Just after noon on Sunday, hundreds of people stood on downtown Boston’s broad, bustling Boylston Street, patiently waiting in a line that snaked around the corner and out of view. Bundled in thick, down coats and sporting gloves and cups of hot coffee to combat the New England January weather, they weren’t waiting to catch a glimpse of a celebrity or purchase a trendy new product from one of the neighborhood’s hundreds of stores, but instead to walk through the doors of the city’s largest library.
In an afternoon meant to honor Martin Luther King Jr. while also marking a resistance to President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration this coming Friday, more than two dozen writers, community leaders, teachers, and elected officials gathered to share both personal and historic written works at the Greater Boston Writers Resist event. In some 90 other cities around the world, other local organizations, writers, and scholars held their own events under the Writers Resist umbrella. Their stated goal was to come together with strangers across the globe to reassert democratic values, and the mutually nourishing relationship between art and democracy.
Daniel Evans Pritchard, the founder and editor of The Critical Flame, a literary publication that organized the Boston chapter of the event, said the day was intended to bring together those with “shared concerns about the future of democracy in the United States … [and] all across the world as well.”
For centuries, art has played a role in producing speech that reflects political, religious, and cultural aspects of life, often giving voice to struggles and movements from writers and artists among marginalized groups. Today, many minorities, women, and members of the LGBT community, in particular, have criticized Mr. Trump's campaign rhetoric as divisive or threatening, citing examples such as his comments about banning Muslim immigrants, lewd language about his sexual conduct, and potential defunding of Planned Parenthood.
Since November 8, thousands of protestors have taken to the streets. On Sunday, however, instead of wielding signs and chanting, these artists and art-lovers came together to use the written word as its own form of protest, suggesting that passages and poems have the ability to transcend time, cultures, and scenarios, and can spark change through peaceful protest.
“I know artists are struggling with dueling impulses — an impulse to heal, and an impulse to confront,” said Anita Walker, the executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, addressing the crowd packed into an auditorium in the library's basement. “Art can exist in a totalitarian society, but there is an enabling relationship between art and democracy.”
The group of artists and others in attendance on Sunday clearly represented Massachusetts’s reputation as a solid, blue haven for liberals. Their comments reflected the anxiety and shock many felt following the defeat of Hillary Clinton – and also their drive to respond to what they viewed as a political setback, noting that some of the world’s greatest art and writing has come out of history’s darker chapters, uniting people and serving as a cathartic act of opposition.
As designated readers took the stage for more than three hours, they read works in English, Arabic, and Spanish. Some chose to pay homage to formative writers and thinkers like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Henry David Thoreau, or Walt Whitman, while others selected pieces from lesser known foreign writers, highlighting brutal, oppressive conflicts people face parts of the Middle Eastern and Asia. Several, including two 18-year-old poets, shared their own work, reflecting on their identities as immigrants and minorities.
Selected works focused on racial tensions, devastating natural disasters and impending climate change, immigration, war, the Holocaust, refugees, and Planned Parenthood. Drawing parallels between the historical rise of dictators and the popularity of Trump, many read decades- or centuries-old works they believed retained a certain relevance in 2017.
The docket included readers of diverse faiths, ages, races, and backgrounds.
“I suppose I was selected in my capacity as an elected official,” Ayanna Pressley, the first woman of color elected to Boston’s City Council, said before reading Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning,” which the poet debuted at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration. “We are all artists in some way, civic artisans.”
For the few hundred who found seats in the packed auditorium, the day was one of shared experience and emotion. John Taylor, a writing and poetry student at Emerson College, attended the event “to be around people who are thinking and feeling the same way.”
“I don’t think I feel better,” he said after hearing the readers. “I feel kind of sad. But there was a lot of beautiful work being read.”
For others, the afternoon was a catalyst for a new and ongoing protest movement movement, one that could be fueled by free expression and art.
“I think it’s really important in these times to gather,” said Amanda Hope, a poet who attended the event. “Part of building resistance is building a community.”
“It was wonderful to hear the huge diversity of readers,” she added. “I’m not sure whether it’s discouraging or encouraging, but it’s wonderful to feel the connection” to writers in other countries, cultures, and times who harbored anxieties similar to those she says she feels about the incoming administration.
The event wasn’t meant just to showcase writing and art; Mr. Evans Pritchard spoke to the audience about donating to nonprofits and engaging with organizations like the ACLU or PEN America, an organization that promotes literature and free expression.
Most importantly, he told listeners, they can make their voices heard not only through art, but also by casting ballots.
“Show up, be there on the day. If you’re not there on the day, nothing happens,” he said. “What you do now and how you engage matters.”