Dear America

Letters from some of America’s greatest minds define a moral and cultural crossroads


July 2020

Ever since the 2016 presidential election, America has been barreling headfirst toward a crossroads. Conflicting political, racial and social perspectives reflect a need to collectively define our moral imperatives, clarify cultural values, inspire meaningful change, and seek common ground. In that patriotic spirit, hundreds of writers, poets, artists, scientists, and political and community leaders are sharing their impassioned letters to America in a new anthology, Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance and Democracy.

Driven by outrage, heartbreak, and determination, they write about topics ranging from racial injustice, immigration, climate change, misogyny, violence, the power of hope and renewal, and more. As America marks its 244th birthday this month, The Reporters Inc. is pleased to present five of these literary reactions to the tumultuous times we live in—all with a focus on civic action and social justice.

 

Driftless

By Cherene Sherrard

Blacks have never been, and are not, really considered to be citizens here. Blacks exist, in the American imagination, and in relationship to American institutions, in reference to the slave codes: the first legal recognition of our presence remains the most compelling.

— James Baldwin, Evidence of Things Not Seen

But you said there was no defense.
“There ain’t.”
Then what I do?
“Know it, and go out the yard. Go on.”

— Toni Morrison, Beloved

My youngest son is already grieving. Today men came to our home to cut down a very old tree. We will not know how old until we can count the lines on the stump, and even then, we can only estimate.

“The tree made our house a sanctuary,” he says.

His plea startles me. A sanctuary is a holy place, a refuge from one’s enemies. It’s true that the tree’s long, leaf-laden branches have shielded our 1922 colonial in Madison, Wisconsin from harm. And yet, fear has led us to remove it. Seven men, outfitted in orange vests and black helmets, swing among its branches as they must have done as boys. The work is laborious, precise, and slow. They navigate a cat’s cradle of ropes and pulleys with chainsaws. Whenever a branch careens into the exact spot they have identified they applaud. I explain to my son that in this age of the superstorm having a tree so large loom over not one but three houses seems like baiting the gods: Oya, the whirlwind, and Shango, the lightning. But the casual eloquence with which my preteen drops sanctuary gives me pause. I’m thrilled that he finds our home a safe and secure place of comfort, but I’m alarmed: From what outside these walls does he want protection?

The tree is a silver maple, Acer saccharinum, also known as the swamp maple, water maple, silverleaf maple, white maple, and soft maple. It’s the sugar maple’s stepbrother; a less-loved half-sibling with sap too slow to tap, good only for shade; a genus that spews at least four different kinds of “fruits” in the slender window that is Wisconsin’s spring. It throws off an abundance of seeds that clog and warp our gutters, funneling rain into our basement. First, heavy clumps of spongy, red cotton, then helicopters—ovaline seedpods that spin and waggle until they rest on every lawn on our block. Its leaves are the last to turn. On Halloween, they backlight our house in saffron.

Once, on a windless day, a branch so massive it could have been its own tree, fell. It covered the entirety of our shared yard, miraculously (more…)

Alana Schreiber is a multimedia storyteller, artist, and journalist who has worked for Minnesota Public Radio and The Documentary Group. She recently returned from Malaysia, where she taught English through a grant from the Fulbright Program. Alana is also a volunteer with Firefighters for Healing, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting burn survivors and their families, and United in Stride, where she runs as a “sight-guide” with the visually impaired. Alana is a graduate of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota and currently resides in Montclair, New Jersey.

A Monumental Tumble

When statues fall, what will rise in their place?


July 2020

BY ALANA SCHREIBER

First, I heard the alarms. I was between bites of a sandwich on the steps of Jameson Hall when the blaring sirens disrupted the hub of student activity. Next came the smell. Pungent garbage cans were emptied into classrooms, followed by the spray of fire extinguishers adding to the mess. And then there were the rallying cries of student protesters: “Fees Must Fall!”

As an exchange student at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in the fall of 2017, I was observing the chaos with naive excitement and, I admit, a little fear, but most of my South African classmates, seasoned by years of demonstrations, were quick to roll their eyes. “Not the protests again,” one groaned.

I soon learned that this protest was mild compared to the ones the school had experienced in recent years. Like many stories we hear today, this one began with a statue.

The University of Cape Town, or UCT, as it’s better known, has long been regarded as one of the top universities on the African continent. The campus is a picturesque, almost fairytale-like college setting, with old buildings wedged into the side of Devil’s Peak, offering a mountain view from one side and an Atlantic Ocean seascape from the other. And until 2015, the university housed a statue of Cecil Rhodes that sat smack dab in the middle of campus.

(Top) The statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town in South Africa was unveiled in 1934. Courtesy Gettysburg News Network. (Bottom) Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902). Courtesy The Guardian.

To many students, the Rhodes statue was an eyesore that represented colonization and White supremacy. While Rhodes, in part, is remembered as a 19th century British diamond magnate and founder of the prestigious Rhodes scholarship, he was also an outspoken imperialist who exploited native labor in his effort to create Rhodesia (now Zambia/Zimbabwe) and the Cape Colony (now South Africa).

Or as one UCT student put it: “His vision about Africa was just about what he could get from it and how it could serve his White supremacist (more…)