Take me higher
Jackie and I have some history with Boston Market. We went there for an early dinner just over two years ago, on the day when I was trying to recover from the worst migraine of my life. I needed to pick up some medication from CVS, and I needed someone to come with me, but I also needed quiet. I asked Jackie to accompany me because I trusted her. She’s loud and talkative and energetic, but I knew that if I asked her to hush for my sake — I was already wearing sunglasses and earmuffs on a gray October day — she would.
Not only was Jackie respectful of my needs, but she also suggested we get dinner. (I hadn’t eaten all day.) Once I went through the cafeteria-style line, she sneakily paid for my meal. Two old men glanced at us as we ate together.
We returned there tonight. It was November 18, ten days after the election of Donald Trump. Ten days of protests, of journalists doing some soul-searching, of white people like me trying to help by restarting conversation. Ten days of discussions about echo chambers and divided politics. Ten days that gave rise to an exaggerated focus on the Rust Belt, where working-class white voters, once aligned with the Democratic Party, turned to Trump. Disenfranchised in their own way, they nevertheless placed their faith in a man who ran on a platform of hate: pure racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, homophobia, ableism and so much more.
The food at Boston Market is good, and it’s cheap, and it serves a sort of Thanksgiving-esque American nostalgia with its creamed spinach and rotisserie chicken. However, it’s not a place frequented by college students. Instead, many of its patrons are middle-aged, low-income white folks.
Jackie didn’t eat much. Something was wrong with her appetite, she said. But throughout our dinner, she was quiet, too. Her disposition was unusually reserved; her shoulders, stiff. We left as soon as I had finished my sweet potatoes.
Once we were in the safety of the open street, Jackie opened up to me. J knows just as well as I do that the people who spend their Friday nights at Boston Market aren’t inherently evil or hateful. At the same time, she couldn’t shake the feeling that they were the same type of people who voted for Trump. Some of them were probably Trump voters themselves. Some of them hated people like her.
That night, about half of the reason we went to Boston Market was that we were on our way to a performance of In the Heights put on by Berklee College of Music. (The other half was that I wanted roast beef, which the restaurant ultimately didn’t have.) While we made our way across Massachusetts Avenue, Jackie was still talking about the discomfort she felt, the removal of safety in a country she’d grown up in.
I have a responsibility to Jackie as her friend. That means knowing and respecting all of her — bipolar, black, Puerto Rican, Panamanian, daughter of an immigrant, extremely intelligent, energetic, talkative — and understanding where she’s coming from. It also means defending her even more fiercely than usual when the world attacks her. It means comforting her and fighting against the things that might make her feel less than she is.
Tonight, someone else did the work before I could.
At some point over the last ten days, some individuals, presumably Berklee students, had placed dozens of handmade posters in the school center’s windows. Crafted on plain printer paper, drawn with Sharpie or highlighter or colored marker, they shouted messages of hope.
“I love myself.”
“Never give up fighting for what you believe.”
“Don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t be proud of who you are!”
I stood with my arm around Jackie, reading them, taking them in.
“I’m having an emotion,” Jackie said.
We took photos. She sent some to her mom, a Panamanian massage therapist living in Texas. Trump country.
Lin-Manuel Miranda writes immigrant stories. He’s currently best known for Hamilton: An American Musical, sure to be remembered as one of the phenomenons of 2016. To him, Alexander Hamilton is the quintessential American story: “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore” from the Caribbean who grows up to be “a hero and a scholar.”
Before Hamilton, though, Miranda wrote and performed a Broadway musical about the place where he grew up: Washington Heights in New York City.
When Jackie and I bought tickets to Berklee’s production of In the Heights months ago, we didn’t give it a second thought. I’d wanted to see the musical since I saw a recording of “Breathe” performed at the Tony Awards. I also figured that Berklee’s production would likely be top-notch, given that the students there are all interested in musical careers.
What I did not bet on was how emotional the evening would be. It wasn’t just the musical itself — which brought me close to tears on its own — that did me in.
At the end of the performance, after all the bows were taken, Zaid Tabani, the actor who played Usnavi, came up to the front of the stage.
The cast was there on election night, rehearsing, Tabani told us as he stood in front of a cast almost entirely comprised of Latinx and black performers. They were rehearsing the song “Blackout.” They were singing, “We are powerless,” as the electoral map turned redder and redder.
Tabani told us that he had worked on another song, one outside of In the Heights, with some collaborators. He was going to perform it for us. We all had the lyrics to the chorus in our programs, so he wanted us to sing those lines with him.
I wish I had a recording of that final performance. The Berklee Performance Center wouldn’t allow for any photos or video by audience members. So I’ll give some highlights: a president-elect who only cares about the elite. People dying on the streets. Tamir Rice on one corner, Trayvon Martin when you turn your head. Frustration, anger, pain. All of this coming through in a hip-hop rhythm, punctuated by this chorus:
“Hoping I can keep my light on
Hoping you can take me higher
Hoping I can keep myself strong”
The entire audience stood, implored by Tabani, about halfway through the song. We sang with him. We put our arms around our neighbors. I cried and sang louder as amateur audience voices filled the auditorium.
On the stage, I watched the cast members put their arms around each other, too. I saw the young woman who played Nina twist her mouth, looking like she was holding back tears. I saw the black actor who played Graffiti Pete openly weep into both of his hands, his sobs echoing through the microphone.
In the aftermath of Trump’s election, there’s been finger-pointing and frustration. There’s been a renewed focus on poor white communities. There’s been a question as to how we could possibly bridge this political divide, which is wider than it’s been in more than 20 years. My entire lifetime.
As a white woman, I’m still trying to answer that last one. What is my role in American progress? I wanted to start with a platform of understanding — going through and following conservative and alt-right pages and news outlets, having conversations with conservative friends and family members. Then would come communication. I could figure out what shared political interests I had with the other side, unite us for a common goal. Talk to them about what motivates them. Get people to act in their own self-interest.
I don’t know if that’s enough.
People will die because of Trump’s administration. Hate crimes have already gone through the roof. We have a probable presidential cabinet full of bigots. Lives will grow more endangered — mine included, and Jackie’s, quite honestly, even more so.
Tonight, I stood with a crowd of hundreds, an audience at a sold-out performance, feeling the entire world implore me to do something.
I usually end my pieces with some kind of call to action. But right now, I’m stumped. So I am asking you instead: please care. Please give a damn. Please. And give me suggestions on how to fix this, because I truly don’t know where I can be most useful.