Promises

One of the key moments in In the Heights, Lin Manuel Miranda’s first musical (almost as amazing as Hamilton, believe me), occurs when word spreads through Washington Heights that someone in the neighborhood won the lotto — a whole 96 thousand dollars. Sonny, the picaresque dreamer (juxtaposed throughout to Miranda’s pragmatic immigrant Usnavi), imagines using the winnings to combat poverty, gentrification, and faulty public education, ending his rap by channeling Robert Frost’s oft-misinterpreted “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening“:

And you know this man! I’m never sleepin’
Because the ghetto has a million promises for me to keep! (1)

The slippery slide from “I have promises to keep” to “the ghetto has a million promises for me to keep” — asks us to shift from the motivation of the individual subject to the demands and needs of the community. But, even more vibrantly, Sonny uses the term ghetto–a particular imagining of neighborhood and community that simultaneously recalls painful history and claims commonalities–as the entity that demands these kept promises. In other words, Sonny is the one who voices this future in which he will have kept these promises; the ghetto is the one who exacts them from him.

Brief digression, then I promise I’ll get back to Sonny. And promises.

For many years, I have struggled to figure out how to untangle all the ideas in my head and get them down on paper (metaphorically), into legible narratives that make sense and that feel satisfactory to me. I’ve managed to worry so much about some curious idea of perfection or “completeness” that it’s stopped me from starting. This is especially ironic considering that I coach many a student on the importance of what Anne Lamott calls the shitty first draft (Bird by Bird) as well as on the persistent incompleteness of our scholarly endeavors.

Looking back, I’m beginning to realize that I focused so much on the promises that I wanted to keep that I forgot to remember those ideas and communities that are demanding that I keep them.

This blog post, then, is not about what I’m promising to do, but rather about the promises I am keeping, the bonds that I’m renewing.

This flurry of writing is inspired and fueled in large part by current happenings. First, this year on campus I have been deeply involved in a number of projects that all fit under the broad umbrella of what we’ll call as a convenient shorthand “diversity awareness education.” These range from co-leading a program that fosters conversations about social identity, power, and privilege within the curriculum, to helping out with a campus-wide initiative that is organizing facilitated conversations (including faculty, staff, and students) about campus climate, to — most influentially — developing and co-facilitating a three-part diversity education workshop for leaders at the college.

Second, I am teaching our American Studies methods class this term. I’ve taught it once a year for many a year now. This is the first year that students of color outnumber white students. By a wide, wide margin. The difference I felt as I stepped into our classroom the first day was palpable to me. Sara Ahmed, in her book On Being Included, discusses the painful “effects of inhabiting institutional spaces that do not give you residence” (176). Sitting in our class, discussing the politics and policies and powers of citizenship practices, racializing discourses, and more, I feel in residence. What does it mean, to ask…nay, demand… that our institutions give us residence?

When you boil all of it down, my head and heart are steeped in the difficult and challenging questions about how to help people listen to people when they are scared of the consequences of the listening. I come to my answers through routes that are no longer interruptive and “revolutionary” (as when I, lil’ college sophomore, helped to take over the President’s office), but I’m coming to believe that my role is to promote internal revolutions–how we listen, how we see, how we ask, how we engage–there’s no easy way to learn how to move past one’s internal biases and keep on growing in the encounter with people unlike ourselves.

So. Like Sonny, I have a laundry list of things that my community is asking me to do. Write. Write. Write. Write. Write. And then write some more.

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