Call Them By Their True Names
(Haymarket Books, 2018)
Rebecca Solnit’s essay collection Call Them By Their True Names deals with an America in crisis. In 18 essays, Solnit does exactly what the title says—she calls things by their true names: racism, sexism, crimes against people of color, environmental destruction. Solnit does not beat around the bush. She begins her collection by telling readers about the folktale of how “a mysterious or threatening helper is defeated when the hero or heroine discovers his name.” In this way, she says, we can bring about change. By calling out injustices, we begin to change the world.
Essay after essay, as Solnit recalls the injustices that have occurred since the 2016 election—and even before then—I found myself seething with anger. Solnit reminds readers just how awful these past few years have been for women, for people of color, and for minorities as a whole. In an essay called “Facing the Furies,” Solnit questions the role of anger, likening it to a very American mindset. Donald Trump, she says, was elected out of anger:
He was elected by people who were drawn to him because he homed in on their anger, made them even angrier, and promised vengeance on the usual targets … successfully clouding their judgment as to what electing him would mean for their health care, safety, environment, education, economy.
Anger, in this way, becomes a tool of governmental manipulation. Although it has been useful in some respects, argues Solnit—for instance, in activism and protest—it can also be dangerous. Solnit goes on to describe the role anger plays in a number of cultures and how many have outgrown anger entirely, adding “We in America have not outgrown anger; we don’t even think we should.” She argues that while anger can be used as a tool, when that anger fades, we are no longer incentivized to work towards change.
Solnit’s essay collection raises a number of important questions and provides a great deal of thought-provoking commentary on the state of America today. For instance, in her essay “Climate Change is Violence,” she reframes climate change as a violent act committed by the wealthy onto those with less money and power, in turn creating more violence as a result. She writes, “Climate change is anthropogenic—caused by human beings, by some much more than by others.” She later uses the example of Exxon Mobil Corporation as one of the inflictors of that violence. She adds, “Climate change is a global-scale violence, against places and living species as well as against human beings. Once we call it by its true name, we can start having a real conversation about our priorities and values.”
Solnit’s writing is clear and persuasive, and she pushes back against language that encourages bigotry or makes facts unclear. Right in the book’s foreword, Solnit writes:
There are so many ways to tell a lie. You can lie by ignoring whole regions of impact, omitting crucial information … or by using names that are euphemisms for violence or slander for legitimate activities, so that the white kids are “hanging out” but the Black kids are “loitering” or “lurking.”
Language, Solnit argues, can reframe the truth entirely. She aims to speak clearly and truthfully, without manipulating facts or spinning a story, as is often done by politicians or those in the media.
While some of Solnit’s essays themselves often spark anger or hopelessness, she’s always quick to remind us that the future is not necessarily bleak. In an essay called “Hope in Grief,” Solnit opens by saying, “I find great hope and encouragement in the anxiety, fury, and grief of my fellow residents of the United States. It’s not that I’m eager to see people suffer but that I’m relieved that so many are so far from indifferent.” Today more than ever, there is great concern for the future of our country and the needs of those most vulnerable. People are marching, voting, calling their public officials, and running for office themselves in an attempt to bring about change.
She also points out that as hopeless as things may seem, change does not happen immediately. In the essay “In Praise of Indirect Consequences,” Solnit refers back to Occupy Wall Street and the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protests. Occupy Wall Street, she argues, did not bring about immediate change and was in fact “described as chaotic and ineffectual in its first weeks.” However, Occupy had a longer-lasting effect that led to various movements seeking change in the American economic system, and Solnit writes, “Occupy persists, but you have to learn to recognize the myriad forms in which it does so.” With regards to the DAPL protests, although the action didn’t stop the pipeline from getting built altogether, it was the largest political gathering Native North Americans ever seen, and it has and will lead to prolonged change in the future. Pipelines are now a “riskier, less profitable business,” as it cost investors and corporations likely more than what it would be worth to them.
Change, Solnit argues, happens gradually, and it is through calling out problematic actions that we can bring about a better future. Solnit’s essay collection is essential reading for anyone living in America today.
DEENA ELGENAIDI is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has also appeared in Electric Literature, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Heavy Feather Review, and other publications.