“Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them!” – Oscar Wilde
Language does not get to exist how a photograph or art does, preserved in the Louvre or in a scrapbook until the apocalypse; rather language has a finite life just like humans do. Language can be impactful and challenge convention until its dying days, and language can exist quietly, for ages, without challenging much of anything, perhaps only assisting those bolder and braver verbs and nouns. Language, like all things that are born, has to grapple with the reality of death; the time when the word becomes obsolete, it will experience its last breath and articulation, and die just like humans do. The public’s imagination may believe that words exist like the picture of Dorian Gray, seemingly still young and vibrant, but the reality is it each word is changing with every misuse, overuse and weaponization.
Words like belief have been gasping for air, with those gasps going unheard because the people that profit from its existence are sure to speak its name louder than the sound of the cracking bones. Belief is an older word with gray hair, wrinkles, and quieter voice than we first met it. My belief is that a word’s highest and most powerful function is to be a vehicle to hold ideas; this is where I experience the most sadness when I meditate on the idea that language decays and dies, like all things do, because I think of all of the ideas that must die alongside of it as well. It does not serve humanity to be precious about words or language, but it will serve us greatly to be vigilant about preserving the ideas, practices, and concepts that these words were to symbolize in our imagination and culture, and assuring that these things never die, but simply reincarnate.
This duty of vigilance must hold especially so for our leaders, who coax and shape public language into weapons and shields. In 2004, Barack Obama delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention and introduced us to some of his favorite words like hope and faith that would later lead his campaign in 2008 and help him win an election, and my heart. During this speech in 2004, is the first time Barack Obama became a part of the greater American consciousness and it was the first time he had a national opportunity to use these words that were on their last breath, unbeknownst to my teenage self. Obama said, “In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?”
The last word, hope, is a word surely on its last breath, in the twilight of its life, but President Obama has used her in hopes she still has the same vitality and meaning she had in her invention centuries ago. We’ve discovered through the democratic process that she does not. We’ve witnessed her be shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel, and made a spectacle of her body as onlookers watched her dangle from the poplar trees.
President Obama has been using corpses as north stars for almost a decade now. I became critically aware and interested in black feminism and queer theory around my 17th birthday, which was 9 years ago which is also around the same time that Barack Obama became part of our lives, partly because he peddled these decaying words beautifully as if they were fresh fruit, not strange. And I believed him, not in the romantic, dead and empty way the word exists today, but in the active sense of the word. For me, belief was having the strength and bravery to channel my patience and strategy into this hope that I had no proof could be, but could imagine. The practice that lived inside of belief was to concentrate my energy into this utopia that I have never known to be true inside of domination, but with Obama’s leadership, I believed could be.
As his presidency went into its second term, I watched him use more of the dead words, and they’d thud on the floor and were swept away, no longer floating in the air and kissing citizens on the cheek like he wished. President Barack Obama loved, and still loves, using decaying words; words like hope, faith, belief, and change were, and are, constantly used, sometimes while invoking Martin Luther King Jr., or perhaps before singing “Amazing Grace”, but the ideas, practices, and concepts that no longer live inside of those words stop them from being the agents of transformation you can tell he wishes them to be. Gone are the days of blind trust that existed for me when I was a teenager and open to being filled with words. As Obama’s presidency advanced, it became the age of interrogation. I became keenly aware as countries were bombed, water was poisoned, and family was brutalized by those appointed to protect us that this hope word I was enamored with in 2004 was a disappointing word in reality; a word rarely used to mobilize or transform, but to pacify those being dominated into anticipating the change of the beast that has shown no signs of slowing down or becoming less vicious. Even Barack Obama himself began to transform into this type of empty symbol that mimicked the words he used. It was clear that the black man with the promise of change on the tip of his tongue with the beautiful family was actually just a new face to the same interlocking domination that his rhetoric had me believe we could transcend, or least, better survive. In these moments of disappointment, hope was no longer decaying. Hope was dead. I could not understand the use of such a word, and similar words like it, if it was not a vehicle for ideas and practices that evolve us. A word that is just a word is dead.
What is the use of change, or reform, when Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin are already dead? What good is faith when six people were shot dead in a sanctuary? What are the uses of hope when fascism is a vibrant teenager who is finding more friends and opportunities than justice has ever dreamed of? What is the useful function of belief if it can not be extended to bring justice to and for a black transgender woman? These romantic decaying words were used out of tradition, but not out of an intention to uphold the ideas, practices, and concepts that found homes inside of these words.
In the morning of November 9th of 2016, the mourning process began for many citizens. People around the nation, and there is no way for sure for me to know this, but even President Obama, I’d imagine, took survey of what ideas and words seemed to service them and which ones seemed to be totally beside the point in the face of domination and tyranny. I along with so many others, was curious as to what would be the words that dripped from President Obama’s lips. I wasn’t hopeful. In my dreams, he would apologize; he would understand that he was irresponsible by putting the most vulnerable and frail of words on the frontlines against domination, and he he steered us wrong. He would apologize for not respecting the ideas, practices, and concepts that lived in these words. He would apologize for not crafting sentences that preserved these ideas and practices, but instead made them even more vulnerable than they were to begin with. He would explain how he never met his use of these words with ideas, practices, and concepts that could keep the heart of the word pumping, and because of this, he has left a generation distraught and also uniquely nihilistic about the state of the world. Once hearing President Obama speak, I was grateful that I retired hope.
The romantic word that I did not retire that I used after hearing President Barack Obama speak was forgiveness. I understand it too is surely decaying and growing less powerful, but it felt necessary to employ. It was in moments of forgiveness that I was released from rage and a nihilistic type of sadness. I was able to imagine the preservation of these ideas that I feared would grow obsolete if they were left inside of these dead words that continued to be overused, misused, and weaponized by those that we, ironically, have had the most faith in. In forgiveness, I found ideas of freedom, transformation, knowingness and how to translate a wild rage into a graceful and intentional action. I found the practice of releasing the traumatic parts of history to better craft a future. In forgiveness, I found the concept that an events role in my life can be mutable and if I desired to reinvent the meaning an event has in my life, it was possible. This is the best use of these decaying, romantic words. This is how I wish President Obama used these words, sparingly and with clear intentions and strategies surrounding them.
In 2016, my whole world fits into my hands and I watch the video of 17 year-old Kayla Newman. She declares, “We in this bitch, finna get crunk. Eyebrows on fleek. The fuck.” She affirms her beauty and the delight we all can find in self-care and pageantry in the six-second video clip that exists on the social media platform, Vine (which is also being killed for economic reasons). I’ve seen this video countless times, but today she refocuses my energy away from the decaying and dead words, and she invites me to obsess over the words that are to be born. Not just the words that are to be born, but the ideas, concepts, and practices that should thrive and be articulated through these words. Although I found forgiveness due to me grappling with my disappointment with President Obama’s presidency and his use of decaying hope, it was not until I saw this six-second clip of a fellow young, black millennial with a tongue pregnant with possibility that I found a change that I could believe in.
**Editor’s Note: This essay is part of our “Letters to Obama” series, a collection of five essays from young black writers on President Barack Obama’s legacy, and his significance for a group of young people for whom his presence was a formative factor in politics and culture. Let us know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Flickr User Nathan Rupert: License Available