I watched a tree murdered once. Sixteen years old, cowering behind a rocky outcrop, I stood frozen as two teenage boys, stretched tall and wiry, thrust themselves at a spindly shoot of a tree. They shoved their bodies at the trunk, and it swung through the air like a broken pendulum, its limbs flailing, waving for help. Eyes wide, I trembled from the weight of expectation, the overriding thought that I should do something.
Cracking open, the base split from the tree’s body, and wood splintered and burst into the air. The ground quaked as the body slammed to the ground, leaves thrashing. The boys sauntered away; the forest fell silent. The sound of my locked-up scream whined in my head in an endless loop. Stepping closer to the fallen tree, I brushed my fingers against the grooved bark; shame halted the movement.
That day cemented my understanding that I was not a warrior. My grandmother the Dominican activist fought for unnumbered causes. She has marched and protested and written treatises and demonstrated before crowds–and was jailed for it more than once. My aunt and mother in their own ways assert themselves and trace those matriarchal footprints. But I struggled to question even the most petty of subjects: I couldn’t even advocate for my own paycheck when I received the wrong amount. As for the more dire concerns of the world…I gave them over to the Brave Ones willing and equipped to confront them.
But for those of us fearful of taking action, what is the threshold of threat where we will finally choose take a stand?
My threshold was not breached. It eroded, weathered away by previously buried histories absorbed in Sociology courses, racist comments on forum boards, the littered evidence of multigenerational poverty in the South Bronx, my first visit to a native reservation. And then, shooting by shooting, it was held together only by a vein of trepidation. I could no longer sit passively when the reality of injustice became all too blatant, all too real. Not everyone has the luxury of learning this so late.
When you are exposed to the suffering of others, remaining blind and tucked in the world you once knew becomes a violent act in itself. You must respond or you risk waiting for faces to haunt you each night with should’ves and could’ves looming like the specters of dead oaks. You cannot fix all the problems you see, but the unwillingness to discover your role in movements confronting oppression is a blade that cuts into those vulnerable to those entrenched forms of injustice. They fight and wait for their cause to engender enough attention so their environment alters; removing yourself from assisting the battle ensures more of their losses. There is no safe distance from the fray–only distance.
Sometimes we only act under the perception that the situation affects us directly. Our news coverage and school textbooks are adept in creating “black issues” and “gay issues,” allowing us a free pass to avoid engagement with “issues” that do not pertain to our daily life. We catalogue situations of suffering in abstracted, individualistic terms and expect the relevant communities to get their act together and deal with them. Unless they are stealing our jobs or killing people who look like us, we can relegate the event to the backburner.
With relationship emerges impact: A black friend shares their story about being frisked by police. A Latino co-worker explains feeling positioned like a criminal. A Muslim neighbor receives dirty looks condemning her as an ally to terrorists. Engaging these stories is necessary, but what we fail to realize is that other’s states of marginalization are personal–they have always been personal. We are discouraged by our categorical distance from excavating the connections already founded. We can base our allyship on more than just the tally of our ethnic friends.
The xenophobia experienced by Arab/Middle Eastern peoples connects to my protection as an American justified by unwieldy U.S. interventions in the Middle East. The deaths of black men and women at the hands of fear-triggered police officers relates to a white person’s erasure of cultural identity, caused by the creation of Whiteness as a superior label (see: why cultural appropriation is a thing). The struggles of Latin American immigrants finding work in the U.S. ties to my daily life as a consumer shaped by global economic structures like NAFTA that have exploited their homelands. These are the stories of Us, complicated and taut with tension.
You don’t need to be an intellectual or a historian to know these communal histories; all they do is replace the ones handed to us as children. These communal histories have been lost under the veneer of noble Founding Fathers and frontier-eager pioneers and patriotic soldiers “taking back” land entitled to them (have we apologized to Hawaii or Mexico for that?)…but we can reclaim them. Trees have fallen in forests, their deaths unacknowledged except by those who knew them. We can choose to inhabit those perspectives of history and re-evaluate our national story. The knowledge is ready for access through the stories of our neighbors, the truth already encapsulated in our nation’s primary documents. Filling in the gaps with humility enables us to see the circuitry between our peoples and take responsibility for those within our national sphere and global nexus.
Knowing these stories prevents us from rushing into actions that will harm vulnerable communities as our ignorance will not rationalize their pain. In our current political climate, recognizing the implications of such histories would radically define our policies so the anxiety over the Other would not determine our path forward. If enough people are unwilling to listen, the dominant narrative will remain a glorious American mansion shrunken from the misguided acts of people of color, immigrant peoples, Muslim peoples. If no one challenges this story, our house remains divided.
We are finite of time and capacity, but we must allow God to convict us of what we were once unaware. Once convicted, we act and share what we know with others missing out on the knowledge that could rattle faulty foundations. With access to that knowledge, we allow our eyes to pry open and truly see the house in which we live–and how our neighbors, those we are commanded to love, are suffering within it. The house is wider and more broken than we ever imagined.
When I watched the tree’s murder, I thought the path of activism was the protest march. I thought petitions and shouting and demonstrations were the daring acts I was too hesitant to enter into, and because I didn’t do everything, I failed to help anybody. I grew frustrated with myself until I realized there are varied ways to enter the fray, some simultaneous, all demanding courage. We must only be faithful to that of which we are called each moment, whether podium, protest, or the page. This is not an excuse to exert the least amount of effort or pass the cup to others we perceive as better suited. We each have been given gifts to harness for the benefit of others and people to speak to, whether our own communities or people of different backgrounds–or both.
For myself, the path of the writer can be that of a warrior. With words, I pierce the ground to find my nation’s roots, even as headlines of more evil acts rally in hordes. I write because there is a spiritual battle in my country where truth is trampled in favor of self-preservation. Too many grasp at walls and guns as the first line of defense, not Christ. The enemy capitalizes on the anxieties of white people, whispering that Those People will lead to their destruction, will annihilate their way of life unless expunged. The enemy magnetizes the grief of people of color, finding ways to incite violence and further division out of legitimate hurt. The walls of this house shake under the weight.
In her introduction to The House on Mango Street, Chicana author Sandra Cisneros writes:
We do this [write] because the world we live in is a house on fire, and the people we love are burning in it
Through the scald of flames spreading, the air thick and choking, I write. Wood splinters above me, beams threatening to topple, and I know there are other rooms in this house and people trapped within them. Some already pound on the walls, seeking cracks in the walls and ceiling to draw in unsmoked breath; some find it. But the flames wreath the walls like a hideous crown, a sign of victory for the forces that seek to divide and conquer.
Sandra Cisneros’ words build the infernal house in my head, my consciousness illuminated by fires tended by years of silence. My fear is ever present, my desire to save myself from other’s opinions and rejection, but my love for those trapped transcends it. I write, praying that my words will thrash at the weak points in the structure so people will someday leave freely or hold up the roof long enough so others can escape and find deliverance for those left behind. I cling to the hope that those inside will unite and find a space wide enough for everyone to enter the open air.
My country is a house in flames, and I write so the people I love will not burn.