The common opening greeting in these times— “I hope this letter finds you well, or as well as can be expected”—is breathtakingly inadequate. Who can be well in these times? The expression brings to mind the opening of Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters, when a healer asks a depressed and disillusioned activist, “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?” She asks because there’s “a lot of weight when you’re well.” Self-care and building strength so that we can continue to fight and believe that change is possible—it all can feel like too much to bear when ethical rage and pessimism is the understandable response to ongoing injustice and suffering.
But we should hope. Those of us who lived in St. Louis during the Ferguson uprising recognize that before it happened, police brutality was an issue that predominately concerned African Americans and a few allies. Ferguson and other protests were the seeds for the current work being done in all fifty states. To respect that Black Lives Matter—a movement founded by Black Feminists attentive to intersectionality—and protests made a difference means honoring the work that has been done. Faculty, students, and alumni of our community wish to address xenophobia, climate change, economic inequality, reproductive justice, LGBTIQ rights, and other issues. While many people are justifiably cynical about our two-party system, the upcoming election offers the opportunity for people from every political position to make their voices heard. Being skeptical about the idea of progress is a rational response. However, doing work in our field brings not only the recognition of intractability of certain issues, but the ethical demand to recognize the successes of people who have made political, social, and legal inroads and helped people imagine the feasibility of more just worlds.
Of course, our sense of possibility is hampered by what may be the most dangerous and disruptive crisis many of us have experienced in our lifetimes in the United States. COVID-19 has impacted all facets of everyday life. Moreover, it is a profound case study in how living in the intersections of various identities leaves you more vulnerable to poverty, debility, and death. Some people have been unselfconsciously dismissive of allowing the elderly and others with health challenges die. African Americans have perished from the disease at much higher rates. Scholars have begun researching whether seeing the primary victims as disposable has made it easier for certain segments of the population to stop taking the pandemic seriously. Workers who keep the food supply going have been hit hard and the state has not been supporting their right to health and protection. Women in the workforce are disproportionately burdened as care providers. Tensions between capitalism and human flourishing have never been more apparent.
In this context members of our community—both faculty and students— look to each other’s work inside and outside of the classroom to help us think about paths for the future. Our field is more relevant than ever. We need an intersectional analysis to understand and redress vulnerability. The experience of COVID-19 has demonstrated that the politics and conditions of care and care work are often shaped by normative structures that don’t recognize how much care we need or non-normative family structures. George Floyd’s death has understandably inspired outrage. But why is it that crimes against Black women and transgender people do not produce the same collective energy? Will people remember the names of Tony McDade and Breonna Taylor, and how many people recall the name of Aiyana Jones? Can we take lessons from the history of the HIV epidemic, and recognize and try to remedy the inequalities in public health regimes that are foundational to how they work? How do we affirm the value of interdisciplinary training in the humanities and social sciences in preparing citizens to live and work in a diverse world? Can we imagine ways of living that don’t sacrifice lives for the sake of economic structures that are normalized as not only ideal, but all that is possible?
The Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies is proud that we offer classes that help us think through these issues and have faculty and students committed to answering these questions. We have an inherent affinity to disciplinary engagement with social movements because students and scholars forced institutions to recognize the importance of our discipline. Birthed from that history, we understand that the demands of social movements that may appear impossible to some witnesses are often grounded in decades of organic intellectual work and grassroots activism that map the viability of new ways of living. This is such a movement.
We have worked hard to be a department that speaks to these issues, but we know that we can be better. Individuals, collectives, and institutions have a duty to ask themselves how they can grow and move forward. All of us can not only learn from, but also try to be re-energized by, shortfalls and failures. We must demand more from institutions and ourselves. We must remember that building coalitions is challenging and requires us to be hard on and kind to each other. In the months and years ahead, we will continue to work within and beyond the classroom to imagine other worlds.
Radical change is rare, and we must always prepare ourselves for the possibility that we are fortunate enough to live in a moment in which it is possible.
Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies