“So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.” –Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Lately I’ve been seeking comfort in existentialism. I was raised agnostic, not conditioned to believe in a higher power or state of being. I remember once my mom telling me as a teenager that she regretted not raising my siblings and me within a religion because she was afraid we were raised without principles. And for much of my life, I wondered whether I was morally anchorless, adrift. Without believing in a higher power, could one have a higher purpose?
Brewing in the despair and anxiety I’ve felt for much of last year—between Aleppo, domestic state violence against Black, brown and indigenous people, and the terrifying implications of our election results—I reached for a slim text assigned to me in Intro to Modern Philosophy as an undergrad: Existentialism is a Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre. I’m definitely not one to casually pass the time with academic texts—I’m more often endlessly scrolling my social media—but I took a bus ride to slowly comb through a transcript of a speech delivered in Paris in 1945 to a bunch of career philosophers, on a hunch it was going to tell me something I needed to hear.
A bell rang on page 45. Sartre, explaining the deeply unpopular opinion that no absolute truth could be known for certain because we could never escape our human subjectivity, was also valiantly attempting to prove that those who could not believe in God could nonetheless have moral integrity; that they could be humanists, fully invested in the goodness and liberation of all people. “Moral choice,” he said, “is like constructing a work of art.”
A work of art cannot be prescribed or pre-ordained. Art is the declaration of its creator, imagination made tangible. So too, Sartre thought, is our morality when we fully embrace the responsibility of our existence. “What art and morality have in common is creativity and invention,” he wrote. We create our own truth, bending it toward justice and freedom for all people, in a process as open as an empty canvas.
I may not have been raised to believe in a god, but I believe in art. I know its raw power to shift the course we’re on, to disrupt and ignite a world of synthetic systems and order. My lightning-bolt spiritual experience came when I was 16, sitting in the middle of a sold-out opera house for a teen youth poetry slam presented by Youth Speaks in San Francisco. Twelve poets performed their original spoken word pieces—of love, anguish, humiliation, uncertainty, epiphany—to an audience of more than a thousand people who raucously gave their love right back to the poets; collective power in action. I was electrified, evangelized. I became a believer in the power of personal narrative and live art to bring people together to bear witness, connect, find solace and push forward.
As young poets in Youth Speaks, we were taught that our personal stories were worthy of being told, of being art. Our strength came from our integrity to ourselves—to understanding our experiences in how they reflected and challenged society as a whole. Together, we affirmed our own power, of how explosive we could be, just our bodies and our voices and a microphone. Our creativity and imagination spoke into existence a brave new world where all could get free.
I feel so thankful for that foundation, that I came up as a poet and musician implicitly understanding art as a tool for and a reflection of community organizing. In many ways, I only create as propelled by my people in community, knowing that as a collective of humans with divergent identities, backgrounds and talents, we conspire to create a platform in which all voices and lives are honored, celebrated and protected.
Some of the very realest shit I’ve ever read, either as poetry or as a Facebook status, came from The Dark Noise Collective, six twenty-something poets of color all accomplished and highly regarded in their craft, who I’m hella lucky to call friends. A few months ago, in the wake of the murders of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling, Dark Noise collectively authored A Call for Necessary Craft and Practice, a manifesto for the woke artist. They define it as “a commitment to produce art that contributes to creating a better, more just world,” and call upon all artists “to engage with their duty, as citizens of a world ever in the wake of another unworldly horror.”
“We reject the idea of ‘art for art’s sake.’ We recognize that all art is political,” they write. “We dedicate our artistic effort and daily practice to that which dismantles a world that seeks to end us.”
Reading it through, printing it out and posting it in my room gave me gravity in the vertigo of 2016. In the face of crisis and dread, we can be tactical: We can create with intention and refuse to compromise. Instead of using our art practice to mask or numb or distract, we can feel charged and elevated, confident that our work and process has value and potential to evoke a more just world. This does not mean that artists must be didactic, but it does imply that our moral fiber be woven through our work; that, in fact, our work is our morality made manifest.
For those of us who are privileged to create, I believe it is vital to feel called to task in this time of violent uncertainty. Democracy itself started as fiction, a pursuit of imagination authored and asserted into reality. Today, with its principles buckling, we think about how our work can come together to propose—begin to manifest—new ways of being. As Grace Lee Boggs said, “The time has come for us to reimagine everything.” We can either benignly hold up and tacitly accept that which exists, or instead, through our craft, point to and push toward what should.