November 1, 2012

That Hopey, Changey Stuff

Maybe it’s the size and strength of the late-season hurricane bearing down on the East Coast this week. Maybe it’s the extra-long, acrimonious election season. (Be glad we aren’t in Nevada. Or bundled in a binder.) Or perhaps it was news late last week of an acquittal in the first hate crime case to be prosecuted after President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Act. Or the new poll conducted by the Associated Press showing racist attitudes in America on the upswing. But I’m having trouble keeping hope alive. While early voting on Saturday with my wife and daughter helped a little bit, I still find I’m doing even more nail-biting, social media obsessing, and minute-by-minute poll watching than in 2008.

To shake myself back into focus, I revisited the blog I kept for Duke’s production of The Laramie Project back in spring of 2011. This was a time when Amendment 1 was only an idea, not a reality. When we were still learning of the dramatic changes to come in state politics after mid-term elections. It was easier to be hopeful that certain things might not come to pass, but, as I realize now, to be hopeful means also being prepared for times when hope will be tested. For hope to fuel a movement it must be aspirational but not anesthetizing. As a post on the Laramie blog reminded me, this dual power of hope is the legacy of activist Harvey Milk. As the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, it seems particularly apt to look again at his message as Election Day draws near.

 At the end of Milk, Gus Van Sant's 2008 docudrama, Dan White (Josh Brolin) asks Harvey (Sean Penn) into his office. White has already shot Mayor Moscone. After he closes his office door, he proceeds to shoot Harvey three times at close range. As the last bullet spins him around, the camera shows us what is meant to be Harvey’s last sight: the San Francisco skyline. From that image the scene shifts back in time to an activity that has framed the entire film: Harvey dictating his apocryphal "in the event of my death" tape. We see him describing his possible assassination in rather matter-of-fact terms then we are flung forward in time again to footage (some historical, some re-created for the film) of the 30,000 mourners who converged on City Hall upon hearing of the assassinations. As the lights of that massive vigil fill the screen, we see and hear Harvey/Penn speak lines drawn from Milk's "Hope Speech" delivered March 10, 1978, 8 months before his murder.

 Each day I live, I am grateful for so many things. Particularly for the hope my family, friends, students and colleagues give me that someday there might be less need to revisit stories like Milk and The Laramie Project because the systems that divide and oppress us will be dismantled and reshaped. But I am not so naïve to think that change happens just because one hopes for it; it requires direct action. (GET INFORMED & GO VOTE!!!) It also needs hope to fuel it at times when things seem most bleak. Harvey seemed utterly prescient of these facts and because of that I return to his words when I need to remember why and how to fight in the face of risk, reversal, and rage.

In case these ideas might help keep the fires of hope burning in you, I turn the last words of this post over to Harvey.

I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it life is not worth living. And you. And you. And you ... gotta give 'em hope.

1 comment:

  1. Keep up hope...the LGBT community has been making leaps and bounds. It's only a matter of time...we just need to do as we say and say as we do - a majority of Americans are in favour of gay marriage and/or civil unions, more than ever before.