On the counter-intuitive but real and important urgency and immediacy of hope.
Hope can seem like a long-term proposition, an emphasis on the need for such overarching, big-picture thinking when the present’s immediate circumstances feel untenable or at least unchangeable. Certainly I would agree that hope does entail and require an ability to look beyond the specifics or details of any one moment or situation, to consider what might be possible and different tomorrow as long as we don’t let those individual moments and situations become all-encompassing. But on the other hand, I think there can be a real danger in the idea that hope takes time to come to fruition, that we have to be willing and able to wait for it; sometimes perhaps there’s no other way, but in many circumstances, as the old saying goes, waiting gives the devil time, allows the worst of the present to become hardened into something set and even more difficult to change.
In my very first post on this blog, I wrote about the 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina massacre and coup, one of the darkest moments in our nation’s history; at the end of that post, I linked to a letter sent by an anonymous African American woman to President McKinley, pleading for federal intervention as the massacre’s violence and horrors continued into the weeks beyong Election Day. In the face of some of the most desperate circumstances ever to face a community, the letter expresses not only the despair and pain and frustration and terror that she and all of her peers were feeling, but also in its very existence a profound hope; that is, her choice to write and send the letter speaks to her hope, spoken “from the depths of my heart,” that she can reach her nation’s government and its highest elected representative, that her voice and experiences can change the course of history and save her community. Of all the tragedies surrounding this American low point, none is more tragic than the simple fact that her hopes were not rewarded; McKinley and the federal government did nothing, and the events in Wilmington continued to run their horrific course.
There are a number of things we could learn from Wilmington, if we better remembered it, and certainly many of them are bleak; high on that list would be the simple fact that the federal government, like the national media and much of white America, was all too willing to accept and even support the white supremacist stories of events such as Wilmington. But from McKinley and company’s inaction we can also learn just how often and how much hope must be met by action, as urgently and immediately as that hope demands. As I wrote in that earlier post, Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901), the novel inspired by the Wilmington events that is also my favorite American novel and one of the two with which my book will open, ends with a moment of almost utopian hope that precisely captures this dynamic: the novel’s final line, which I can quote without spoiling the details, is “There’s time enough, but none to spare.” The sentence’s first clause is indeed a profoundly hopeful one, in the face of the many horrors that have preceded it; and the second, despite the “but” formulation, to my mind complements it, suggesting that the hope will not endure if it is not acted upon and made into something more concrete and lasting. The arc of history might be long, but sometimes both history and hope require immediacy as well.
Next in the series tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Texts, takes, thoughts on hope in America?
9/20 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two 20th century figures who impacted American literature and society in profoundly different but equally significant ways, Upton Sinclair and Maxwell Perkins.
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