Two weeks ago, when I had to choose a poem to memorize and recite for an English class, I chose W. H. Auden’s “Stop all the clocks” because I thought it was beautiful. It captured the frustrated grief I had felt after breakups and other mundane tragedies.
When I had to recite the poem in class on Nov. 9, it captured something similar, but much more intense. Tuesday night was really hard for me. Watching the election play out on CNN felt like someone was telling me that everyone who had told me I could do anything was lying. As a white woman, I know it was exponentially more difficult for many others. A crushing sadness and a mobilizing anger were fighting for space in my brain.
The poem captured something that I was struggling to put into words. It was anger at the world for continuing to go on and be a thing of beauty despite the ugliness of its inhabitants. I’ve never wanted to “pack up the moon and dismantle the sun” more than I did when I woke up on Wednesday morning to brilliant sunshine, golden trees and a cloudless sky.
On my walk to class I put on LCD Soundsystem’s “Someone Great” in search of some joy and a eulogy to the president that could have been. And then James Murphy sang: “The worst is all the lovely weather / I’m stunned, it’s not raining.” And I felt it again: anger at the audacity of beauty and guilt for taking time to indulge in it.
Art felt trivial. It felt small and unimportant against the nightmare that was unfolding around me. How can I go to the movies when people are painting swastikas on storefronts? What album do I listen to while a girl on my campus is forced to remove her hijab? How can beauty live among so much ugliness? Is it fair to make time for it?
I wanted to “cut off the telephone.” I wanted a moment of complete silence and stillness. But the world does not wait for a broken heart.
But then, on Friday, I saw “Moonlight”— and I encourage you all to do the same. Not only because it’s the best movie I’ve seen (and probably will see) this year. But because the experience of seeing a beautiful movie in a theater full of people was the most reaffirming experience I’ve had since last Tuesday.
It was the most diverse crowd — in terms of race, age and gender — that I’ve ever been in at the Michigan Theater. It was also the largest crowd I’ve seen there. It felt good to sit next to someone I didn’t know. It felt good to be forced to be in community with people I did not know. It felt good to know that we could be brought together through art.
“Moonlight” would have been breathtaking on any day of any year. But on the Friday after the 2016 election, it was even more so. Because it told the story — with beauty, honesty and humanity — of the exact type of person who does not belong in “Trump’s America.” A poor, gay Black man. No one in the movie fit Trump’s definition of beautiful.
Film is, at its best (and it’s often not at its best), a vessel for voices that are not easily heard. I’m sure that in the coming months and years many more voices will be silenced. That’s all the more reason to use art as a microphone for the silenced.
It takes a thousand — maybe even a million — voices to create change. And what I’m realizing is that those voices don’t need to speak through the same medium. We need filmmakers and singers and politicians and poets and scientists.
I still don’t know what to do or what I should do. Part of me still feels an odd guilt about the time I spend consuming rather than creating, watching rather than fighting.
But what our country seems to be in desperate need of is a big dose of empathy. And I can’t think of a better syringe to deliver that than art. Nothing forces you to inhabit the headspace of another human the way art does. In some ways, art is the closest we ever get to really understanding each other.
I think we still have an obligation to make and consume art. But that can’t be it anymore. You can’t just fight and you can’t just go to the movies. Those two things are going to have to find a way to shape and spark each other. Art has the power to ignite change, but only if we make art that wants to ignite change and consume art that wants to change us.
This is how empathy and giving voice to the voiceless meet each other. It’s going to become more and more important (and it’s already pretty damn important) to read books, watch movies and listen to music created by people that are not like me — that do not look like me or think like me.
Togetherness begins with empathy and I believe that all the parenting magazine thinkpieces are right when they say art is one of the best (if not only) ways to teach empathy.
So get angry. And then make something beautiful out of that anger. Teach something, learn something. The time to “silence the piano” has not yet come.