Amanda Gorman’s school shooting poem is a light in a dark time

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Amanda Gorman, America’s first National Youth Poet Laureate, lived through an endless onslaught of mass shootings. At this point — days after 19 children were killed at an elementary school and nearly two weeks after 10 black shoppers were gunned down at a grocery store — we’ve all done it. Sometimes the grief is so thick it’s palpable, despair reigns and it’s hard to make sense of another tragedy as predictable and preventable as the one we face. Yet, as Toni Morrison wrote in a canonical piece for “The Nation,” times like these are “precisely when artists go to work – not when things are going well, but in times of terror.”

Amanda Gorman, America’s first National Youth Poet Laureate, lived through an endless onslaught of mass shootings. We all have.

Gorman knows very well what his art calls him to do: to use words as a balm, as a rallying cry, to wake us from a grief-induced slumber and paint a picture of a future without violence. army. Wednesday, she tweeted a poem she had written in response to our latest national disgrace:

Schools are scared to death

The truth is that an education under the desks,

Lowered by bullets;

That dive when we ask

where our children

will live

& How? ‘Or’ What

& if”

In a next tweet, she posed a question that should shake our collective conscience, if we have one in this country teetering on authoritarianism and minority rule: “What could we be if only we tried? What could we become if only we listened?

In his simple and graceful way, Gorman — alongside others who are sounding the alarm about our national gun violence crisis — is calling us to action at a time when inaction seems likely. There are no words for the carnage and trauma facing Uvalde, Texas, a small town of about 16,000 near the US-Mexico border. Today there are 21 fewer of them – 19 children, including two educators – after an unnamed mass shooter opened fire at Robb Elementary School. While the shooter’s motives remain unclear – and likely will remain so given that he was shot at the scene – Uvalde joins a long and tragic streak of killings that have one thing in common: firearms.

Listing these mass tragedies threatens to desensitize us: Buffalo, 10 dead; Pulse Nightclub, 49 dead; Las Vegas, 58 dead; Stoneman Douglas High School, 17 dead; Columbine High School, 13 dead; Aurora, 12 dead; and, of course, Sandy Hook, 27 dead – including 20 freshmen. It should still shock us that a gunman opened fire on freshmen, their mouths still full of baby teeth, their fingers still up to help them count, their little bodies still desperate to nap after school. But Sandy Hook didn’t shock us enough, and now we have Uvalde, where 19 children haven’t come home.

Mass shooters have different motivations, different backgrounds, and different traumas, but they are bound by a shared, uniquely American ability to acquire enough firepower to achieve their murderous objective. And once again, as Gorman points out in his powerful poem, we see children – the most vulnerable among us – being treated as collateral damage in a cult of death that values ​​unchecked power above our own. collective security. It’s bad enough that adults are not safe in cinemas, grocery stores, concerts and nightclubs, but children targeted in schools, the very place where they are supposed to be safest. , should shake us all. They’ve been taught to huddle under desks, but the shooters are aiming for them too, so what should we do? Accept this as an immutable reality? Gorman would say otherwise. Morrison would be too.

A different world requires imagination. It requires treating hope as a discipline, a phrase that prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba put into our consciousness. It takes faith. It requires community investment. It takes more than just voting, although, of course, voting can be a tool in the arsenal of community engagement. It takes bravery in the face of creeping cowardice. We instinctively know we don’t have to live in a world where mass shootings are as routine as parents packing breakfasts every morning, but we also know the roadblock that stands in the way of proven action to reduce most mass shootings: conservative politicians, most of whom don’t act as if democracy is a viable form of government.

The Conservatives do not want to name the culprit for our almost unlimited access to firearms without universal background checks.

Because the Conservatives do not want to name our nearly unlimited access to guns without universal background checks as the culprit, we are doomed to repeat this nightmare until there is enough political momentum to change reality. In the days since the shooter killed 21 people, we’ve heard calls for better mental health services from the same Texas officials who withheld $211 million from the Texas agency overseeing the programs. of mental health. Then they say, “Let’s arm the teachers!” The same teachers who don’t even have the power to dictate their own curriculum. “Let’s put armed guards in the schools!” does not stand up to scrutiny, as we have seen in the wake of Uvalde. None of these proposals would be effective. And speaking of ineffective, across the aisle, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer signaled that there was not much to do except hope the Democrats would be the greats in the midterm elections in November.

Politicians won’t save us, not when they’re more determined to retain power than tell the truth, but that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to organize, hold those politicians accountable, and believe that a different future is possible. Our children are not replaceable. They should have the opportunity to reach adulthood, no matter what it takes to get there. In the midst of this endless sea of ​​grief, we should walk away to care for ourselves, then come back to continue the fight, lest we, our grandparents, or our children meet a similar fate. We must continue to put one foot in front of the other until we see the scales tip in the direction of justice – not only by enacting gun control measures, but by decriminalizing abortion, repealing student loans and creating a more humane immigration process, all policies that have the most Americans support.

That same hope fueled abolitionists when ending slavery seemed impossible. That same hope has fueled suffragists, civil rights movement activists, labor organizers, members of the Black Freedom Movement – ​​and it will carry us through now. It is not an individual effort; it’s collective, and artists like Gorman are key to capturing that vision and getting it out to the masses. Or, as Morrison put it so poignantly, so beautifully, “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and while it’s important not to ignore its pain, it’s also essential to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge, even wisdom. Like art.

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