We are citizens of the world: All may join and be
by Andrea W. Doray
When I sat down to write about the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA, last month, I found that I had no words, which doesn’t happen very often for me.
When American neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and domestic terrorists turned a peaceful counter-protest into a deadly confrontation, the worst of this nation was on display. When a deranged, hate-filled ideologue willfully sped a car through demonstrators, killing one and injuring dozens more, the worst of this nation had a face. I was left speechless with rage and helplessness and horror.
Perhaps it’s more accurate to say, though, that I had too many words, too many jumbled phrases, too many tumbled emotions. I couldn’t focus well enough to put them together.
That changed recently in Denver, Colorado, on the 16th Street Mall, a section of downtown open only to pedestrians, bicycles, baby strollers, and, on occasion, horse-drawn buggies. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that I was safe from terrorism by car, but maybe that was a factor.
I have the pleasure of mentoring a young writer and the two of us got together one Saturday in August to Write Denver: Meet in the Street, a collaborative write-the-city project hosted by Lighthouse Writers Workshop, where I sometimes teach in the Young Writers Program.
That day’s “Word on the Street” event was a prelude to the Big Read, an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in the U.S. The NEA Big Read supports dynamic community reading programs that broaden our understanding of our world, our communities and ourselves through the effect of sharing a good book, which this year features Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. In this work – which was a finalist for our National Book Award – Rankine explores what it means to be a person of color in America today, laying bare moments of racism that often surface in everyday encounters.
Dan Manzanares, Lighthouse Community Programs Coordinator, chalked out two huge blank pages on the center sidewalk and piled up words pasted on wooden blocks. Among “and,” “the,” “I” and “my,” were random words such as “tanks,” “stadiums,” heroes” and “punks.”
My student Grayson and I dove in.
It was an interesting process. Grayson seemed to put sentences together first, picking up a collection of blocks to position on the sidewalk page. I, on the other hand, found words that intrigued me, such as “seriousness,” “innocent,” “nostalgia” or “illuminated,” then added blocks, moved them around, or sometimes tossed them.
After about an hour, the two pages in the middle of Denver’s 16th Street Mall were nearly full, attracting the attention of passersby. Being who I am, I briefly outlined the project and asked them if they wanted to play. Some did.
A tall black man took his time before he laid down blocks that read: “I roared I wish / my kids never know.” A young white couple wrote simply: “All may join / and be.” The man returned a second time, with this: “Instead of ambition / wish life & joy / be on all.”
From my student, this: “We looked different / so life was floodlights / and / they did what they had to.” And, “This just in / the people are / only partially awful.”
All this from random blocks we were given.
For my part, by zeroing in on a word or two and then building around them, I wrote: “Neighborhood young families / punks and professional heroes wish / days crowd into night.” And this: “Oh, I myself had my cruel / seriousness too illuminated, thinking / innocent touch is enough.”
Did I write about the travesty of Charlottesville? Did I find my voice against hatred and violence and vile racism? Maybe … the experience of sharing words and thoughts with my student and with strangers – none of whom knew Rankine’s work, by the way – was oddly liberating. And uplifting. And illuminating.
In the end, I put together this about racism and Nazi flags and Tiki-torch violence: “Some nostalgia makes eager fraternities,” and, “My life wish is me / shutting doors / myself.”
And that’s how I see it from my little corner of the world.
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Andrea W. Doray is an award-winning journalist, author, poet, and essayist in Denver, CO, and is occasionally a columnist for The Denver Post through their Colorado Voices panel. Her weekly opinion column, Alchemy, which appears in Colorado Community Media newspapers, has received a first-place award from the Colorado Press Association. Learn more about Andrea and her work here.
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