We are living through dark days. Not just the darkest days of the calendar year, but deeply, truly, humanly, these are dark days. The calendar tells us the days will get darker until the Winter Solstice on December twenty-first. So the days between today, December thirteenth, and the twenty-first, will get increasingly darker. The darkest day of all coming on the Solstice itself. Then, light slowly begins to creep back into the world. But until then, we have darkness, in many forms. One form, I find especially surprising.
The Covid-19 pandemic continues to ravage the world. As I sit here on this Sunday writing, 1,607,798 people have died across the world from this dangerous disease. In my country, the United States, 297,864 people have died. An unimaginable grief, a darkness we have not seen in a long time. This is darkness. Human darkness. The kind of darkness in which it is hard to see where one is, the way forward. In the United States, our president and government have shown shocking incompetence and indifference. It’s truly hard to find words to describe their role in the suffering. It sounds too innocent to say, it didn’t have to be this bad. While that’s true, it hardly captures their shocking inability and unwillingness to care.
Also, here in the United States, we watch our democracy under raw assault, something I never thought I would see. Several state attorneys general and more than one hundred and twenty Republican members of the House of Representatives asking the Supreme Court to discard the election results from four states. They aren’t asking to check the votes, to count one more time, but to discard them. Yes. I just typed that sentence. The president, of course, urges them on in his raging, lying way. While millions of Americans believe him, or act like they do. This is a darkness I didn’t think I would see in my life.
A most profound darkness has emerged that almost surprises me. We continue to see Black people, and other people of color, murdered by police all across the country. White people, like me, can no longer act as though this does not affect us all. It’s not a southern problem or an urban problem, it’s an American problem. It has been for centuries. We cannot accept that minority members of our country have to live with the terror that a routine traffic stop can turn into something murderous. But we see it happening before our eyes. This darkness, so complex and yet so simple, we have yet to really face.
I see this darkness in a surprising place– the essays and poems of my Black students and other students of color. I see it in the writing of a few of my white students too. These are children, sixteen and seventeen years old, musing about their fear of police, the brevity of life, the indifference of their peers, the disinterest of their country. When they write of these fears I have nothing to say except that I hear them, I see them, I am on their side. I encourage them to give the darkness a voice, put words on it. In that way, I hope, they and I have some way to relate to it. When we write of it, we give ourselves a kind of power. Not enough power to end the darkness, but perhaps it’s a small flame of light.
As I look for light to defy this darkness, I see my poetry students. They read, write, work to find the right words. They take time, revise, listen to one another, and help each other to improve their poems. In this, I take a kind of comfort. If we can voice our fear and anger then we can name it and face it. There we might find the smallest flicker of light, a little less darkness.
The photograph at the top of this reflection was taken by the author and it’s of the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. It was taken earlier this month.