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Finding Joy In The Wreckage: Acknowledging Trauma In The Post-Trump Era

A woman smiles under the sunset. (RunPhoto via Getty Images)
A woman smiles under the sunset. (RunPhoto via Getty Images)

The pandemic, the acknowledgment of racism in the U.S. and the presidential election have left so many Americans feeling collectively traumatized.

It's something Kiese Laymon has been writing about. He’s a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Mississippi and an author of several books that confront and unpack trauma.

Laymon believes we're now having a mainstream conversation about trauma through writing and even 24-hour news.

"In my lifetime, I think we’ve suffered the most trauma that I’ve ever suffered in a four year period," he says. "And we are acknowledging one of the things that connects us, sadly, and I think [former President] Trump and Trumpism made that abundantly clear."

After acknowledging trauma, he thinks people need to leave behind the desire for life to return to normal and understand that our previous definition of normal paved the way for Trumpism.

"I think we have to do what some of us have been doing since birth, right — which is lovingly fight, fighting for radical fairness, holding ourselves accountable, which is the most important thing," he says. "We have to fight faithfully, not just with hope, but faithfully. And I also just think we have to look forward to a future where equity is not just possible, but the new norm.

Part of this work is acknowledging failure. One of the most harmful aspects of Trump's leadership was his "resistance to regret" and admitting his wrongdoings, Laymon says.

Acknowledging how we played a part in the current state of our country is an important part of healing, he says.

Through the process of collective mourning, people need to continue calling out their experiences, he says. Laymon sees an important distinction between collective mourning and unity.

"I think unity or any sort of unification that comes before acknowledgment of all of the colors of collective mourning is not a unification that can hold its weight," he says. "So I think the collective mourning definitely needs to proceed any sort of talk or movement toward unity."

Interview Highlights

On acknowledging feelings of hurt and pain, as some men did when Biden cried during his farewell address in Delaware

"When you said that initially I just thought about Trump again, like modeling what we call toxic masculinity every single day on Twitter and on 24-hour news. And then I thought about the 75 million people who seemingly want that modeled even more. Right. But what I think is really important is that it is crucial for us to see. And this goes against a lot of things I believe. Representational politics matter, but I think we have to build representational politics not around people, but around emotions. And I think we definitely need to see more people in this country who are in positions of power sincerely empathize and feel. And so I just think yes, yes, yes. Like I cried but you know I’ve been crying these last four years. It wasn’t new to me. But I do think we all, no matter how old we are, and I actually argue the older you are, and I would say particularly like cisgender men, we need to see more models of mushy masculinity."

On how the insurrection at the Capitol made him think about his parents meeting in Washington, D.C.

"My parents weren’t together when I was born, for example. Right. And I don’t think about them ever being together because I could not find that memory. Right. When I watched those white men go across that, mostly white men, you know, siege that Capitol, I thought about my parents being together in D.C., right? I never, ever thought about that before. Like they were in love at one point. So for me, that wreckage served as a portal to a memory, to a duo of people who were not in love for a long time, but were in love and were radical and were like, you know, inspired by Malcolm X and were questionable of Martin [Luther King Jr.] but loved Martin just as well. And so for me, it’s looking in spaces that we’ve been told not to look for joy and finding joy, even if it doesn’t fit the shape or the sound or scent that we’re used to. And I just think that might sound like whatever, you know, like goofy. But, you know, we need more goofy in this country.

On the role of art during difficult times

"Art is sort of how I breathe. It’s how I pray. So art, for me, particularly like reading and writing, is literally how I’ve made it through the pandemic. I’ve tightened up my practice. I used to have a practice that I was steadfast to for 20 years. I changed my writing practice during this pandemic. And I am privileged to do that because I have you know, I don’t have to worry about my next meal, you know what I mean? Like, I don’t think that what I’m saying is something that is true for every human in this country at all."

"I’ve been listening to a lot of Aretha Franklin, especially like her rendition of ‘Wholy Holy‘ from Marvin Gaye. It reminds me of my grandmother. She still cries when she hears that song. So that’s been on repeat. And I've just been like, you know, making my own music. And I don’t feel comfortable talking about that because I’m such a terrible musician and a terrible singer. But I’ve been trying to create some songs for myself."


Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.