Back to Work

At the beginning of every year, I struggle to return to work. Coming back from three weeks of relaxing over the holidays is an uphill battle. This time last year I didn't manage the feelings of lethargy effectively and it translated into nearly everything I did. I have a better grasp on it, today, though I’m vigilant about not letting myself slide into my natural ability to rest. Still, these first few weeks of the new academic term will essentially be me getting into some sort of rhythm, but, just two weeks into it, so far so good.

A major part of that unease is the nature of the work — supposedly, I write. And writing, getting words down onto paper and convincing yourself that they aren't the textbook definition of trash, even for the brief moment it takes to hit 'publish', is hard. Writing involves a lot of not knowing exactly where you're headed, where the words might take you, whether you'll like where you end up.

The process is nebulous, one that doesn't have a body or form or, for a good part of the process, resemble anything tangible, except perhaps in a writer's imagination. The imaginative work, of worlds that don't yet exist, of answers to questions unanswerable, pushes others to think about the current world, allowing them to admit they can't quite answer these questions. The work of writing, to explore, to converse, to ponder, is both exciting and important.

This work becomes especially important, and endangered, with most recent emboldened articulations of white supremacy and the demands on people of color to constantly explain and justify their work. These dangers disguise themselves as a part of the imaginative work, but merely and perpetually exist in the present. They operate to distract from the actual intent of questioning why they are doing the work, which is really to ask, why they exist in a space at all. Instead of doing what we’re called to do, whether as scholars or journalists or citizens, we’re called on, constantly, to listen to the concerns of those who have no interest or inclination to extend that same conversational courtesy, to answer faithless and disingenuous questions, because our presence, our existence, is considered an anomaly, a problem.

I think about Barack Obama’s recent call for us, as we enter into whatever we’re headed for today, on January 20, to both “talk to others” but also “finish the work we’ve started.” The sentiment is only nominally genuine and admirable, for it asks us to navigate a paradox. How are we to reconcile talking to strangers while simultaneously doubling down to do our own work? If the call to talk to those who don’t deem us worth acknowledging is never-ending, then we know that it is not the actual work. It is disingenuous. A lie. These conversations become no more than negotiation, a rehash of debates previously thought over and finished, re-litigation of questions that, one would assume, need not be re-litigated. That's how the Voting Rights Act, as a critical victory of the civil rights movement, is allowed to lapse, amid questions about why those laws, a mere 50 years after their inception, are still necessary. The ask for conversation, mutual understanding, civil debate, rings hollow when it is requested, demanded, at every turn, while simultaneously striving to justify your exclusion from those conversations, from political life entirely.

With all of this in mind, when I find myself distracted by the work of justifying my work, which ends up becoming the task of justifying, over and over again, my existence, my presence in the space of the political; or if I get lost in meditation about the stresses and strains of these kind of demands on our intellectual labor, I'm reminded of the words of Toni Morrison, in describing one of the many ingenuities of white supremacy:

“Know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, and so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

That "one more thing" will burn you out. There exists no amount of explaining that will make the "work" of explaining obsolete. Returning to the work, your work, is never just a practical matter, then. It's one of survival. Otherwise, the explaining can kill you.