I had a long conversation with a friend several weeks ago. It was supposed to be a short call about a possible collaboration, but we found ourselves drawn to this season’s uncoverings and contradictions. We talked of ripening and rotting, of hubris and harvest, of pain and possibility. Reaching across the color line, we traced the long arc of justice landing in places for too long plagued by unyielding commitments to exceptionalisms of all kind. Greatness, then, is beside the point. I’d settle for ideals both more humble and radical. Liberty. Equality. Freedom.
At some point, our conversation turned organically to the subject of the Titanic, because sinking ships and epic blockbusters are both relevant to this summer of compounding assault–on lives (black!), on senses (all!), on possibility (emergence!). I can’t retrace the exact turns of our conversation, but we made our way around to icebergs foreseen and depths unplumbed before turning to an improbable moment at the end of a movie in which two love-struck protagonists fail to share space on a piece of wood (obviously!) big enough to hold and save both.
It was a conversation equal parts tragedy and comedy–the real talk of life itself. Why did millions of people show up to watch a movie about a ship that could do nothing but sink? What is it about things predestined to crash and burn that compel and blind in equal measure? For how much longer will we fail to make enough lifeboats for everyone to make it safely to shore? When will we learn that our own saving graces are caught up in the lives of others?
Conversations sometimes make meaning in registers that do not sound until long after we sign off. Calls alone will not carry sinking ships to their eventual demise, but they can remind us of those who—by design—are always already under water. The metaphor strains, but what must we sink in order for ocean depths to birth new constitutions and covenants? What foregone conclusions will we protest and deny to claim those drowning within arm’s reach?
It has been weeks since my friend and I lamented and laughed together, but there’s something about the Titanic and the way we remember its name that that will not let me go. I wonder, then, about ships that did not founder in their passing, but rather in passage provided. Sometimes, our work hovers close to the surface. Sometimes, we have to dive deep to retrieve what was stolen and left behind—like the living cargo (say their names!) carried to a world neither new nor free. Spoiler alert: these ships are still sailing today and we continue to grant them safe harbor. There’s a blockbuster being lived right now in this Third Reconstruction season. Who will we be and for whom will we stand in this never-ending sequel? As the story goes, the soul of a nation—and its people—hangs in the balance.
July 4, 2020