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Finding your voice

“…I’ve seen the world tell us with wars and real estate developments and bad politics and odd court decisions that our lives don’t matter… When we are told in dozens of insidious ways that our lives don’t matter, we may be forced to insist, often far too loudly, that they do.” —Richard Hugo, Seattle poet

Hugo House, named for Seattle’s best-loved author-poet, has been a valued resource for the writer community here for almost 25 years—already an institution. Its founders committed to original and risk-taking programs, with classes, writers in residence, talks, readings and panels, and it quickly became the hub for writing and writers.

Like most organizations and businesses here, it closed its physical doors mid-March against the pandemic for the safety of its workers and visitors. But almost simultaneously, the staff opened its virtual doors; they took a deep breath and took the programming online to continue serving its grateful fans.

Of course, we’re all tired by now of using Zoom to conduct our outward-facing lives. But I got to take my spring quarter writing class in the art of storytelling with the help of that tool, and it was surprisingly workable. My teacher and many students were just getting used to it so there were hiccups and delays; the tech-savviest students were a big help.

Now Hugo House is hitting its virtual stride, with its entire catalog of workshops and weekly classes, in poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction, all taught online.

But that’s not why I started writing this note.

Hugo House is not only coping in the middle of the pandemic lockdown like the rest of us, it also happens to live in the middle, the physical center, of the Black Lives Matter movement here, known as CHOP. The Capitol Hill Occupation Protest closed the off-center heart of town to the police, and became the epicentric focus of our demonstrations in support of racial justice and against police use of deadly force.

With so many of us stuck at home (those of us lucky enough to have a home to hole up in), with so many of us crying out to correct our country’s civil wrongs, it’s been hard to be doing next to nothing. I expect that other baby boomers like me have felt the pull of calls to march, familiar from the civil rights and war protests of our youth. But, being not only older but also in cancer treatment, I’ve avoided the recent gatherings. I’ve watched my son go march with both fear and pride for him.

My daily radiation treatments are six or eight blocks from the CHOP though. Last week I wandered over there before my appointment. It was kind of great, a colorful, peaceful mid-day scene, with participants helping people trying to navigate the blocked-off streets. “BLACK LIVES MATTER” was spelled out in road-sized letters down a long stretch of black-top; it must be readable from space. And there, around the corner from the deserted police station, stands Hugo House. Artfully bold graphics cover its boarded-up front doors, proclaiming its support for the protests, and the names of many, way too many black folks whose lives were taken by police violence; naming just those lost recently, just the ones we all know about.

It’s easy to be cynical about where this moment is taking us, into unfamiliar territory where companies and brands—from Amazon (maker of facial recognition tech used by police), to Reddit (host to white supremacist hate speech), to JPMorgan Chase (about as capitalist as you can get, whose chief took a Kaepernick knee)—have belatedly discovered their support for black lives, and have proclaimed and tweeted it unironically.

Yes, actions speak louder than words, and it’s too soon to tell how much in the way of structural change will follow. Still, these voices announcing solidarity and calling for racial equity are far louder, far more diverse, and so much farther-reaching than we’ve ever heard them before. It’s heartening and hopeful that there are so many articulating the crying need for change.

As Hugo House has been helping so many of us find our own voices, they are one of the few organizations that I trust is authentically committed to supporting the full range of voices in our community.

James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

But I like how Richard Hugo put it, even more succinctly:

“Never has your Buick / found this forward a gear.”

© 2020 Su Cummings. All rights reserved.

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