In the turn of a night, we arrive at a new age. A new reality where our country not only turns its back on its values but on logic and reason. Knowledge and fact take a backseat alongside decency, compassion, and basic human rights. In their place are boorish manners that legitimize a racial supremacy, embracing sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, ignorance and its uglier kin, intellectual antipathy and ambivalence. Dictated mainly by an America that historically advocates religious morality and socioeconomic rectitude at the exclusion of large swaths of people whom for decades have struggled for a voice. None of these elements are exactly new, but felt more so because of the sudden force in which we were made to face an America that openly threats to strip citizens of their freedoms. In such an environment that so starkly qualifies individuals like me to second-class citizenry, the morning after appeared dismal and somber. Looking out my window, the sun refused to show, in its place was incessant rain that marshaled me back to my thoughts. Marilynne Robinson believes that “we have good grounds for exulting human brilliance as any generation that has ever lived.” And yet to me, it feels as if our country is dissolving from within. This impasse in our American narrative is so severe that I admit to losing confidence in its spirit and future. So glum, I know.
The remedy to this gloom lies in art. Iris Murdoch, says that “art and morals are… one. Their essence is the same.” Therefore, it is the essayists moral duty to address the current lines of social division, dissent, and oppression as a form of protest. As a protest essayist, a writer must fully accept the role of authority as a public intellectual and be fueled with a passion for justice. In this role, they demand hope amid despair and insist on the recognition and preservation of our inalienable rights. A protest essay incorporates the form of personal essay to examine those conflicts and disaffection in society and culture. By sifting through personal experience, the protest essay takes two roads, discovering the universal or making analysis of the particular. Both require two major tenets of the literary essay: the intimate presence of the writer and the engagement between the self and the world.
A protest essay exists when society claims unity and equality and then turns a blind eye to division, bigotry, and inequality. The protest essayist is born out of this necessity. African American and Mexican American as well as other marginalized forms of literature essentially confront such injustices. In literary nonfiction, the writer not only embarks on what Phillip Lopate refers to as an “engagement with the writing process” that leads to “a voyage of discovery,” but in doing so, touches on the protest essayist’s role in understanding their own identity within a systemic, institutional oppression.
An essayist is drawn to write a protest essay when they sense what Gloria Anzladúa refers to as la facultad. Anzaldúa defines la facultad as having an “instant sensing” with a “capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface.” Those who possess this sensitivity—women, homosexuals of all races, the dark-skinned, the outcasts, the persecuted and marginalized, the foreign—are all “excruciatingly alive to the world.” This instant sensing is a defense mechanism developed when “you’re up against the wall.” Such feeling was never more evident than the morning after the presidential election. And now in the weeks afterward, I’ve discovered that acknowledging and channeling this “survival tactic,” honing it into art is a vital call to action.
This instant sensing seems embedded in the personal essay. In fact, it’s no coincidence that the most revered essayists, many of whom fall under the influence of la facultad, have written personal experiences that speak on behalf of others with such awareness and urgency. James Baldwin’s “Notes of A Native Son,” reflects on the death of his father as a catalyst in order to purge the resentment and rage built up over the years of living in a segregated United States. The experience—while cathartic—also informs the larger social problem. Take for example, Baldwin aligning his familial rage with the racial tension that many African Americans felt in the 1950s, calling both a “disease” that no “Negro alive… does not have this rage in his blood—one has a choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it.” It’s not difficult to replace the word Negro and insert Latinx, gay, Muslim, transgender, or woman, and still understand Baldwin’s point when talking about the oppression caused through exclusion. Recently, an undergraduate student admitted to me that he was Baldwin. “His story,” he said to me with a smile of recognition and pain, “is my story.”
As Baldwin’s essay is a reaction to the racial segregation in the shape of memoir, other writers react by approaching the protest essay as an analytical meditation. Writers like Adrienne Rich and Gloria Anzaldúa embraced this style as a means to explore identity politics and feminism. Specifically, Rich’s “Split at The Root” and Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” rail against a sexist patriarchal structure by first understanding and identifying the parameters before redefining their existence outside of it. In their hands, the protest essay is an examination that arrives at a personal truth—Adrienne Rich sees herself “split” at the foundation of what defines her, an inauthentic half-Jew and a protestant gentile; while Anzladúa imagines the surreal, her “wild” tongue, unruly and feral like her dispute between her American and Mexican selves. As an intellectual argument, their protest essays establish for an audience a stronger comprehension of an oppressed individual and the universal self, declaring to readers: we exist.
George Orwell believed that no work of art was free of political bias. He rejected the notion that “art should have nothing to do with politics,” an act that he asserted was itself a political stance. Moreover, all writers are forced into becoming “some sort of pamphleteer” when faced with seeing injustices. Orwell cites Burma, Hitler, and the Spanish Civil War as the major forces in his life which turned him to write against “totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.” In writing against these forces, Orwell aimed to make “political writing into art.” The writer already inherently aspires to “push the world in a certain direction, to alter the other people’s idea of the kind of society they should strive after.” Thus, making the personal essay that already aspires to art as the best vehicle to voice objection and lay an ideological groundwork for a movement.
For Orwell, the structure of a protest essay is less picturesque and more exact. He suggests that the more political an essay is, the less aesthetic its language. Orwell is mostly right about this, although the best protest essays border the aesthetic and the bare-boned prose style. Let us note that an essay’s “exactness” by no means being less artful. There is importance in drawing this distinction because it helps in establishing the protest essay’s main structural characteristic: lean and direct, placing the author’s intimate voice (her anger, his rage) front and center for readers. Let us take note of something else: writing personal essays is hard, threading political layers to one’s personal experience poses challenges for an essayist.
Early in Adrienne Rich’s “Split at The Root,” she confesses her fear in the confessional aspect of the personal essay process, describing it as a “dangerous act” where something must be claimed and something exposed in the facing of forces at play. I like this idea of claiming and exposing as a mechanism to fight back. In this new world we find ourselves in, we must claim, we must expose. Again, Orwell: “I write [protest essays] because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention…” Orwell’s starting point is feeling a sense of injustice, his biggest concern lies in getting heard. Even then, Rich calling the act of writing an essay as dangerous takes a whole new context many decades later given the recent backlash against multiculturalism and globalism. With all the hate crimes and ugly rhetoric spewing from darker sections of social media, a writer must understand not just what their getting into, but be aware of their proper role in a post-fact world.
Inevitably, the post-fact world is lived on the internet. Acknowledging how technology and social media disseminates ideas and narratives guides us to the forms that carry the power and essence of the protest essay. The most popular form is the think piece, an immediate meditation that is part op-ed, part article, part blog post. In the days after the election, my Twitter feed flooded with thought pieces, most notable were Roxane Gay’s “The Audacity of Hopelessness” in the New York Times and Garrison Keillor’s “Trump voters—it’s not me, it’s you” in the Washington Post. Meanwhile, The New Yorker dedicated their “Dispatches” section to thoughtful pieces by authors such as Atul Gawande, Mary Karr, and Toni Morrison. Reading all these pieces, I got the sense that social media’s continuous churn of information and our current manner in which we process it with an insatiable yet short lived memory, threatens to defuse the power and influence of the think piece. The argument against this, one might say, is that people read what our great thinkers have to say in perilous times, and yet, I’m convinced this occurs only in your Internet’s safe spaces and echo chambers. So how does the personal essay go beyond its own parameters to assert its existence, the way, let’s say, Ta’ Nehisi Coates or Claudia Rankine capture the public consciousness?
The success of the protest essay lies in the simple fact that it must be read. It must survive outside of academia while still asserting an intellectual authority. And right here is the problem: the protest essay must figure out a way to both thrive among the rapid obsolescence of social media and in a world, resistant and skeptical towards thought. I’d argue that the think piece as a form is too present minded, but then does this mean the success of the protest essay—and the personal essay form itself—is contingent only from its inherent characteristic of reflection? Would Baldwin or Anzaldúa’s essays carry the same emotional and cultural impact (not to mention withstanding the test of time) had they been written with the same immediacy as the think piece? In turn, would the think piece function the same and gain legitimacy by waiting? Truth is we can’t afford to wait. The time is now for essayists to understand their role and help guide this generations’ return to human brilliance.
César Díaz teaches creative nonfiction at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. He is a featured columnist at Essay Daily. You can read the rest of his contributions to Essay Daily here, here, here, and here. Also, sometimes he has things to say on Twitter.