“You choose your ancestors our
Ancestor Ralph Ellison wrote.
Now, fellow-descendants, we endure a
Moment of charismatic indecency
And sanctimonious greed. Falsehood
Beyond shame. Our Polish Grandfather
Milosz and African American Grandmother Brooks
Endured worse than this.
Fight first, then fiddle she wrote.” – Robert Pinsky
Video of Reading:( https://pen.org/multimedia/robert-pinsky-writers-resist-nyc/)
Those are the opening lines to a new poem by former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, titled “Exile and Lightening,” which he premiered at the Writers Resist Rally in New York City on January 15th, 2017, honoring the birthday of equal-rights advocate Dr. Martin Luther King. The piece looks back at the struggle of America’s first immigrants to fight against prejudice and intimidation, while at the same time calling for people everywhere to continue to “fight and make music” in the face of fear of “Their enemies” who “have delivered/Themselves to destruction.”
Pinsky’s poem, which served as a sort of counter-inaugural reading, coming the week before President Trump’s inauguration ceremony, showcases America’s legacy as a land where “the children of exile” can seek strength and meaning through poetry, science, and art.
Unfortunately, this is a legacy that he and the thousands of others who took up the Writer’s Resist cause across the globe believe is now under threat from the very people meant to protect it. In more than 90 cities including Boston, Los Angeles, London, and Hong Kong, literary advocates gathered together to protest their frustrations with America’s current political climate, reading works dealing with the values of democracy and free expression.
Poet and Boston University graduate Erin Belieu sparked the movement with a Facebook post urging writers to “Come together and actively help make the world we want to live in.” Belieu worked with a national network of writers, journalists, and literary societies across the country to organize over 90 demonstrations. The most significant event was in New York City, where more than 2,000 passionate writers, artists, and readers converged on the steps of the New York Public Library to fight for their right to free expression. The NYC protests were co-organized by PEN America, the world’s most prominent literary and human rights organization. Since 1921 PEN America has participated in numerous high-profile initiatives to prevent the censorship of ideas. PEN’s organizers described the effort as a “literary protest” to “defend free expression, reject hatred, and uphold truth in the face of lies and misinformation.” In a time of “alternative facts” where the Commander-in-chief has dubbed the national press “the enemy of the people,” we must protect our rights to free speech now more than ever.
Since America’s beginning, words have always held an essential power in the fight to establish and maintain democracy. Thomas Jefferson was not chosen as the author of The Declaration of Independence because he had more political experience than any other delegates, but because he was considered the most skilled and eloquent writer. When Congress asked the more established John Adams to pen a document to the King of England expressing the colonists grievances, Adams instead wrote a letter urging Jefferson to take on the task by telling him he “wrote ten times better” than the other Congressmen and his writings were remarkable for their peculiar felicity of expression.” Clearly, he understood the power of language as our greatest weapon.
When America’s Founding Fathers proudly signed their names to the bottom of the Declaration of Independence they understood that they were putting their lives at risk and may be hanged for their treason. However, they also understood the essential need to stand up against injustice and defend those precious fundamental rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”. So they took up the pen, and they signed. Today, literary voices all over the world are issuing the same kinds of declarations in order to demand change in the current unjust political administration. On February 23rd, sixty-five influential authors and artists signed and sent a letter to President Trump requesting that he rescind his executive order on immigration, arguing that the order “hindered the free flow of artists and thinkers and did so at a time when vibrant, open intercultural dialogue is indispensable in the fight against terror and oppression.”
The letter (which is available to read in it’s entirety on the Pen America website was supported by influential literary figures like John Green, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Stephen Sondheim and many others. These authors urge Trump to recognize the harmful consequences that the immigration ban imposes upon global and cultural expression. Their petition concludes with a warning for the president about any further efforts to silence international artists. It reads:
“We strongly believe that the immediate and long-term consequences of your original Executive Order are entirely at odds with the national interests of the United States. As you contemplate any potential new measures we respectfully urge you to tailor them narrowly to address only legitimate and substantiated threats and to avoid imposing broad bans that affect millions of people, including the writers, artists and thinkers whose voices and presence help foster international understanding.”
We at CambridgeEditors wholly support this message of art and literature as an essential component to peace, democracy, and global cooperation. Only through free, uncensored communication can people truly feel that they are able to come together and share their beliefs without fear of oppression.
We proudly stand with Writers Resists’ efforts to protect freedom of speech. As such, we urge all readers, writers, and artists across the world to keep demanding that their voices be heard.
– Paige, Intern