Anne Strainchamps (00:00):
It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge. When times are grim, when the future is uncertain, when you need more hope, can you make it? And if so, how?
DeRay Mckesson (00:11):
I have hope because I know this just can't be the best version of the world that we can have, and I think that that's real for a lot of people.
Speaker 1 (00:17):
This is CNN breaking news.
Speaker 2 (00:22):
Violence erupting in the streets out St. Louis. These are incredible pictures coming in. Police in riot gear firing tear gas to break up protesters angry over the shooting death of an unarmed teenager.
Speaker 3 (00:32):
18 year old Michael Brown.
Anne Strainchamps (00:37):
DeRay Mckesson's path to hope began on the day a lot of people lost theirs.
DeRay Mckesson (00:44):
Mike got killed on August 9th, and I drove down to St. Louis on August 16th, largely because I just wanted to see with my own eyes. When I looked on CNN it looked like the protestors were sort of wild. When I looked on Twitter it looked like the police were really wild, and I just wanted to see for myself what was happening.
Speaker 4 (01:05):
That's one police cruiser that is fully engulfed right now. You can hear the explosions going on inside, whether it's... Ah, (beep). Sorry, I just got hit by a rock.
DeRay Mckesson (01:18):
And the second night I was in St. Louis was the first night that I was tear-gassed. There was so much tear gas on the night of the new indictment that you couldn't see any more, but you'd just be walking down the street and all of a sudden it just hits you, right? And there so many nights like that where we were in the midst of what felt like a war zone.
Speaker 5 (01:37):
Wow. Bang, bang. Erica, this way, this way.
DeRay Mckesson (01:38):
Nobody should ever have to live through this or experience this, and I'll do whatever I can to make sure that people don't.
Speaker 5 (01:42):
They're throwing tear gas at us. There they go. Get down.
Speaker 6 (01:42):
DeRay Mckesson (01:52):
When I think about how I learned hope, it was in these really hard moments. I remember hiding under my steering wheel. I remember sleeping on the side of the road. I remember all of those things.
DeRay Mckesson (02:05):
We were committed to staying in the street as long as possible and the police response to us was just so wild.
Speaker 7 (02:12):
You may no longer be in the area. There's no longer a peaceful protest.
DeRay Mckesson (02:19):
People forget that we were in the street for 400 days.
Speaker 7 (02:24):
You need to disperse immediately or you will be subject to arrest. Do it now.
DeRay Mckesson (02:27):
In those early days it was illegal to stand still. If we sit still for more than five seconds we were immediately arrested and that was one of the reasons why we marched so much, because we had to. It wasn't really a choice. And I think the police thought that that was going to cause us to go home and instead it furthered our resolve. If we had to walk, you got to walk and we just stayed out all night, all day and it was really powerful.
Speaker 6 (03:00):
There they go.
DeRay Mckesson (03:02):
I'm proud to be one of many people who stayed, one of many people who fought, one of many people who pressed, because we knew we were right. We knew that at best Michael Brown might've been guilty of jaywalking and that the penalty for jaywalking wasn't death.
Speaker 8 (03:25):
Hope means the ability to still be here fighting.
Speaker 9 (03:27):
Our best futures don't happen automatically.
Speaker 10 (03:28):
Hope right there in your face at the moment.
Speaker 11 (03:30):
Hope, optimism, happiness.
Speaker 12 (03:31):
Speaker 13 (03:32):
Hope is essential.
Anne Strainchamps (03:33):
Hope rises. She always does. I'm Anne Strainchamps. Welcome to Hope, a three part series from To The Best Of Our Knowledge and here we are at episode two, How Do You Make Hope.
Speaker 8 (03:49):
Hope is connected to faith.
DeRay Mckesson (03:49):
This just can't be the best world that we can have.
Speaker 19 (03:50):
Of what use is love if the situation is hopeless?
Speaker 20 (03:53):
Let's do hope.
Anne Strainchamps (03:56):
So that story we heard, is from DeRay Mckesson. He's a former sixth grade math teacher and one of the most prominent activists to emerge from the Black Lives Matter movement. You might know him because of his podcast or maybe for his signature blue vest. Shannon Henry Kleiber thought we should talk with him about hope.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (04:16):
DeRay, this is Shannon.
DeRay Mckesson (04:17):
Shannon Henry Kleiber (04:18):
Hey, how are you?
DeRay Mckesson (04:20):
I'm okay. How are you?
Shannon Henry Kleiber (04:21):
I'm okay. I wanted to start with, I am usually a pretty optimistic person, but lately everyone seems so angry and there's so much political fighting, there's climate change we're worried about and I get overwhelmed with the day to day news. How can we get beyond this? How can we have hope?
DeRay Mckesson (04:45):
Yeah I think about hope as the belief that our tomorrows can be better than our today's and I think that what you see all across the country is hope work. You see people running for office, you see people engaged in electoral politics, joining committees and that sort of stuff. You certainly see people out in the street and you see people publicly saying that this can be better and I think that is actually what hope is. So when King says that the moral arch of the universe bends towards justice, that's about faith but when we say it bends because people bend it, that's a hope statement.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (05:12):
I love how you talk about hope as work, and what you're just saying is not easy. How do you talk to other people about it? What words do you use? How do you convince other people to do this work?
DeRay Mckesson (05:26):
One of the questions is like, "What are you interested in? What do you think isn't working that you want to work?" It's that simple. Most organizing starts off really small, the first thing I ever did in Ferguson was make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. That was what I did and that was how I started.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (05:40):
How did that happen? Did somebody say, "Hey we need some food. Who knows how to make something?"
DeRay Mckesson (05:44):
So there was like an incredible sense of community in Ferguson in the very beginning and I think sometimes people think of organizing as starting in some grand way every time but it often is a set of neighbors saying, "I don't think street light should look like this", or "I think there should be a street light" and then people get together and start organizing. I think about us in the street in St. Louis, we didn't join a group, we were in a club but we did something that was so special and we did it all together that changed the mood of the country.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (06:11):
I like that. I think that one of those lessons is start somewhere. Don't just think you can't do it.
DeRay Mckesson (06:17):
Yeah and that one of the ways that the status quo continues to thrive is that, it convinces you that you don't have nay power, that you feel like you are this helpless person, your one vote doesn't matter. That how the status quo endures because the people who are feeding you that message are the people voting every single time or they're heavily involved but they're banking on the fact that you won't be involved.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (06:37):
So what's your advice to people are losing hope?
DeRay Mckesson (06:43):
I think that, when we say the system is broken and some people say that it's not broken, its functioning exactly like it was designed, one of our takeaways is that it was designed, right. And because it was designed we can make something else, somebody made this up. And if they can remake the tax code in the back of napkins and paper towels we can actually do all this in a generation. This doesn't have to be a 10 generation solution, we can do this pretty quickly.
DeRay Mckesson (07:05):
What I see people's hope waning it's like, remember that people made this up. This isn't divine. We can actually do this and I've seen people get mobilized all across the country, it's a little slow sometimes. Change doesn't happen as much as we want it to but it moves.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (07:19):
You've seen a change?
DeRay Mckesson (07:21):
Shannon Henry Kleiber (07:22):
So do you ever feel like the anger is helpful?
DeRay Mckesson (07:29):
I think the anger is helpful all the time. It was early in the protest that I had to figure out what to do with the anger that I had thought that I needed to move the anger out of the way but really part of this work is about saying that the anger just can't overpower the other emotions, but we shouldn't have to try to erase the anger. I'm always reminded that we didn't bring the violence. The only reason I'm in the middle of the street is because the police killed somebody. I didn't do this, I didn't start this. I'd love to be back in a class and be a teacher. I'd love to do that work, I'm doing this work because I have to.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (07:57):
Tell me a little bit about your childhood. You grew up in-
DeRay Mckesson (08:01):
I grew up in Baltimore.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (08:02):
In Baltimore. What was that like?
DeRay Mckesson (08:04):
Great. It was a small... It's like a big small city so my world was pretty small in Baltimore. I grew up as a youth organizer in the city and did a lot of student government and things like that from my entire time in school, and did that in college too. But Baltimore was good, both of my parents were addicted to drugs. My father raised us, my mother left when I was three, so I grew up in a community of recovery, watching people put their lives back together so that was interesting and really influenced the way that I thought about communities coming together and what it means to make amends and how people can heal and recover so that's really powerful. And then me and my sister, we both grew up and became teachers which was sort of unexpected.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (08:40):
You were a sixth grade math teacher in Brooklyn, right?
DeRay Mckesson (08:43):
Yeah, yeah. I think a lot about my students is that, I have a responsibility as an adult to try and make the world a better place. I went down to St. Louis because they killed a teenager. Mike Brown was a teenager and he should be alive today. So my commitment to young people is, I think, the thing that I rest on when things get really hard, knowing that we have a responsibility to make the system better for other people. So I think about the police, it's like we know the outcomes are really bad, right? So we know that a third of all the people killed by a stranger in this country was killed by a police officer. We know that one in 11 gun homicides in California is committed by an officer. And they're structural things that almost guarantee that officers will never be held accountable. So in California there's a law that says that any investigation of an officer that lasts more than a year will never result in discipline, there are a host of those things that people don't realize but really are the way the system works.
DeRay Mckesson (09:30):
I spent a considerable amount of time working on those things to just try and figure out, how do we peel it back. Most of the things that people experience in community are the result of something that happened at the system level.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (09:41):
So you've got a big fan base. And they know you by your vest, and they are reading your book, they're getting what you're doing. Do you also talk to people who don't agree with you? And how do those conversations go?
DeRay Mckesson (09:56):
You know I always try and take it back to the simplest parts of the work is that, I believe we can live in a world where police don't kill people. I don't think that's a dramatic idea. In Cleveland the police department destroys disciplinary records of police officers every two years, I think that's generally a bad thing. So some of this is pretty basic and I try to make it as basic as possible. Some of the people that ostensibly say they disagree with me or people like me want to use these really emotional arguments about police officers have hard jobs and it's a hard world and [inaudible 00:10:26] like all of that can be true and we still shouldn't delete police officer records. All that can be true and we still shouldn't... Officers shouldn't walk into somebody's apartment and say that they think it's [inaudible 00:10:34] and should them dead, right?
DeRay Mckesson (10:36):
All of those things can be true and we still can have a system of justice that isn't predicated on killing people and we don't have that yet. So I try to just boil it down to the basic elements when I'm talking to people who agree with me or who don't agree with me, because the positions that we have aren't really radical, I don't think.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (10:52):
So you're in a studio in Baltimore right now and I can't see you but I am guessing you're wearing a blue vest.
DeRay Mckesson (11:00):
Shannon Henry Kleiber (11:01):
Can you tell us a little bit about why you're wearing that blue vest? And is there ever a moment where you won't need to wear it anymore?
DeRay Mckesson (11:08):
Yeah I don't think it's about need you know. It is important to me. So [inaudible 00:11:12] for 400 days it got cold and I needed something I could wear that I wouldn't have to pack because we were out in the street all night and the vest was easy, the vest was simple, I've head the vest for a while. And I still wear it because it reminds me that everything we went through happened. I'm in a lot of rooms now and we are seemingly far from those early days when we were out all night for 400 days, and I just never want to forget that that was real. I never want to forget how fragile freedom is. And me wearing this vest is like my reminder for myself. I never thought that it would be a thing for other people which it has become but it just keeps me grounded and focused.
Shannon Henry Kleiber (11:47):
It's a symbol for you.
DeRay Mckesson (11:49):
No, not a symbol for me. I think it's a symbol for other people. It's like a safety blanket for me. It's like a... It was with me the whole time so I don't think about it so... Other people think of it more as a symbol and sort of like a... It's in the same way that some people have tattoos. Most people wouldn't call their tattoos symbols but it's like a thing that just is important to me as a reminder.
Anne Strainchamps (12:14):
DeRay Mckesson is an activist, a podcast host and author of On the Other Side Of Freedom:The Case for Hope. Shannon Henry Kleiber talked with him. If I was a young person right now, in my teens or early 20's, I think I would resent the hell out of adults. Us. And coming of age on a planet that's been severely, maybe permanently damaged by the bad choices we made. That sucks. And parents like me often talk about how our kids give us hope, but sometimes I think that's an unfair burden. Take Lydia Hester, she's 17 years old, a junior in high school with a pile of AP classes, plus a nearly full-time job as an activist. She led her school's walk out for gun reform, she's organized climate change protests, she recently managed and won a city council campaign. She does all of that, and she's not even old enough to vote. And yes, that really bugs her.
Lydia Hester (13:27):
Yeah, it's definitely really hard. I have about six months left until I can vote and so I'm just counting down the days, but yeah it definitely is really hard because when people say that they aren't going to vote, I'm like, "Can I have your vote if you won't vote?" And the other thing is that it's feeling very urgent and especially with the climate change movement, this is our future where it's in the next 12 years that damage won't be reversible, and that's very much in our lifetime.
Anne Strainchamps (14:01):
I wanted to ask you about that because, I was looking at the video recently of Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish activist and her speech to the billionaires at Davos saying, "I don't want your hope, I want you to panic." I was curious about your reaction.
Lydia Hester (14:17):
Yeah. I really look up to Greta Thunberg. One of my favorite parts from one of her speeches was, "I want you to act like the house is on fire."
Anne Strainchamps (14:27):
Because it is.
Lydia Hester (14:28):
Because it is, yes. And a lot of people I think know that this is urgent but they are like, "Yes, something should be done about it, just you should do it. I want something to be done but as long as it doesn't affect the convenience of my life." But, this is something I learned in AP environmental studies this year is, everyone thinks that if they fish in a lake, oh it's just a few fish, it doesn't matter, but if everyone thinks that way then there's just going to be no more fish left. That's the same way with climate change. Everyone, if they can just take a small step for themselves that will make a huge impact. People just need to be aware of that. A lot of people don't.
Anne Strainchamps (15:15):
Let's be frank, a lot of the people who don't see the urgency are my age or older. I look at videos of like you standing up and giving speeches or Greta Thunberg and honestly what I feel is this kind of grief and rage that our children are doing the work that adults should've.
Lydia Hester (15:37):
Anne Strainchamps (15:38):
Do you feel betrayed by former generations?
Lydia Hester (15:46):
Yeah. I guess I hadn't thought about it with that exactly being betrayed but it's just such a big mess for us to pick up. Why should we have to do the work? We can be upset about it but its not going to do anything. We're still in the time that we're in and we're going to have to clean up the mess anyway.
Anne Strainchamps (16:07):
I think a lot adults are incredibly heartened watching your generation kind of step up. Sometimes I feel like that's not really fair.
Lydia Hester (16:18):
Yeah. I definitely feel hopeful when I'm seeing all of these other students who will come out, but there's also many moments where we feel completely hopeless about the movement. One thing that's really engraved to my memory is when we were sitting in the assembly chambers and we watched our Bills just keep getting shot down. It does take a lot of toll on young people, just being a teenager and going to school is enough to make teenagers very stressed out. So then imagine adding all of this, you have the world on your shoulders and it's up to you, and if you don't do it, nobody is going to.
Anne Strainchamps (17:02):
Do you guys talk about that a lot? Do you and your friends talk about that?
Lydia Hester (17:06):
It's not really talked about. All these people are so hopeful about it, so I think a lot of us just... We just have to be hopeful all the time. We definitely talk about how hard it is when we have these big defeats but not as often as how great it feels when we have a win.
Anne Strainchamps (17:28):
Sort of like, it's not okay to get discouraged.
Lydia Hester (17:32):
Anne Strainchamps (17:33):
We're this generation, we can't afford to get discouraged.
Lydia Hester (17:35):
Right. Exactly. Yeah. We need to put this front on that we have it all together even though young people should not be expected at all to have it all together.
Anne Strainchamps (17:47):
So you feel like you are, in a very real pragmatic sense, having to make decisions about your future based on your need to be politically active, except it's not your need, it's your generations', it's all of our need.
Lydia Hester (18:00):
Yeah. I'm being torn in different directions between what's best for myself and what best for the world. It feels like I'm being selfish if I just do what a normal teenager would do and just go off to college. I just think about what if a seat for assembly, US Senate, or congress or something like what if a seat opens up and I want to run for it but I can't do that if I'm in college. People just tell me, "Just focus on what is best for you", but it's really for me to do that.
Anne Strainchamps (18:40):
What helps when you feel like your hope is waning, you're feeling discouraged?
Lydia Hester (18:45):
In all of these movements that I've been in, there's such a strong community, and so we can just lean on each other even though we wish we didn't have to get together for this. Wish we could get together to go to the movies or something but it's just the same as any friend group or like a sports team and so I've made a lot of friends through this movement which has been really helpful as well.
Anne Strainchamps (19:08):
What do you want from us? What do you want the older generations to know or to think about or to do?
Lydia Hester (19:18):
The biggest thing is to vote. Vote for the people who can't vote and when you're voting, don't just think about yourself when you're in that voting booth, think about all of the younger generations whose future this will be affecting. When people say that they don't do politics, that's coming from such a place of privilege, to be able to say that none of these things are affecting them because if I said that I didn't do politics that would be saying that I don't care about 80% of the kids in my school. Politics is everything around us. It's affecting everyone and I just would like people to realize that it's everyone's job to save our future.
Anne Strainchamps (20:14):
Lydia Hester is a junior at East High School in Madison Wisconsin. When she's not doing homework or studying for the SAT, she's working on saving the future. What about you?
Anne Strainchamps (20:27):
Have you ever lost hope?
Serene Jones (20:37):
I think anyone who say they've never lost hope is not telling you the truth.
Anne Strainchamps (20:45):
This is Serene Jones. She's the president of Union Theological Seminary.
Serene Jones (20:52):
I think a moment where many people lost hope in the state where I come from, Oklahoma, was the bombing of the Murrah building by Timothy McVeigh. My former brother in law was injured in the bombing. My sister was working nearby, children in the daycare in the building. Coming to grips with a guy who looked like he could've been one of my high school boyfriends capable of this level of violence, I had to really wrestle within with my own rage, my utter rage at what had happened and the senselessness of it, and a loss of hope in the basic goodness of humanity.
Speaker 14 (21:52):
There's tornadoes, when towns are destroyed, we're used to going to the site, being able to help, being able to make a difference to the survivors and right now there isn't a lot we can do for the survivors.
Serene Jones (22:06):
It was really a long process and I finally... It was a spiritual journey for me to say even in the face of such evil, because of the existence of the face of such evil, we must have hope and we must believe in goodness.
Anne Strainchamps (22:29):
Coming up, more from Serene Jones on the moral and spiritual imperative to hope. I'm Anne Strainchamps, it's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio, and PRX.
Anne Strainchamps (22:51):
Hope is deeply embedded in our spiritual traditions. It's one of the three cardinal virtues. And for a lot of people belief in God is what gives them hope. Well, Serene Jones is the first woman to head the historic Union Theological Seminary in New York, and she says hope is also a political, a moral force. It's what drives people to organize, to work, to change the world. She told Steve Paulson that hope is where the spirit and the body politic come together.
Serene Jones (23:22):
The most profound challenge to ones hope is traumatic loss. It may be the loss of a loved one, it may be the loss of your own capacities, it may be your loss of trust and hope in the government, the community that you're a part of. Your loss of hope and appreciation for others' goodness. I do think though at this particular moment in our nation, the rates of despair and anxiety and loss of hope are profound. Profound.
Steve Paulson (24:00):
I think there's this widespread feeling that things are just getting worse in the world, and that the future is not going to be as good, maybe worse, than what our parents had.
Serene Jones (24:12):
Yes, I think most young people feel that way and I think people of all ages look around them and they see hatred, they see destruction of the environment, they see communities where people can't speak with one another, they see economic conditions declining, the list could go on. So the obvious concrete political reasons to hope or communal reasons to hope seem few and far between, but if one can connect to those you love, if you can connect to what inside of you is that impulse towards goodness, grace, love then new life comes into you even in the worst of circumstances.
Serene Jones (24:51):
And the thing about hope is you have it even for instance if you believe we have crossed the point that we can bring our climate back into a space of health.
Steve Paulson (25:03):
Why do you say we have it? A lot of people are actually losing it. Specifically on this question of climate change.
Serene Jones (25:08):
No, that's exactly what I'm saying. When I hear that from the scientists I don't disagree with them, they know about this more than I do, but then there's all the more reason to live from now until as long as we live here with the hope that in the context in which we find ourselves, we can find goodness and work towards goodness and work towards the health of human community and the health of our general world even, especially, in the midst of that decline.
Steve Paulson (25:42):
I guess, what I'm hoping you can do for us today is to make the case that some kind of public theology or spiritual language is what we need today to give us hope or grace that's otherwise missing in our lives. And I'm also thinking for people who've rejected religion, why should they care about anything at all spiritual?
Serene Jones (26:02):
Well, what I see around me every day at the Union Theological Seminary where I'm the president is, students pouring through our doors, a large majority of them don't come from any religious background but there's nonetheless a deep spiritual yearning to find other people who are asking the big questions about the purpose of our lives. And until we have the courage or until it becomes so insisting that we can't resist it to ask those questions about the meaning of it all, we feel lost and we feel desperate, and I don't think one needs to be religious to feel lost and desperate, without a sense of purpose or goodness.
Steve Paulson (26:45):
But there are an awful lot of atheists out there who would say they are the ones asking the big questions. The questions might be in science, maybe philosophy. How did everything begin? How did everything fit together? Our place in the universe.
Serene Jones (26:59):
And I would call what they're doing theology and I wouldn't say it was necessarily attached to what we think of as religion but they're asking the big questions.
Steve Paulson (27:08):
I know a lot of atheists who would really object to that idea that they're doing theology.
Serene Jones (27:14):
So it would all depend on how they understand theology. If they understand theology as a simple intellectual enterprise that religious people do then that would be offensive. But if you stepped back and saw theology as the endeavor of asking the big questions about how it all fits together and what the purpose is, then theology takes on a different cast.
Steve Paulson (27:37):
Where do you personally find hope?
Serene Jones (27:42):
I find hope in my students. Each year we open our doors to a new class of people from all over the world, from every different kind of circumstance and background, coming to Seminary trying to figure things out and do good in the world. The fact that people keep showing up to learn what it means to do good and how we do good together. I'm very fortunate in that regard that I get to see that every day.
Steve Paulson (28:08):
It's so interesting that you say learning to do good rather than say learning religious history, learning what theologians have said about God. That's not how you're responding here.
Serene Jones (28:20):
Well, they do learn the histories of these various traditions but all of these traditions, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, you name it, all of them say in the end that the truth of the knowledge, if you really grasp it, is in the good that you do. So if you are really learning and understanding these truths then they transform you and you do good in the world. If you learn them and it has no effect on your positive actions then you haven't really learned them at all even though you may think you have.
Steve Paulson (28:52):
Do you think you can do good or be a good person if you don't have hope?
Serene Jones (28:57):
I think it is possible to have lost hope but to, despite yourself and your own unhappiness or despair, to still do kind and good things for others. There are people whose goodness runs so deep that even when they have lost their way, they're kind and gentle and are positive presence in the world but it's hard to sustain that. It's much harder.
Steve Paulson (29:30):
Well, there was one of the formative people I've read and thought a lot about years ago was Camus, his Myth of Sisyphus, keep rolling up the rock and it keeps falling down but you keep doing it over and over and over. In spite of what would seem to be hopeless situations. Or his later novel, The Plague, where in this horrible pestilence the good doctor keeps going because how could he not.
Serene Jones (29:56):
Yes. And that is sort of a soul deep reckoning with the fact as human beings, hope is what we need to have so we can get out of bed in the morning and keep moving through the world in a positive way, even when we know we're not going to be successful, we wake up and do it again. It's a choice between a life that is inspirited with love and a life that becomes lost.
Anne Strainchamps (30:34):
Serene Jones is the first woman president of Union Theological Seminary. She's also the author of a new memoir, Call It Grace. And that was Steve Paulson talking with her.
Anne Strainchamps (30:53):
So while some people find their hope in faith, writer, Megan Stielstra, found her hope one day at a bookstore.
Megan Stielstra (31:07):
I knew something was wrong. I hadn't been reading. There are so many metaphors for depression in general, and postpartum specifically. Mountains, climbing over. Waves, crashing down. Fog, wandering through. I wandered through those first years of motherhood and I wandered through the day to day of my day job and I wandered through bookstores. Picking up books, skimming first sentences, putting them down because I couldn't remember how to feel and then one day, I will never forget this, I was at Women and Children First on the north side of Chicago. The bookseller said, "Megan, look at this". And with an almost eerie telepathy, she saw my insides, the fear and shame I couldn't yet understand, let alone articulate. She handed me a book. It had a gray wraparound cover. I opened it to the first page and read, "If you have ever fucked up in your life or if the great river of sadness that runs through all of us has ever touched you, then this book is for you."
Megan Stielstra (32:35):
Snap your fingers. That's how fast I started crying. And this was no single fragile tear cascading delicately down my cheek. This was a full on ugly sob with the dry heaves and the snot and the mascara running everywhere. It was tragic. And surprising. I didn't know those parts of me still worked. I didn't know language could still touch me.
Megan Stielstra (33:02):
The book was called The Chronology of Water, named for its narrative structure and central metaphor of memory not as linear but as water, flowing, fragments, patterns. Its author, Lidia Yuknavitch, calls it an anti-memoir beginning with the delivery of her first child. "The day my daughter was stillborn", she wrote, "After I held the future pink and rose-lipped in my shivering arms, lifeless tender, covering her face in tears and kisses. After they handed my dead girl to my sister who kissed her, then to my first husband who kissed her, then to my mother who could not bear to hold her, then out of the hospital room door. Tiny, lifeless, swaddled thing. The nurse gave me tranquilizers, and a soap and sponge. She guided me to a special shower. The shower had a chair and the spray came down lightly, warm. She said, 'That feels good, doesn't it?'. The water."
Megan Stielstra (34:38):
Let's be direct. This book is hard. Loss, abuse, addiction, violence, but also equally if not more, there is joy and fun and heat. You'll be blushing if not totally turned on by the end of several sections. Pages 144, 159 and 235 for those taking notes. It's a book about love. It's a book about living. It's the book that got me living. I want to talk to you about Lidia the way that she talks about the writer Kathy Acker. Here's Lidia on Kathy. I'd read sections and stop and look around expecting to get caught or smacked or [inaudible 00:35:26]. You can say this shit and it can be published? In this way, her books saved me. Here is me on Lidia.
Megan Stielstra (35:38):
I'd read sections and run to the computer and write. I'd stay up all night long. I typed one handed, two fingered, holding my kid on the other arm. I wrote about climbing over, and crashing, and wandering through. I wrote my way back to myself.
Anne Strainchamps (36:07):
Megan Stielstra. She's the author of an essay collection called The Wrong Way To Save Your Life and the book that saved her life, The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch.
Speaker 15 (36:19):
Three and a half years ago, because of heart issues, I was in a coma but my six sisters did not ever give up on me. They're hope is the reason I'm here.
Speaker 16 (36:48):
I teach middle school in Northern California. Teenagers see the world with different eyes. They see different possibilities than I can see. The future is theirs, not mine. They give me hope.
Speaker 17 (37:04):
Hope for the future is not enough, we have to have action and our actions speak a lot louder than our words.
Anne Strainchamps (37:19):
What about you? What gives you hope? We would love to know your thoughts and we made it really easy to record your voice. You can just click a button on our website at ttbook.org/hope. Share your thoughts and they may wind up on the air. Coming up, Hip-Hop artist, Common, makes the case for hope and optimism even or especially in hard times. I'm Anne Strainchamps, it's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio, NPRX.
Anne Strainchamps (37:56):
Our next guest doesn't really need an introduction, just his name should do it. Common. The first rapper ever to win an Emmy, an Oscar and a Grammy. Okay three Grammy's to be exact. He's been performing recently in a super group called August Greene and they are as the title of their debut album says, Optimistic. Charles Monroe-Kane wanted to know why.
Charles Monroe-Kane (38:20):
Hello Common, this is Charles.
Charles, peace how you doing?
Charles Monroe-Kane (38:24):
Peace to you man, exciting to have you on. I'm very pumped.
Thank you man. What part of Wisconsin you in?
Charles Monroe-Kane (38:29):
Charles Monroe-Kane (38:31):
The little island of optimism and hope. So just so you know, you are in a show on hope. I thought you would like that.
I love that.
Charles Monroe-Kane (38:52):
There's a song called Optimistic you do with Brandy which is she is amazing. And in many ways the song is a pep talk. I'll read a couple of lines. "You can win as long as you keep your head to the sky." And another line, "No matter how hard reality seems, just hold in to your dreams." How do you think lyrics like that ring for a young black man in America today?
Well, for young black men in America I think it just reminds us that we do and can dream and that we have that ability to be in these difficult situations, poverty, violence in certain areas, lack of opportunity, but you still have a dream somewhere and you still have something to look forward to. And I think it just reinforces that for young black men and women. I'm a believer that my whole life is dedicated to helping those who are overlooked, those who are pushed down, those who injustices happen to. It tends to be in our country a lot, black and brown people so it's definitely a reinforcement of the dreams that we can have.
Charles Monroe-Kane (40:39):
Speaking of dreams, let's talk about President Obama for one second. You performed an NPR Tiny Desk Concert at the White House. First lady, Michelle Obama, invited you to do a poetry reading at the White House. What was it like as a black man to do this thing? Hell, what was it like to have a black man as president of the United States?
Well, it was incredible to be in the White House performing songs like Letter To The Free, which is about the Thirteenth Amendment and how slavery still exists in the form of mass incarceration and how this criminal justice system has tore down black families and brown families. To be performing that in the White House while first black president and first lady, it was a surreal moment. It was a moment of hope for me in many ways because you you've got to understand Charles, it's one of those things where, for a long time as a young black kid you don't feel you are a part of the American story. So when people are like, "Man give it up for America and celebrate this about America", you like wait, America you all haven't really acknowledged me and my people, my ancestors as part of this story and equal in this country. So to be at the White House was definitely a moment of inspiration for me.
Charles Monroe-Kane (42:57):
If I held the hope poster of Obama up now and you looked at it, what would you say?
That goes back to my belief in optimism. Optimism is not just only looking at what's in front of you, hope has to do with also seeing things that may not be right there tangible right there in your face at the moment. It's having faith in the unseen and I see a lot of hard times but my hope and optimism also sees what's blossoming out of these hard times.
Charles Monroe-Kane (43:31):
Like what? What's blossoming out of [inaudible 00:43:34]?
I think humanity is blossoming out. Just starting from our young people, if you look at the youth generation is more and more taking hold of social impact and social activism. I'll use the kids from Parkland as an example because they showed, okay this situation, one of the most difficult situations any human being can experience happened in our community, but not only are we going to activists towards gun control and trying to halt these laws that continue to allow guns to be pushed to our society, but we're going to include the people who've been dealing with this struggle for a long time. And that's kids in Chicago, that's kids in D.C., that's kids in Miami, Atlanta and Baltimore. So when I see those kids include them and have conversations and bring that to the forefront, that shows me that people care about one another.
When I see women first and foremost leading a movement, basically taking down all the sexual abuse and sexual harassment, man that's powerful, that's bravery.
Charles Monroe-Kane (44:49):
Common, I want to be personal for one second with you. I want to ask about you. We're talking about some bigger political things and everything but-
I thought you already being personal with me.
Charles Monroe-Kane (45:12):
Now we're getting really personal. I want to quote you on one of your songs, this is Let Go, this is the August Greene song and you say, "Out here with much anger inside me, don't know who my friends are, stranger inside me. Stranger things getting high clipped off my angel wings. Thought I was going to fly when Obama became the king. Pain and disdain are the rings that I wear, it's just the price of life when things ain't so fair." How do you carry that?
Well, let me be honest Charles when I'm writing from that perspective I'm telling a story of things that I've experienced but also things that my people experience. When I go home, when I call home, when I stay at home in Chicago or even when I travel through any inner city, I feel the heart of the people, I feel the spirit, I feel the struggle of them. How do I write that or what do I do in that situation is what many people of color have had to do and poor people in general have had to make it happen no matter what. Take the struggle and make it progress. As Frederick Douglass would always say, there is no struggle without progress right? There is no progress without struggle.
Now "Pain and disdain are then rings that I wear", that's like, honestly we should have mental health support. We should have therapists around daily for people who I'm talking about who are dealing with this, including myself when I deal with it. But I'm a believer in that spirituality is a real foundation for us as people to deal with issues and challenges that we have because when you operate on that God level, and in that love space, the you able to defeat a lot of the things that we encounter on a daily. And that doesn't mean you won't feel it at all, and I'm saying that to say that's how we deal with it in some ways.
Charles Monroe-Kane (47:12):
It's funny I'm thinking about the Christian liberation theologians from the '60s and '70s. They radically saw God as a verb, as kind of an active liberator of the oppressed. How do you see God?
I see God as the creator of all things good. I see God as in all of us. God is in the trees, the sun, and I do believe God is in action, meaning we can only express God if we do. You can go to church, you can go to temple, you can go to whatever form of worship but if you don't act, if you don't do then God is not really being expressed. Let me be clear Charles, I'm a believer in Jesus Christ but I also believe that brothers that study Islam and sisters that study Islam, is a truth in there. It's the truth in that. I believe that Buddhas have a truth in what they believe. I can't tell you how to have your relationship with the creator. I can say to you, man, have a spiritual foundation that you believe in.
I'm glad you cited that lyric, man. Thanks for listening because that... I don't know if many people caught that but that's what when I was thinking about a lot of the change that has to happen in our communities. It's going to take our spirituality because we battling against so many everyday ills and evils that are on man level but when we rise above on God level, it's like you can't defeat us.
Charles Monroe-Kane (48:50):
We can't be taken down and I've seen some of the richest people, spirit wise, in some of the poorest places and that lets me know that spirituality can overcome the world's ills.
Anne Strainchamps (49:22):
That's Common talking hope with Charles Monroe-Kane, and we've been listening to Optimistic, the debut album of his new supergroup, August Greene. So, our question this hour was, "How do you make hope?" And I don't want to break the mood but our three part series continues with the question that keeps many of us up at night, "Are we doomed?"
Speaker 21 (50:11):
I cried twice when my daughter was born. The first time for joy and the second time for sorrow. It was 10 or 15 minutes after she'd been born and I was holding her. This brand new life, looking out the window. I didn't know what to say to her. I'd brought her into this world and not fully grasped what that would mean for her life.
Anne Strainchamps (50:48):
That's next time on To The Best Of Our Knowledge. PRX.