Once upon a time, on a gray, drizzling late spring day, the former first lady of America gave a speech on a college campus. There were banks of photographers and secret service agents on rooftops. It would be the last commencement speech she would ever give as first lady. The first lady’s words were characteristically hopeful and powerful. She might have given a similar speech at another college. But she chose this college for a reason. And in that choice, there were other unspoken words. Of course, Michelle Obama’s decision to speak at City College of New York in May 2016 owed something to CCNY’s trailblazing academic history: the first free public institution of higher education in the United States. Also, the first home of a degree-granting evening program and the first university to establish a student government.
But more than that, the former first lady came to express her hope that the near future would look more like the diverse cohort of graduates before her, “a haven for brilliant, motivated students of every background, a place where they didn’t have to hide their last names or their accents.” She warned of “some folks” who “seem to view our diversity as a threat to be contained rather than as a resource to be tapped.” I sat in the audience that morning, with my difficult last name, wiping away tears mixed with rain, and I thought I could feel the moral arc of the universe bending towards something good. In her words, I could almost see it bending, as the rain clouds cleared, towards what was real, what was true.
That morning feels like so long ago.
Fear and lies are winning in America. And to make matters worse, so many of our cultural institutions are normalizing that fear and those lies in ways that boggle my mind. A national magazine that bears the name of our city recently devoted three dozen pages to extremists, one article even announcing in its title that these totalitarian groups emboldened by Donald Trump’s campaign and electoral victory “Must Be Taken Seriously.”
What this is supposed to mean, I guess, is that we should be afraid. We should shut up and listen. We should fear the new administration and its rogues gallery of supporters. We should respect those who do not respect us. We should give them a platform for their hate.
In fact, what we should do is refuse this narrative. We must refuse to waste our time and energy trying to understand why we are hated by those who have never taken the time or energy to understand us. Furthermore, it is not enough to cry foul about underrepresentation or misrepresentation in our cultural institutions — although this often helps. Another way to respond is to create something new.
That’s where The Grate comes in.
There is an old saying that what happens in New York today happens in the rest of the country seven years later. The saying is a self-congratulatory pat on the back, something we say to remind ourselves that New York has long been a hub for cutting edge thinkers, chefs, writers, musicians, artists. But there is a disturbing, new truth to that old saying.
New York’s greatest innovation of the past several years has been economic inequality. According to 2014 Census data, Manhattan has “the biggest dollar income gap of any county in the country.” As the Economic Policy Institute reported last year, “the top 1 percent earned 45 times more than the bottom 99 percent in New York, the greatest disparity of any state” in the country. And as Coalition for the Homeless reports, we are in the midst of the “worst crisis of homelessness since the Great Depression. ” Homelessness has tripled since the year 2000. Tonight, over 62,000 people will sleep in a shelter, a new record. And 40% of them will be children.
Will inequality be New York’s contribution to the 21st century? Will we be an incubator not for ideas or art or culture, but for greed and human rights catastrophes to be emulated by cities around the country and around the world?
Inequality on an unprecedented scale is affecting every aspect of life in this city. Nowhere is that effect more dangerous than in our arts and letters.
Art is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. We need it to live. We need it to make it through the day. We need it to escape to a fantasy world for an hour or to remind us that people live lives unlike our own. Maybe we just need to laugh about something. We need stories that speak through artists about what it means to be alive. As James Baldwin wrote, “only an artist can tell, and only artists have told since we have heard of man, what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it.”
To be an artist has great value. But it also has a cost. Writing a poem, drafting a story, perfecting a photograph: these all take time, time that, increasingly, correlates to a certain amount of money, which in turn strongly correlates with a certain privileged view of the world. The rest of us are too busy trying to feed our families, too busy working one, two, three jobs, too busy dodging the landlord, the bank, the doctor’s office, to think about any kind of writing that doesn’t result in putting more food on the table, keeping a roof over our heads, and keeping our families healthy.
Added to this is the challenge of knowing, even if we do, incredibly, impossibly, carve out a minute here on the subway for a new story, come up with a new poem on the bus, a personal essay scribbled in the pre-dawn hours before work—what do we do it then? Once you’ve written it? Where would it go? Who would read it?
This is where the Grate comes in.
No one feels the weight of these difficult times more than the students of City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education, where I have been teaching creative writing since 2012. The Center for Worker Education is a division of CCNY launched thirty five years ago through the collaborative efforts of organizers and educators “looking to create a provisional night school program for working adults seeking bachelors degrees.” For the past five years, I have sat in writing workshops, reading stories, poems, essays, hearing the dreams, jokes, and memories of grown folks who live, love, work, struggle, triumph, fail, mourn, and fight in this unreal city of ours. They bring not merely the value of experience, but also the most human desire to turn that experience into something unforgettable, something of great value. Simply put, they are artists.
And their voices are not the voices we often get to hear. The writers we will be publishing in The Grate have fought to tell their stories. They have done it because they know, as all writers before them have known, that stories have power. Words change reality. When artists in New York or elsewhere do not have the freedom or the space or the support to create, some part of them, and some connected part of us, dies.
That’s where the Grate comes in.
As news trickles in every week of another independent bookstore closing in a part of the city that needs it most, another institution for poetry or community art closes its doors, and Donald Trump threatens to strip tax dollars from the arts, while shamelessly using those same tax dollars to fund his wasteful lifestyle, I think about a 2007 interview between the writers Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz.
At a certain point in the interview, while on the subject of Diaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which is partially set in the Dominican Republic during the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, Danticat and Diaz arrive on the subject of writers and dictators. Why do dictators think they’re such good writers? Why do they think they have the “best words”? And why do they always target writers, journalists, and artists? Danticat argues that it’s because “writers won’t sit quietly by while a dictatorship rolls on—though people in today’s US seem to be missing the clues—and the dictators know that.” To which, Diaz adds, “dictators, no matter from what side of the globe they hail, tend to recognize the power of word magicians, which is why they so thoroughly seek to control, negate, or exterminate the narrative competition. And many writers discern that this is ever the dictator’s weak point.”
So in that spirit, I say to you, readers and writers alike — let us make our words loud enough and fearless enough that those who would wish to silence or overlook or ignore or defund us would tremble. Let us tell the real story and remember that doing so is always a radical act. Let us leave nothing out. Let us sing the real songs of ourselves and of our city and of our time.
We are out here. That’s us—the spaces you tiptoe around, where the cigarette butts and gum wrappers and burned out Metrocards collect. We wear the struggle like it’s Louis Vitton. Sometimes, we wear Louis Vitton, too. Shit. We sing a different song, a new song. No longer in the shadows. Telling anyone who will listen:
This, too, is New York.
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Author photo (c) Siria K. Alvarez