For One First-Gen American, an Uneasy Twilight Between Hope and Fear

Washington, D.C., January 6, 2021: a pro-Trump riot at the Capitol.
Photo by Johnny Silvercloud/Shutterstock

Commentary by Harnoor Mann, University of Cincinnati student contributor to D&M

I went to bed at 3 a.m. EST on January 6th, emboldened to sleep so little that night and dream of a better America by the announcement of Reverend Raphael Warnock’s historic Senatorial win. 

In the morning, my virtual world was abuzz with statements of gratitude and moral clarity. So as I skimmed this rising tide on Twitter and thanked my own friends and organizers in Georgia, I was reminded of the words of James Baldwin: “Hope is invented every day.” The people had spoken. It seemed like a sign to me, an American child of Punjabi Sikh immigrants, that real change was possible, that someday our home would not despise us. The optimism felt unbreakable.

Hours later, everything shattered. I’m struggling now to reconcile my earlier feelings, as the labor of thousands of grassroots organizers made room for the rise of a Southern Black leader, with what we all witnessed yesterday in Washington, D.C. 

Theorist Raymond Williams wrote that “structures of feeling” will underpin inflection points in our history. Our methods of cataloguing emotion will have to change as we navigate what it means to be alive in the context of these new eras. The day’s insurrection on Capitol Hill told us we’ve been lagging in recognizing all that is left to change. A structure of feeling is already fleeing while we take on the painful process of reconciliation. We are the America of Wednesday morning and of Wednesday afternoon: people who organize with the ferocity of their love for humanity, living alongside domestic terrorism. 

Today we share a heavy state of sadness and shame. We watched and heard footage of police officers retreating when confronted with insurgents, even pausing for selfies with them, like shepherds indulging their own unruly sheep. And so we are forced to confront a permanent, hanging question: how much time remains until this seizure of “the people’s home” becomes an attack on our home? Our sister’s home? In a nation where facts don’t matter and “justice” depends on skin color, nobody is safe.

Even the monsters who embraced and enabled Trumpism have abdicated responsibility for our present-day horrors. True leadership, a willingness to accept this responsibility, is found in the development of social movements. Still, it is more difficult than ever for us to have faith that our resistance work will be enough to save us.

There will be no respite from these feelings. The image of a Confederate flag waving in the halls of Congress has been archived away into our collective trauma, where it will need to be revisited for an accurate future retelling. But forgetting is the oldest American tradition. The lies told from our nation’s inception, the false narratives of the white, wealthy and powerful, have demolished entire communities, nations and cultures. As we continue to try and rebuild, moving through the numbness of one year into the next, we will only survive if we hold space for the truth.

After the melee died down and the spectres of the day’s chaos were temporarily swept away, Congress resumed counting Electoral College votes. Mitch McConnell, in a remarkable change of spirit, commented that our democracy was one step away from a death spiral, should the legitimacy of our elections be questioned. (Still, incredibly, some Republicans persisted in their baseless protest of the outcome.)

While I watched the evening live stream, my phone lit up with a text from a well-meaning friend. She encouraged me to avoid white neighborhoods in my conservative hometown. 

Senator McConnell spoke too late: Our democracy’s death spiral is already in motion.

Author Harnoor Mann, right, with an aunt in her family’s home, Bathinda, Punjab.