I’m all for privileged people, including the newly woke, amplifying the voices of people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and others threatened under the Trump presidency. But to argue that we must remain hopeful, that the Trump era will end, is steeped in privilege and wealth. As Rebecca Solnit argues in her recent Guardian essay, other oppressive regimes have ended, not simply because people waited for their inevitable demise, but because people fought for their end. But for Rebecca Solnit, someone steeped in class and race privilege, to argue that we must fight, hope, and work towards the day the regime will end ignores the realities of oppressed people.
For immigrants separated from their children, for people deported, for the women who will die without reproductive healthcare, the regime will never end. We will be living with Trump’s Supreme Court nominee for years. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t fight, or that we shouldn’t look to the example of people protesting Stalinist Russia (or Putin’s Russia) or Apartheid South Africa, as Solnit suggests.
But to argue against despair is in itself a privilege. If you aren’t safe in your own home or your own country, despair may be your immediate reaction. Activism might be as well. Neither is wrong.
Solnit writes “Slaves were devastated by slavery; Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth were not felled by that devastation but driven to act by it, and they did not confuse their devastation for despair.”
It’s not just that enslaved people were “devastated” by slavery. It’s that under slavery, everyday life for enslaved people was resistance, was activism, was despair. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were the exception, not because they resisted slavery, but because they escaped slavery, because they acquired education, because they became household names. To lift up the experiences of Douglass and Tubman at the expense of the many enslaved people who did despair is to ignore the everyday resistance of life under slavery. To ignore the many people whose lives began and ended under the institution of slavery.
The fact that slavery eventually ended does not mean that 12.5 million people did not experience the middle passage. That for every Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, there were untold number of people who lived and died on plantations. The regime of slavery ended in the United States, but it never ended for those people, even those who were freed (as Toni Morrison explores in Beloved).
Sometimes living in despair, living at all, is the only option. That’s resistance too.