October 31, 2020

Danez Smith’s “My President” (vote!)

I’m not sure if everyone’s heard, but there is an election happening. (If you’re reading this and haven’t voted or are still confused, there’s still time to make a plan!) Many of us have already voted, and (speaking for myself) are perhaps feeling a bit impotent as we sit and wait to know the results. Given the extraordinary circumstances of this year’s voting process, it’s doubtful that we’ll know the outcome right away, and what happens once we do feels even less certain. It could be that a few days after this blog goes up, all the fretting we’ve done will have paid off. It could be we’re kicking ourselves for not calling more people, sending more postcards, giving more money.

This year, the race for the presidency could not feel more consequential. It seems like we’re trying to steer the course of the country in a direction in which we can keep fighting against the forces that confine and harm people in the present and those that threaten our collective futures. Because of the nature of our government, it can feel like we only get two choices between two divergent paths. Of course, we know that when we cast our ballots we’re not only voting for a president, but local officials, state-wide candidates, and ballot initiatives—some hard fought for by organizations and citizens hoping for social change, some extremely well-funded by corporations, most confusingly worded. Even within the ballot itself, the idea that there are only two possible outcomes, two possible choices, two possible futures, is undermined.

Whatever the outcome(s) of the presidential race, I want to take a moment to remind myself, and all of us, that elections don’t represent the only two possible futures for our country or ourselves. Elections are exciting, nerve-wracking, energizing, and overwhelming times. They’re the culmination of a lot of hard work by a lot of concerned and motivated people. They offer unique opportunities to change the conditions in which we live. This year, the stakes feel, and are, extremely high. But, elections are not the only chance we get to choose what country we want to live in, but are just one part of the on-going effort to create a place where people are cared for, mutually supported, and free of oppression. There are opportunities every day to support others, join movements, affect change. Regardless of what happens in our national and state elections, let’s celebrate – or mourn—but let’s not forget the work that’s been done and the ongoing work that lies ahead to continue to imagine and to build the communities we want for ourselves and for one another.

Danez Smith, winner of the 2016 Kate Tufts Discovery Award

With that in mind, I turn to 2016 Kate Tufts Discovery Award winner Danez Smith’s poem “My President,” from their most recent collection Homie. “My President” beautifully extends, explodes, and reimagines what the highest office in the land can mean. The poem opens by deciding to “elect jonathan, eleven & already making roads out of water young genius, blog writer, lil community activist, curls tight,” and keeps on choosing its people to lead its country; finding wisdom, strength, kindness and creativity in every avenue of life. Smith asks us to consider: what if we could imagine a nation where the president could be Eve Ewing, and she could “ms. frizzle the country into one big classroom” where “cars learn to fly & our skin grew bulletproof”? What kind of country could we build if we gave all the power we have to give to “the boy crying on the train & the sudden abuela who rubs his back”? 

Smith shows us that the president can be so much more than any one person chosen at one time every four years. In this poem, the president are the people we see every day, the people who are kind to one another for no extraordinary reason and with no real personal motive – the bus driver who stops to let you on when they see you running, the neighbor who holds the door when your arms are full. The presidents are  family and heroes; they are queer people and people of color who make invent new ways of thinking about our country and ourselves—from Nate Marshall to Colin Kapernick to Beyoncé and all her kids.

If you have three minutes (you do), I highly recommend watching this brief video of Danez bringing their words and their presidents to life at a New York Public Library event. They are a dynamic, beautiful stage presence and reader, and this poem in particular demands to be sung. I hope that, while we’re waiting in line at the polls, or waiting for results to roll in, pulling this up on our headphones and allowing Smith to sing their anthem—to build the country they imagine is possible – may help us remember that everyday, we too can keep creating our country and imagining possibilities.

—Lilly Fisher