The Politics of Joy

People dance in the street after Joe Biden wins the 2020 election.

When the news finally arrived, it didn’t come over cable, network television, or even Twitter. It came up from the streets. Last Saturday morning I took a break from the endless refreshment of the New York Times Home page – where the gap between Joe Biden’s vote and the 270 votes needed to secure the presidency seemed like an abyss – making coffee in my Brooklyn kitchen when a wave of cheers and honking car horns pulled me to the window. Three floors down, I could see young people in masks hugging while an older woman waved her arms over her head. After checking my phone to confirm what had just happened, CNN declared Biden the winner at 11:40 a.m. am– I opened my window, took out an old pot and a wooden spoon and joined that Cacerolazo. My own vote for Biden-Harris had felt a duty rather than a pleasure – a far cry from the vote for Sanders I had cast in the primary. But the release from that moment was powerful.

So I put mine on Count Every Vote Hoodie (Many thanks, PA stands up!) and walked the half-mile long impromptu Victory Parade down Atlantic Avenue. I felt that what I was seeing was not just a celebration, but also a kind of coming-out party for the other America that had spent the last four years crouching in fear. I saw two women wearing hijabs lift their children up on a mailbox so they could dance along. An African American firefighter looked at the message on my hoodie and gave me a big smile and a thumbs up. The crowd queuing outside Sahadi’s grocery store clapped with the beat of passing cars as the soundtrack switched from hip-hop to Springsteen Ray Charles. A young man in plaid chef’s trousers ran in and out of a restaurant kitchen, waved and danced for a minute, then rushed back inside. For at least that day, the endless war between gentrifiers and gentrified seemed to have interrupted for a truce.

Later that afternoon, the Central Park scene was even more cheerful. A young woman sat on the bench across from Strawberry Fields and accompanied herself on guitar. At the Bethesda Fountain (named as Angels in america reminds us that after a well in Jerusalem healing the sick, I saw couples – of many colors and gender configurations – literally dancing with joy. It was as if this other America, America that had spent the past four years on a psychological pendulum between fear and anger, conscious of its own impotence, had come out of hiding. Co-conspirators for a day when even the weather seemed determined to celebrate.

The moment passed, as such moments always do. But before we all get lost, as we ponder the make-up of Biden’s transition team or strive – not always successfully – not to get drawn into the maze of social media mirrors like Trump, who clearly did not steal the election now has, still could stage a To stay in power, I want to hold on to the deeply political emotions of that morning and name them: joy, relief, compassion, solidarity. Liberation. We were released.

“Hold on to dreams” pushed Langston Hughes. Same Hughes as that asked, “What happens to a postponed dream?” and suggested the answer might be a blast.

An election is not a revolution. And that choice was a far cry from the “political revolution” some of us once dreamed of. In a country as polarized as ours, in a society as unequal as ours, there are good reasons to be careful. Joy cannot be forced or artificially sustained. So much remains to be done – almost anything but defeat Donald Trump.

As we have already found out, some dreams – as simple as justice, as far-reaching as equality, and long overdue – are being put on hold again. Privileges will have their privileges if we allow the intoxication of the moment to blind us to the difficult task of demanding justice. “You advocate poetry; You rule in prose, ”remarked Mario Cuomo. Then how much can we expect from Joe Biden, a candidate who, though given occasionally to quote Seamus Heaney, often even struggling to fight in more coherent prose?

Yet that feeling of liberation, once experienced, cannot be forgotten. This fragile, unlikely, and necessarily temporary coalition – from Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky to Chuck Schumer – may have been created through the submergence of differences that cannot long be denied. But it got the job done, and that simple fact is well worth remembering.

Trump can snort and snort, and it would be a mistake to forget how dangerous a wounded soon-to-be ex-president can be. The joy we had when we came out and got together last Saturday, the feeling of agency and solidarity that was suddenly uncorked, will not easily return to the bottle. If we hold on to it, the memory of that joy can be a source of power, not only against Trump’s increasingly desperate machinations, but against all of the filthy compromises and adjustments with evil that are so often viewed as political sophistication. Because now we not only know what democracy could look like, but also how it could feel and how it could sound (a party!). It should Desire to dance on the street. Let us remember the strength of that day – our strength. Let’s hold on to dreams.



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