What we owe each other

A few thoughts on truth, reconciliation and the peaceful transition of power


I watched Biden’s inauguration earlier today. Well, I sort of watched it. My four-year-old only truly enjoyed the occasional shots of the Washington Monument (“Look at that huge rocket!) so I paid it a bit of attention before giving a whole bunch of piggyback rides. I’m getting a sense of it now, though: It seemed pleasant! Amanda Gorman is a great poet! Biden’s speech was sober but hopeful! Amy Klobuchar make Minnesota Aunt jokes and Bernie Sanders looked like Bernie Sanders! If I’m missing any details I need to stress again— I was quite literally running in and out of the room with a four-year-old on my back.

For people who dream of a more just and beautiful America, ceremonial displays of The Country We’d Like To Be can feel like an exhausting tug of war between head and heart.

Of course you find your body relaxing when a man who was hell-bent on appealing to our worst angels isn’t President anymore! But how do you do that while also recognizing that he isn’t a sin-eater, that nothing that he represented actually disappears with his departure?

Of course you’re filled with joy and possibility when a Black and South Asian woman is sworn in as Vice President! But how do you balance that with the knowledge that the machinery of state oppression isn’t ground to a halt because of representational milestones?

This tug of war is on my mind because, since the inauguration wrapped up, I’ve had a less distracted moment to read a few transcripts— Gorman’s poem, Biden’s speech. In doing so I was struck, unsurprisingly, that they each foregrounded a set of questions that are going to be outsized characters in this transitional moment: The unity question. The love your enemies question. The common ground question.

Here’s Gorman.

“We lift our gaze not to what stands between us but what stands before us”

And Biden

“History, faith, and reason show the way, the way of unity. We can see each other, not as adversaries, but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury.”

As human beings whose hearts yearn for connection and reconciliation, these are the kind of words that, in a vacuum, untighten chests and deepen breaths. As residents of a country that has caused and causes so much harm— where isolation and dehumanization and death have been doled out disproportionally on the basis of race, gender, class, religion and sexual orientation— these calls feel a million times more complicated.

For so many, the call to love your enemy sounds for all the world like a demand to surrender to your oppressor. Having grown up in a carceral, punitive culture- one where we don’t have true models for accountability and reconciliation- there’s no way to imagine “moving forward together” that doesn’t still leave the same people in front and the same people behind.

Goodness knows that we want forward movement. Goodness knows that we desperately crave a better world. But we also recognize the need for healing, for reparations, for learning lessons that might prevent harm in the future. We know that regardless of who is in charge, the United States Government isn’t currently set up to be a tool of liberation. We know, then, that it is up to all of us to build experimental models of something kinder and more beautiful. But how? What does it look like to both commit to imperfect people and to have others commit to us in our imperfection? What does it look like to love with accountability? What does it look like to neither cut off relationships nor to allow those with whom we’re in relationship to continue to cause harm?

We are fortunate to live in a world where wise people are already exploring those questions and offering their hypotheses and insights along the way (I’m particularly indebted here to the work of Mariame Kaba and Sarah Schulman). What follows isn’t that. It’s merely a series of thoughts about what we owe each other as people who, per Kaba, have both “harmed and caused harm” and who don’t have a way out of this mess without one another.

-We are owed the truth, both about the state of the world and our role in it (this has been on my mind after reading the 1776 Project and being overwhelmed with how little respect those historians must have for their fellow countrypeople as intellectual beings or critical thinkers).

-We are owed an imaginative trust in a version of us beyond our most selfish impulses. There is a version of white people beyond white supremacy. There is a version of men beyond patriarchy. There is a version of each of us as human beings beyond the worst harm we’ve caused. We must imagine what those worlds look like because unless we do so, there is no way to build them in practice.

-We are owed the right to seek accountability for the ways we have been harmed. So too, of course, do we owe those we’ve harmed both accountability and an openness, if they desire, to mend that which we have broken.

-We are owed real curiosity—about our stories, our struggles, our pain, our dreams and all the ways that we can feel tired and stuck.

-We are owed the right to both extend and accept invitations to build together, to do so in ways that are open-hearted and don’t demand perfection but which also include guardrails as to how we treat each other.

-We are owed the right to focus our full attention and love on those who choose to accept that invitation, a gift that comes with the responsibility of not becoming overly distracted or obsessed by those who are not yet ready to join us.

-We are owed the right to pick up our own unaccepted invitations from the past and to extend belated welcomes to those who take longer to accept our invitations.

-We are owed shared spaces that are worth returning to— ones that are joyful and mournful in the right moments, that are fully in love with all who enter and that take the work seriously without being self-serious.

-We are owed the right to admit that we don’t actually know how to do this— this being living beyond patriarchy and white supremacy and capitalism and cis supremacy and heterosexism and ableism. And yes, that means all of us- those of us with relative levels of privilege and power and those who don’t. Systems that have divided us have left us all as emerging learners, ones who will stumble and bumble but who occasionally arrive at something wonderful.

-We are owed the right to be better at all this tomorrow than we were yesterday.

-We are owed the right to share food, music, art and laughter in abundance.

It is often remarked that one of America’s strengths is our “peaceful transition of power.” What we mean when we say that is that Republicans and Democrats don’t (normally) do coups to one another. That’s such a limited way to imagine such a potentially beautiful phrase, though. Think about what that could mean. A peaceful transition of power: the idea that it’s possible to dismantle our current patterns of who does or doesn’t have power in a way that aims to transform and not punish. How amazing would that actually be in practice?

Today, I unclenched my jaw a little bit. As for building a “peaceful transition of power”- that feels like something we’ll be working on for a lifetime.

-Thank you, as always, for all the ways that so many of y’all have welcomed and pushed me. My vision for what community can and needs to be is larger and more beautiful than it was four years ago, in large part thanks to so many of y’all. Thanks in particular for all who’ve supported the launch of The Barnraisers Project. Hard work is easier together.

-Songs of the week: “Love on the brain” by Rihanna, “Flirted with you all my life” by Vic Chesnutt