Kissing the Calm, Cool Face of the River

Make America America (Again)

One may as well begin with plagiarism.

From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise; that you treat people with respect.

— Melania Trump, Republican National Convention, July 18, 2016

I first felt it over the plagiarism affair during the Republican National Convention: a pinprick of fear, a blood drop once dabbed. In my life, plagiarism is a blade that cuts. I spent a decade and a half working or studying at a university, and, at least at the level of work, plagiarism is the crime of the academy, one with unthinkable consequences.

Melania Trump faced no consequences after plagiarizing Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech. There was an apology from her speech writer and some late-night talk show jokes. I’d bring it up with people, and they’d smile at me and brush the business off with a remark about “truthiness.” Yes, she’s a nude model trophy wife from some confusable Slavic country, I’d say, but she stole. Politicians and their wives lie, but they don’t steal, and if they steal, especially from the other side, that’s cause for resignation, right?

The polls said we were safe.

“Only connect!” art by Komar & Melamid, quotation by E.M. Forster

O, let America be America again —
The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be — the land where every man is free,
The land that’s mine — the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME —
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose —
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
— Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again,” 1938

Unlike Hughes, I have not struggled to make America reflect me. My skin tone and my first name belie my Iranian parentage. Those outside my rarefied social circle, willfully or ignorantly overlooking the cultural cues, assume I’m straight. I can pass. I’m male. I’m not poor. I’ve not lived in fear. As of today, I have rights.

Of course I’ve struggled, as all immigrants and children of immigrants do, to make myself reflect America, and of course that has given me no end of anxiety. But anxiety is stress perforated by a flitting fear; it is not terror.

Alexander De Tocqueville is right: “every citizen in a democracy…spends his time considering the interests of a very insignificant person, namely, himself.” My first thought that Wednesday morning was that I would be silenced. I would lose my freedom of speech because I’m an Iranian American. Or because I’m gay?

My one skill set is language; I can’t do anything else. That feeling I had in bed, clutching my phone, was the same as the prick I felt during the Convention, but tighter, deeper, longer, a garrote pulling — the fear that chokes.

My environment came into sensory focus, and I sucked breath in through my teeth. I took in real objects: the door saddle, the wall, the window pane, the tree branches. I thought outward, about friends, kids, people, races, religions, countries, Earth. The fear downgraded into anxiety. But that wake-up moment of pure fear is, I’m convinced, the first time in my life I’ve felt like an American citizen.

The last time an election derailed, in 2000, I was just twenty-three, and it seemed probable that I could move to Paris or Budapest or São Paulo and change my nationality. I hadn’t yet felt racialized and diminished by the War on Terror, and as much of a dunderhead as I knew George W. Bush to be, he was still part of the one establishment I had known. The early morning of November 9, I also belonged to a plural, to a we, to a country: We have to change this. What’s going to happen to us? How did we get here?

I bounced back to the Tocquevillian singular: I should have made a bigger deal about Melania Trump’s plagiarism. That was the moment I knew. Trump didn’t accept the speech writer’s resignation. And none of the late-night comics or media pundits I saw noted the funny-but-scary irony in the fact that she stole the line “your word is your bond.” I should have done more.

Words began to come unbound, and they were given new meanings: sexual assault became “locker room talk;” C-sections became “late-term abortions;” “alt-right” became white supremacy, misogyny, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and homophobia all at once.

Even now, nearly a month later, I still feel the fear. It comes in jagged fits, usually right as I wake up or when I’ve been alone for too long. This man threatens everything I am, and every moral I’ve been taught, and how do I express that?

My primary comfort has been the words we have not yet lost. Not words on a computer, for they can be dimmed, erased, and shut — I don’t own an e-reader — but words in print, words that reach the nose, from the sourdough stench in older books, to the chlorine in newer books, to the wet dog of newspaper. In other words, my comfort has been in nostalgia. That irony is also not lost on me.

The works of three American writers — Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and August Wilson — have been my greatest comfort since November 9. Morrison, in an introduction to Wilson’s play The Piano Lesson, notes that the question “are you an artist or a black artist?” is “an annoying obligation.” At another moment, I would agree with arms extending to include all artists of the margins. Today the words of identity politics are those that have not been unbound, however, and it is the reading of these writers as black American artists that has been such a salve.

I’ve read Hughes the most, maybe because he’s the earliest, or maybe because I haven’t looked at his work since high school. He was the first to write the blues, and by doing so, he created a new language. He unlocked the poetry in the African American vernacular: the metaphors, the sly ways of expressing the unsayable and of exclaiming vital, momentary joy.

All three writers astonish, not just by the beauty and novelty of their dictions, but also by the fact that they never waver in their faith in America or in the certainty of their rectitude. Fully aware of what had been stolen from them, they had no need for plagiarism; only a person without guts or forethought plagiarizes.

“We express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame,” Hughes writes. “We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.”

“I always knew I had the moral high ground, all my life,” Morrison said in an interview. “I thought they knew that I knew they were inferior to me morally. If you can only be tall because someone else is on their knees, then you have a serious problem.”

Writes Wilson: “In 1979, armed with Seko Toure’s quote that ‘Language describes the idea of the one who speaks it,’ and a new-found respect for the vernacular of black Americans, I sat down and wrote my first full-length play…The characters in the plays still place their faith in America’s willingness to live up to the meaning of her creed so as not to make a mockery of her ideals. It is this belief in America’s honor that allows them to pursue the American dream even as it remains elusive.”

And I, we, Americans who believe in America’s honor, even as it eludes us, who believe “the land that never has been yet,” must now follow the examples Hughes and Morrison and Wilson set for us: we must find a language for this new, blue era that describes the idea of us. We cannot lose faith in our moral superiority; we cannot choke on our own fear.

Hughes hated the cover of his first poetry collection.

Hughes has many short poems. This one in particular haunts me:

The Calm,
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.

Its title is “Suicide’s Note.” The apostrophe perplexes. Suicide decides to die? Or is suicide luring us to die? Given that it’s a recurring symbol in Hughes’s work, how does a river, which is necessarily in flux, have a calm, cool face?

Our river is moving very fast, but for the very first time, I don’t want to look like it; I want it to look like me.

And that’s what I’ll do, somehow. With my First Amendment rights, on this blog, I vow to fuse my prose with my passion, to point out the unbound words, and, with vigilance and hope, to find new, stable-but-growing, sensible-but-mutable ones to reflect and connect us all.

We shall make the river ask us each for a kiss. Then, calmly and coolly, seeing our individual reflections in its face, we shall give it that kiss. And no one will die. And America will be America at last.