Who Will Speak for America?
Edited by Nathaniel Popkin and Stephanie Feldman
Temple University Press
“Protest against political and religious authority was fundamental to American literature, and some of the most brilliant early American texts emerges from and helped shape the American instinct toward resistance,” write local Jewish authors Stephanie Feldman and Nathaniel Popkin in the intro of the book they co-edited, Who Will Speak for America?
Indeed, as they cite such literary examples as Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin and even former presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson (who arguably wrote the ultimate piece of resistance literature in the Declaration of Independence), some of the most iconic poems, essays and speeches were borne of a societal response to what was going on politically, socially and economically.
The 2016 presidential election was no different in that regard, as many responded to the impact the election results wrought — including writers.
“What is the place of writers when the media is under threat and when language itself is abused and turned into a weapon?” the editors write.
Who Will Speak for America? compiles essays, poems, short stories, cartoons and other contributions to explore its titular question.
Divided into two parts — “Speaking to America” and “Speaking for America” — the anthology features 43 writers from different backgrounds who share stories about moving forward with their family members with political views different from their own, confronting systemic racism and misogyny, and ultimately creating a shared unity among those looking for ways to respond and resist and grappling with questions of identity and place.
All of the works included are powerful and attempt to answer a tough question first asked in a 1976 address to the Democratic National Convention in New York City by Barbara Jordan, the first black woman to give such a speech.
Even if poetry isn’t your thing, you will find something in this book that resonates.
Standouts include Joy Ladin’s “America in Winter,” which almost reads as a love letter to what America was and could be; Jericho Brown’s “Bullet Points” addressing racial injustice; and Lynn Melnick’s “National Pastime” about sexual violence.
Given such a variety of writers, there are names you may recognize for previous works and others you’re just reading for the first time.
There are also images that stay with you as long as the words do.
Liana Finck, for instance, provides multiple cartoons. In one, she has crossed out “U.S.” on a map of America and written “T.H.E.M.” instead.
Many of the writers are quite anti-Trump but they use their pieces as vehicles to explain why they are fighting the way things are.
Some are more blunt and searing than others. “America, when you will be Democratic?” asks Craig Santos Perez in “America (After Allen Ginsberg).” “When will you take down your racist flags? When will you pay reparations for slavery?”
Carmen Maria Machado explains how she should’ve known Trump would be elected, and tackles homophobia and racism in the process.
Melissa Febos explores the notions of home and hope in “Teaching after Trump,” directing her students to describe the classmate opposite them and then imagine what kind of country they hope for that person, and the country they want a loved one, like a young niece or nephew, to grow up in. Can those worlds be the same?
But it’s not all despair. Optimism and hope are laced through, peeking like sunlight through blinds.
“With hard work, our nation can find its way off this death row,” writes Rene Denfeld in a short essay about the corrupt prison system and her work helping to exonerate innocent inmates. “We can live to see the days when the gates swing open, and we can all walk to a better future.”