyond what is by imagining and creating what could be. This will manifest in different ways for each of us.
Central to this task, leaders must create daily rituals of hope. I suspect that many of us are just flat exhausted and are in desperate need of moments of respite. We all could benefit from moments that center us. Not only will it provide us with equilibrium, but being centered carries possibilities that promote imagination as we consider this present moment and beyond. This ‘new’ world will require centered leaders.
As Baldwin states, “Hope is invented every day.”[v] In our effort to not fall back into destructive beliefs and habits, we have to find daily sources of hope. Hope is a distinguishing factor that enables citizens to keep pursuing American democracy.
As a word of caution, we should not conflate what I am calling hope with optimism. Cornel West has spoken eloquently on this topic. West states on the podcast Future Perfect: The Way Through, “But hope is something else, you see, because hope is not spectatorial. It’s participatory. You’re already in the mess. You’re in the funk. What are you going to do? Hope is a verb as much as a virtue. Hope is as much a consequence of your action as it is a source of your action…”
I do not cling to hope because I am optimistic about the future, but because without hope we cannot move forward. The hope that drives me is not wrapped in my past experience or even my present circumstances. It is in the future.
The America that I hope for requires work that cannot be done in a lifetime. Understanding that very fact, I leave us with these final words from Baldwin, “Well, that is almost all I am trying to say. I say it out of great concern. And out of a certain kind of hope. If you can live in the full knowledge that you are going to die, that you are not going to live forever, that if you live with the reality of death, you can live. This is not mystical talk; it is a fact. It is a principal fact of life.”[vi] So feel, hope, and act within the time you have.
Brian Rubin is a Harwood Studio on Community Fellow. He lives in Bowie, Maryland with his wife and two sons and works as a consultant, facilitator and speaker.
[i] Glaude, Eddie S. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own (New York: Crown, 2020), 129-130.
[ii] Harwood, Richard. A New Political Covenant: America’s Aspirations for Political Conduct (Bethesda, MD: The Harwood Institute, 2002), vi.
[iii] Baldwin, James. The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2010), 84. Edited by Randall Kenan.
[iv] Mueller, Carol, “Ella Baker and the Origins of ‘Participatory Democracy’” in Butler, Broadus, Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993), 51. Edited by Barbara Woods, Broadus Butler, Jacqueline Anne Crouse, and Vicki L. Crawford.
[v] Glaude, Begin Again, 145.
[vi] Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption, 80.