Image from the cover of Blood Orange's Freetown Sound (2016)

The Long, Hot Summer of 2016: How We Got Over

Simone Manuel’s winning a gold medal in this particular Olympic swimming event in this particular summer gave the especially besieged among us a chance to take a break from the siege.

Scribes wagged ominously that this would be a long, hot summer in America. Police would continue to be captured on cell phones murdering black people, activists would continue to take to the streets in protest, and chaos would reign. The Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions would be overtaken by eruptions of anger, giving the gendarmes of Cleveland and Philadelphia, respectively, a chance to test their riot gear. With political tensions already sharply pitched, the naysayers warned, something was likely to blow.

It certainly seemed that way, after the police murders of black men in Minnesota and Baton Rouge, and the murders of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge in apparent, self-styled retaliation. This, on top of two years of high-profile killings of black men — we know their names like a bitter litany — and the difficulty of convicting anyone responsible for most of them (compounded by 200-plus pre-cellphone years of similar atrocities). Throw in the vitriol of the alt-white — oops, alt-right — movement emboldened by the rise of Donald Trump, and periodic chants of “Blue Lives Matter”. Add water, stir, and run for cover.

Even Jonathan Bachman’s instantly historic photograph of a protester in Baton Rouge, a previously anonymous woman now known forever for embodying grace and composure as two armed policemen cautiously steeled themselves to arrest her, seemed more like the calm before the storm than any lasting calm itself.

I couldn’t bring myself to watch any of the Republican convention, my disgust meter is already well into the red. New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones went one better; she could barely make it out of bed in the wake of all the madness (“The Grief That White Americans Can’t Share” 22 July 2016). But get back up and continue to face the world without blinking she did:

I picked up my phone and called one of my dearest friends. As we talked, words tumbled out in rapid spurts only to be consumed by long periods of silence when we could find nothing to say. It was a familiar conversation. (…) And then out sorrow turned to rage, Because we knew, in just a matter of days, there would be another, It seemed as inevitable as the sun rising.

Sorrow was debilitating, but anger fueled resolve. I hung up with my friend, washed my face, and headed into work.

There are two forces at work against the relentless gloom of these days in Hannah-Jones’ piece, hope and self-care. Hope is an age-old thing, but also a precious thing, something to be both fought for and held onto closely. Just a week earlier, Rebecca Solnit had written in The Guardian (“Hope is an embrace of the unknown“, 15 July 2016):

Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and it what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterwards either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.

That evokes the idea of faith, and its definition as ‘the evidence of things unseen”, a title James Baldwin took from the Book of Hebrews for his book about the horrific Atlanta child murders of the early ‘80s. What’s left unsaid there is that holding onto that faith in the light of the things that can be seen is hard and difficult work. People like to say, “keep the faith” but no one ever tells you how.

This is where self-care comes in. Self-care is the current phrase for another age-old thing, the notion that allowing outrage to burn unchecked only consumes the outraged. Laurie Penny took a cynical view in The Baffler of both the burgeoning happiness industry and the left’s vulnerability to paralyzing despair. But she cites activist and icon Audre Lorde in noting that refusing to be beaten down is a political act in itself.

“It’s more than likely,” Penny writes in “Life-Hacks of the Poor and Aimless” (8 July 2016), “that one of the reasons that the trans and queer communities continue to make such gains in culture, despite a violent backlash, is the broad recognition that self-care, mutual aid, and gentle support can be tools of resistance, too. After the Orlando massacre, LGTBQ people across the world started posting selfies under the hashtag #queerselflove. In the midst of the horror, the public mourning, and the fear, queer people of all ages and backgrounds across the world engaged in some light-hearted celebration of ourselves, of one another.”

Today’s activists didn’t invent the notion of radical acts of self-preservation; activists throughout time and across the globe have adapted songs to keep their spirits high. In this moment, artists and activists made their own their own hope: Dread Scott’s repurposingof a 1936 NAACP anti-lynching flag outside a New York art gallery, the Freedom Square encampment protesting police malfeasance in Chicago. Chance the Rapper and Blood Orange, black pop artists with relatively little else in common, released music this summer (Coloring Book and Freetown Sound, respectively) that mined the channels between the personal and the political. The essay collection The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race gave voice to writers trying to make sense of life post-Trayvon Martin; their musings ranged from the crafting of ancestral creation myths to the simple act of walking down a street.

Even Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem, an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago exploring the collaboration between Parks’ photographs and Ellison’s words in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, seemed all too timely: Parks’ staged photograph, for example, of a black man emerging from a manhole, accompanied by the final words of Ellison’s novel (“Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”); or another photograph of a man in a subterranean cavern strung with improvised lighting, evoking Ellison’s protagonist, working two turntables.

Dionne Irving wrote of finding her solace in water.

“I come from island people, and my love of water happens on the prereflective level, joyfully, and with abandon,” she tells us in “Living with Racial Battle Fatigue“, (Literary Hub, 22 July 2016). “The smells of sea, of salt, of chlorine, of damp, slightly moldy bathing suits — all make me happy. My people come from Hong Kong, India, Africa, Scotland, and have ended up in Jamaica, Canada and now the United States. (…) Like the way the ocean pounds away at the shore, our history, like the white sand of the island, slips through my fingers all the time.

“Both heritage and joy bring me to the water.”

Irving became aware that black bodies in public water have a fraught history in America. Pools were strictly segregated, as if white bodies would become contaminated if black bodies used the same water at the same time. It was even thought that black bodies’ physiology rendered them unable to swim at all.

But water remained her refuge, even as she navigated all manner of racial microagressions on dry land. One such microaggression actually resulted in the development of a longtime friend. But that friend wounded her with a seemingly offhand remark, which reminded her that dealing with what she came to understand as Racial Battle Fatigue (a documented medical condition, she learned) is much like treading water:

Treading water is hard work. You appear still from the water’s surface, as though you are levitating, yet below the surface, your lower body and arms work frantically, kicking and pounding against the water’s pressure. The energy you exert just to keep your head and neck afloat will tire you out quickly enough. It is one of the best illusions in swimming: the surface doesn’t indicate what is going on below.

But the water never left Irving, and she never left it. She concludes with a wish for her soon-to-be-born son to know the water, and to feel its rejuvenating power: “I want him to love the water the way I do. I want it to be calming. I want him not to be frightened but to be soothed by it.”

I can only imagine that Irving thus felt a special sense of surprise and exhilaration when Simone Manuel made history by becoming the first black American woman ever to win an Olympic gold medal in a swimming event at the games in Brazil (in the 100-meter freestyle; she would later add a silver medal in the 50-meter freestyle). I’m no swimmer myself, and even I sensed how historic a moment that was.

At first, I didn’t know she was even in the race. NBC’s breathless hype had me thinking the only female American swimmer was Katie Ledecky. There were no fawning pre-Olympics profiles about her. She was all but an afterthought even in the moments before the race began.

But she swam her heart out, and when she came from behind to tie for the gold medal, I let out a whoop. I made no such noise for Simone Biles and the other American gymnasts (frankly, I was too much in awe) or Usain Bolt’s dominance in the sprints (ditto) or the USA men’s basketball team (what you heard from me, based on their early nailbiters, was a sigh of relief that they finally whooped ass in the gold medal game and restored the natural order of things). But Manuel’s triumph resonated beyond the immediate and obvious distinctions (which she freely acknowledged in her many post-race interviews).

Hers was a triumph that said “yes I can” to generations of “no you can’t”. Hers was an affirmation of black spirit, black desire — hell, the very notion of black existence — at a time when such signs often get overshadowed by assumptions of their opposite. Winning a sporting event doesn’t end police brutality, or attacks against the rights of blacks to exercise their vote in an election, or decades of economic and societal carnage which have contributed to young black men killing each other (and innocent bystanders) in Chicago at an unfathomable rate (and everywhere else for that matter). But in a summer that promised nothing but hell, here was a thing to celebrate.

Manuel’s winning this particular event in this particular summer gave the especially besieged among us a chance to take a break from the siege. I thought of Dionne back in the water, a bit more buoyant as she swam her laps this time.

For the rest of us, Manuel’s win provides some wherewithal to do in our own ways what Teju Cole set out for himself in his New York Times essay (“The Superhero Photographs of the Black Lives Matter Movement“, 26 July 2016) about that Baton Rouge picture:

And yet (“nevertheless”), the things we think of as “intriguing but comparatively minor” must also be attended to, in part because of how they illuminate what is not at all minor. These celebrated photographs of black superheroes are actually about something more important and more real; the existence of many unacknowledged everyday black heroes. When I write about these images or about anything else, I do so without knowing how unanticipated events will alter the reception of my words. But the words must be set down anyway. The duty of critical writing is to listen to the noise of life without being deafened by it.

Carving out spaces where we can be, and breathe, and stop treading water for at least a minute or two, and think about what affirmations we can make happen next amidst the clamor, and seizing and cherishing those moments which make those spaces a little easier to find. That, ultimately, is how we survived this long hot summer, and in fact all the ones that preceded it, and also in fact how we will survive all the long hot seasons to come: one word, one beat, one stroke at a time. With hope to fuel us and self-care to nourish us, we did the only thing we ultimately could do to stave off defeat by the thought of how long this journey is: we took one step, and then another, and another…