January inevitably invites us to slow down, to contemplate the events of the previous year, to reflect on our personal and political realities. But as we tore the December page from our calendars and prepared for the crisp, clear New Year dawn, many of us found ourselves roiling with anxiety rather than basking in tranquility, and feeling despair rather than resilient hope.
This malaise makes a certain amount of sense: over the past weeks, as we meditated on the triumphs and tragedies of 2018, it was easy—tempting even—to focus on our national tribulations. Perhaps we recalled the stories of thousands of asylum-seeking children and parents who were cruelly separated at the U.S.-Mexico border; or the more than 56,000 incidents of gun violence and 340 mass shootings in the United States, many of which injured or killed children and teenagers; or Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against now-sitting Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and the collective trauma of so many women and men who survived sexual harassment or assault only to be forced to relive it through that particularly grueling news cycle; or the alarming, seemingly relentless series of hate crimes in December; or the urgent reports about catastrophic climate change; or the seemingly never-ending war in Afghanistan; or any one of the more than 3,400 tweets that President Donald Trump compulsively sent out into the social media morass.
Such sorrows add up. They weigh on us. They cannot be ignored. But in moments of darkness, when the chips are down, and when distress and demoralization and fury and fear threaten to make us lonely and isolated, we might instead intentionally shift our thinking. We might instead practice what organizer Mariame Kaba calls the “discipline” of hope. Hope, Kaba instructs, “is not an emotion,” nor the blind optimism that the good will inevitably prevail no matter what we do. Hope is rather “the belief that when we put our effort together, that it’s possible for us to change the trajectory of things that are unjust.”
The discipline of hope calls on us to consider our present moment with care, to think deeply about our moral and political worlds, to judge not only what is wrong but also what is right, and to take deliberate action in the public sphere. It calls on us to look toward the uncertain future with the understanding that we don’t yet know what will happen, as writer Rebecca Solnit points out, and that “part of what happens is up to us.” Our capacity to imagine what might lie ahead, to dream different paths that we might take, “draws its energies from the past,” as Solnit puts it, from knowing and engaging with our histories. Bearing witness to the vast archive of hope, those often-unrecognized victories in our long and ongoing movements for justice—however small, however imperfect, and however incomplete those victories may have been—reminds us that our actions matter, that we have the power to effect great change even if the results are not immediate or predictable.
Despite the disheartening deluge of our chaotic news cycle, or perhaps because of it, we might begin practicing the discipline of hope in 2019 by looking back, and by contemplating 2018’s striking outpouring of public-spiritedness. The Crowd Counting Consortium (CCC) estimates that, in January, between 1.8 and 2.6 million women and their allies rallied at more than 400 events across the United States, part of a reinvigorated women’s movement that, in the wake of #MeToo, put feminist voices at the forefront of our politics and mobilized voters during the midterms, resulting in the election of the most diverse Congress in American history.
In March, following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, grieving students became national political leaders, speaking up and walking out and marching in the streets against gun violence; the CCC reports that, one month after the massacre, on March 14, more than a million students and teachers walked out of their classrooms, and ten days later, on March 24, between 1.3 and 2.1 million people joined March for Our Lives at 765 demonstrations across the country. This movement to curb gun violence resulted in the passage of 67 new gun safety laws across 26 states and the District of Columbia. In June, after the federal government implemented its disastrous immigration policy that separated thousands of asylum-seeking families at the U.S.-Mexico border, around 500,000 protestors participated in 738 Families Belong Together events; the public outcry successfully pressured President Trump to formally end family separation at the border.
Throughout the year, people continued to pour into the streets in remarkable, unparalleled numbers. According to one poll, at least 20 percent of Americans had attended a political protest, rally, or speech since 2016; of those, 19 percent said they had done so for the very first time. In an age of supposed apathy and alienation from public life, it seems that many Americans are in fact discovering the power of grassroots engagement.
The discipline of hope additionally reminds us that American dissent is not unprecedented, that it has a long and deeply rich tradition from which we continue to draw inspiration and energy in our own time. Our histories provide us with countless sources from the archive of hope, stories of individuals whose ideas became the grounds for principled collective action, stories of individuals whose ideas appeared to be part of the status quo after the fact but were almost unthinkable in their initial, uncertain moments of conception.
Take, for example, the millions of indigenous peoples who resisted dispossession and dislocation from their homelands across North America; and their descendants, who continued to fight for Native American rights well into the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, like the hundreds of Lakota activists who occupied Wounded Knee in South Dakota in 1973 for 71 days, protesting oppression and demanding that the federal government recognize broken treaties—83 years after the 1890 massacre on that very ground where the U.S. government slaughtered nearly 300 Lakota men, women, and children.
Take, for example, enslaved blacks who fought for their freedom before and during the Civil War; and emancipated blacks who demanded racial and economic equality after the War, and who led a second American Revolution known as Reconstruction; and the African Americans who fomented a third American Revolution, singing and praying and walking and marching in the streets until police violence against protesting children turned the tide of public opinion and paved the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, instilling faith in future generations that racial equality in the United States might one day be attained. Take the women who stood up and spoke out against their gender-based subjugation, organizing first to gain suffrage; and all the women activists who came after, women like Pauli Murray, an African American labor organizer, legal scholar, and feminist, who fought for economic equality, social and education reform, and civil rights.
These legacies of hope and liberation remain unfinished, and imperfect. And yet they continue to have aftershocks of hope that reverberate into our own time. For instance, many of the thousands of Native Americans who, beginning in 2016, stood with Standing Rock, North Dakota, against the Dakota Access Pipeline had close ancestral connections to Wounded Knee, or they participated directly in the 1973 demonstrations there, or they discovered a renewed sense of spiritual belonging and political solidarity in their deeply felt shared traumas and histories.
Galvanized by the momentum of movements like Standing Rock and the Women’s March, record numbers of Native American women ran for office in 2018, and Sharice Davids (D-KS), a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and Deb Haaland (D-NM), a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe, became the first two indigenous women to be elected to Congress. The youngest woman elected, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), ran for office precisely because of her transformative experience at Standing Rock. “When I saw how people put everything they had on the line, not just for themselves but for others,” she said, “I felt called to do more. For me, that was it.” Who could have possibly anticipated such astonishing results, or so many other historic firsts?
Although many pundits would have us believe that this most recent groundswell of grassroots activism arose out of Democratic and leftist opposition to the U.S. president, these ongoing movements for social justice predate and transcend Trump and any one executive or legislative agenda. The discipline of hope reminds us that our most pressing questions—What is freedom? What is citizenship? Who belongs, here, to this community, now?—remain, and will always remain, unanswered. But it also calls on us to ask these questions again, and again and again, ever-conscious of where we came from and where we dream of one day going.
Too often we forget our own extraordinary power to hope. Too often we find ourselves stuck in our pessimism and despair, unable to visualize alternate routes we might instead take. But the discipline of hope reminds us that progress is neither predestined nor permanent, that it must be, as Zadie Smith says, “redoubled, restated, and reimagined if it is to survive”—and it reminds us that what we say and what we do matters in ways we can never fully foresee. Hope is a discipline, a practice, that depends, as James Baldwin knew, on “choices one has got to make, for ever and ever and ever, every day.” If we relinquish those choices, if we give into despair and give up on hope, then we also relinquish the possibility that something new could emerge to transform our darkness into light.
Jennifer Stitt is a historian of modern American thought, culture, and politics. She earned a B.A. and M.A. in history from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. intellectual history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her work has appeared in Aeon, Big Think, The Garrison Institute, On Being, Quartz, Quiet Storm Literary Magazine, Public Seminar, and others. She lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama.