About a month ago, just before I began a lecture, a young woman, a student at Claremont McKenna College, beamed with joy as she approached me to say how much she cherished my poetry. For a brief moment, I wondered how she had gotten hold of my unpublished masterpieces—the poems I wrote while bored to tears on a summer internship so many years ago. But after a long pause, I announced that I was not my namesake.
That encounter reminded me how powerfully resonant are Kahlil Gibran’s great insights into the human condition, especially now, when it seems to many that a great crime has been committed against the nation. Here is an excerpt from “On Crime and Punishment,” published in his 1923 book The Prophet:
Oftentimes have I heard you speak of one who commits a wrong as though he were not one of you, but a stranger unto you and an intruder upon your world.
But I say that even as the holy and the righteous cannot rise beyond the highest which is in each one of you,
So the wicked and the weak cannot fall lower than the lowest which is in you also….
And this also, though the word lie heavy upon your hearts:
The murdered is not unaccountable for his own murder,
And the robbed is not blameless in being robbed.
The righteous is not innocent of the deeds of the wicked,
And the white-handed is not clean in the doings of the felon.
Yea, the guilty is oftentimes the victim of the injured,
And still more often the condemned is the burden bearer for the guiltless and unblamed.
You cannot separate the just from the unjust and the good from the wicked;
For they stand together before the face of the sun even as the black thread and the white are woven together.
And when the black thread breaks, the weaver shall look into the whole cloth, and he shall examine the loom also.
We are the weavers of our destiny, the loom is our society, our democracy, our humanity. We bear responsibility for the whole cloth, for all the threads that bind us, one to another.
A week before the 2016 election, I had the good fortune of visiting Flint, Michigan. I had never been there before. I’d heard Michael Moore’s story and so many others about this former industrial behemoth, home to General Motors, a great symbol of America’s economic might, a union town where a hard-working boy or girl could grow up to be somebody. Flint was a place where you could get a decent public education, a well-paying job, and even save enough money to own a home and send a child to college.
I knew Flint was not what it used to be. But given the water crisis of late, I expected to meet a community of concerned, active, and engaged students. Instead, just days before the election, I met a hundred students of every demographic, a hundred threads in our loom—not strong and taut but weak and loose. Their countenances ranged from expressionless to forlorn. They were witnesses; bystanders to a crime, not its victims. Turns out the toxic water was more isolated than the national news had said. Neither the campus nor the better-off sections of the city were affected. Only the most abandoned, poorest, and blackest threads of Flint lay broken.
For too long, we have all refused to repair the broken threads of our communities: the lead-poisoned water, the hungry child, the violated daughter, the unhoused refugee, the bigoted teacher, the poorly paid worker, the arrogant and ignorant billionaire, the drowning coastline.
If this election feels like we have been robbed of our democracy, of our values, of our collective humanity and empathy, we are not blameless, as the poet says, in being robbed.
We cannot normalize that which already exists in us. Trump’s election only removed our self-deceptions—our blindfolds—and now we stand naked before ourselves. He held a mirror to us, presented himself before us, and challenged us to be honest with ourselves or to look away. The hypocrisy, the contradictions, the narcissism, the greed, the gilded insecurity, the lies, the abuse, and the vengefulness do not carry just Trump’s fingerprints. There’s a lot, and a little of him—of his threads—in the fabric of all our lives.
Hillary Clinton’s flaws notwithstanding, Trump couldn’t have won a majority of women voters unless a vast population of women were still choosing to opt out of feminism. When the young pop-soul artist Bruno Mars croons, “I wanna be a billionaire so freakin’ bad…. I wanna be on the cover of Forbes magazine smiling next to Oprah and the Queen,” we blithely sing along, in touch with our own aspirations. We didn’t get to mass incarceration without mass participation in the criminalization of black and brown bodies (Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, North and South, white and black). We must remember every white Northerner was not an abolitionist. Nor was every black Southerner a civil-rights activist.
I can’t tell you how many conversations I heard about or had, in the months leading to the election, with people (mostly liberal, progressive, some elites) who said they could not talk to their friends or members of their own families who supported Trump.
That silence is the face of Flint I saw.
The poet tells us the weaver must choose to look into the whole cloth—to examine the loom.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the prophet, tells us: “All life is interrelated.… we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Today and every day, you must choose to repair our threads, to strengthen them, to bind them together “in a single garment” so that we might stand together, whole, “before the face of the sun.”