We walk in, by ones or twos, flash IDs and smiles. If you are lucky, the dance floor is already crowded and you can simply slip between the sounds, into the movement. There are colored lights spinning over skin, over carefully chosen outfits, over movements practiced in home mirrors, over moments of joy and sweat and laughter. The DJ is a painter; she mixes songs deftly as colors, a lushness of drums with an intellect of melody. There is a moment in every club when the thumping bass replaces the heartbeat of everyone in the room, and for a moment we all share the same heart; the same rhythm moves our bodies; and the dance floor itself becomes one being, with many faces, hearts, ideas, souls, all unified for a brief moment in that movement.
This unity, expression, and grace has some kinship to the ticker-tape parades commemorating the end of war, the celebrations that coincide with the liberation of a country. When Obama was elected president of the United States, I walked the celebrating streets of Harlem, strangers hugging each other, men and women with tears in their eyes. There was joy dripping out of windows, not so much because of the politics of the man, but, as a ninety-three-year-old woman told me that night, “It is just so good to be people, finally!” And every weekend across this country, in clubs with strange names like Deville’s, Crazy Nanny’s, or The Warehouse, people gather, bodies gather — dancing, moving, flirting — and find the strange miracle of “being people, finally.”
Now imagine in that same miracle, the heartbeat of the dance floor interrupted by the thunder of bullets. The orchestra of carefully planned outfits, sly smiles, colored lights, and music is broken by the splatter of blood, multiple voices wailing in pain. Days ago, this is what happened in Orlando at Pulse. And young brown bodies, full of future, dropped to the ground. Police sent to investigate the scene could not shake the sound of cell phones ringing in lifeless pockets, as mothers and fathers, lovers and friends called and called hoping that their children and loved ones would answer.
What happens next, in the wake of these sorts of tragedies, I’m sorry to say, has become increasingly familiar. News outlets scramble, desperate to find narratives that they can apply like inadequate bandages on wounds too deep and too intricate to articulate in Band-Aids. All of the popular notes are played in this peculiarly American symphony of retelling. Religious fundamentalisms compete for airtime. Race and culture and sexuality are erased or highlighted depending on the audience. We will learn the names of guns, and various experts will be called to testify on television about their relative importance to the shooting. An odd sleight of hand will be attempted, to re-create a shooting in which a gun plays no real role. The life of the person who did it will be examined at length; armchair experts will explain a dead person’s motivations. We will see endless selfies and search the corners of them for clues. The name of the city will for a short or long time become synonymous with killing (think Charleston, Sandy Hook, or Columbine).
This kind of death scrambles through our imaginations like a pack of rabid dogs, salivating and tearing at flesh, attenuating our fears, and rendering our safety into illusion. The news outlets, in all their reactionary conclusions, their tabloid analyses, reflect our desperation. Public opinion swoons from shadowy international conspiracy to troubled individual mired in self-hatred, with no real attachment to either theory. The myriad narratives applied to the loose facts of this tragedy demonstrate our desire. We want, more than answers, a story. We want to find a reasoning that can contain such senselessness, a narrative that can fence our terrors, that can provide our hearts with solid ground. We want to turn the pages of this horror and see the comforting fairy-tale phrase, “The End.”
This weekend, librarians from around the country will gather just a few miles from the scene of this latest wound across our collective consciousness. They will get dressed up and will give out awards for children’s literature; people will give speeches, sign books, and applaud one another (as well they should). They will have important discussions about how to imbue young people with a love for language, how to gift them with membership in the world of reading, how to bring them to the understanding that literacy is a conversation that has been going on since the dawn of writing, and how young people’s voices are needed in that conversation. In many ways I have had this community with me since I was a child and my father would return from the conference with arms full of books and a heart full of stories that he needed to tell. He used the conference as a way of touching base with the only people who knew intimately, and cared as much as he did, what kind of books contemporary young people needed. When I describe dancing in a club as a sort of utopia, I also know that my own utopia would be necessarily incomplete without this gathering of like-minded souls, another sort of home amongst many that I claim no less passionately.
In the past week, in the wake of the shooting at Pulse, I have read many essays about what kind of home a club can be. Some writers have chronicled their own journeys of self-discovery on dance floors; others have spoken of them as unorthodox churches with their rituals of belonging; invariably there is a sense of refuge, clubs as a safe haven for queer folks. Occasionally, people recognize their spaces as revolutionary, politically, as in the case of the Stonewall Inn, but also culturally, like the Paradise Garage. These are places where long-ignored human stories found their public voices.
Names are stories too. When soldiers are trained for war, for killing, enemies are often given nicknames. The fighters are taught to use derogatory slurs so as to make their gruesome task easier, to strip the humanity from their enemies, to flatten the wholeness of their selfhood. Violence strips away the personhood of those who are affected by it, reducing our humanity. Narratives like the ones we steward, as storytellers and people who care for stories, return people to the fullness of their selfhood. This is the revolution that we can effect. As each of the bodies that fell at that club regain their names, as we see pictures and hear testimonies of grandmothers and lovers and friends, the humanity that was taken from them by the rage of bullets comes back.
In the aftermath of incidents like what happened at Pulse or in Charleston, Ferguson, Steubenville, or anywhere around the world where violence becomes the chosen language to translate inequality or difference or the desire for power, there is a need for stories to contain, to comfort, to process, to prevent. Each time a body falls, there ought to be a story there to catch them. Those stories will serve the humanity of their readers even better if we can get them into the hands of young people before the bodies fall. Well-told stories can make it so that no slur, myth, or bias can flatten the humanity of black boy, or Asian girl, transgender teen, poor family, or queer Puerto Rican dancing his cares out on a hardwood dance floor.
So I am thinking today of the relationship between two places among many I have called home and of the work that can be done between them. I am thinking of the worlds we open to young people when we foster stories that recognize the fullness of their humanity. How this fullness isn’t easy, how flattening happens in even the best-intentioned tales. But I know that there are gathered a bunch of librarians, folks who care for story, who are about the business of asking hard questions. They are at a conference, a place where revolutionary thought can not only happen but be embraced. They stand not far from the site of a great tragedy, knowing that we have a part to play in preventing the next one.
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Please also read Christopher Myers’s 2013 Horn Book article “Young Dreamers“: “Last night, the man who shot and killed a young brother, Trayvon Martin, was found not guilty. I have since been vacillating between emotions — sadness, frustration, an acute sense of my own vulnerability as a black man…and finally a sense of responsibility…“[more]