A Practice of Momentum
This essay is part of PEN America’s We Will Emerge project, a collection of essays speaking directly to voters around the country in advance of the U.S. election. This project is made possible with the support of Pop Culture Collaborative’s Becoming America Fund.
LISTEN TO NATALIE DIAZ READ HER ESSAY
Natalie begins reading her essay at the 7:05 mark.
Why arrive to a conversation about voting bearing a story about basketball? Most of what I know about living through America, I learned on a busted-up concrete ball court beside a condemned school the city boarded up then reopened for bad kids. The school and its court were the last thing between Race Street, our last “rez” street, and the rest of town—an end or beginning depending on which direction I was headed. That court became a land my country could not consume—that court, and soon any court, were iterations of the way I would relate to land and place forever. A basketball court, like the Mojave word for garden, is not so much a location as it is what is done there, more importantly, how it is done. I was taught anything worth doing is worth doing intentionally, worth making a practice of, and a practice is a tending of the self in relation to everything that surrounds you. A place is a practice, and that court was my place. I played on it almost every day and night, learning by doing, a tradition of energy and momentum, a way to live a life. Once I made it over the top spikes of the high chain-link fence, the sun and my shadow were my only opponents. Against them I played myself to the edge of my own possibility—I ran out of moves, out of drills to memorize, ran out of trash to talk to nobody and everybody, ran out of what I knew could be done with a body like mine who had come from and loved bodies like the bodies I loved. There began the foundational imaginings of my blood and muscle body and its desires, unhindered yet by knowledge and language. There began I.
Up and down that court, shot after shot, I was a question throbbing between my rez and a town, my people and a country. I was an interrogation—between and yet touching all sides. What does it mean to be Native? What does it mean to be not? What I searched for on that court was unknown to me. I wanted only what I needed and was still learning how to articulate what it meant to not have either. What I found there has come to represent the differences I recognize between possibility and impossibility. What I found was desire and the realization that it is my people’s natural condition—we were made in desire, of the earth and water, come together in the desire of our creator’s hands, an abundance of our desert.
“If I should cast a vote, shouldn’t I first ask myself what it is I desire of my country? Desire is nothing if not the momentum I must carry into every American morning I dare to exist in—an abiding, a tension I reside in.”
Why interrupt a conversation about basketball and voting with a story about desire? I arrive everywhere midsentence in the middle of this conversation. Basketball is one origin of my sensual body and its desires, and the dangerous relationships of those desires to America. I learned the importance of impossibility through the momentum of the game, a pathway to endure my country and its occupation with me, of me, and against me. Basketball is one of my imaginations, of what might happen three moves ahead or beyond, if what could happen does happen, if what could happen does not. If I can shake my shadow left, go between my legs right, spin back, and reverse flick the ball into the bucket before the sun has time to slap its shadow on the metal backboard, then what is the world, what is a country, what is a self? I learned some of the answers to these questions on the first trips I took off the reservation, at basketball tournaments—many of my first battles with the kids from town were on a basketball court. And I bring desire here now since the origins of the word vote are rooted in it—to vow to a god, to pray, a person who sacrifices, a wish, a longing for something. If I should cast a vote, shouldn’t I first ask myself what it is I desire of my country? Desire is nothing if not the momentum I must carry into every American morning I dare to exist in—an abiding, a tension I reside in.
I hate losing more than I love winning—I’m sure I have said this in some iteration, every athlete does. Though, I doubt I’ve ever meant it. In some ways they are the same, victory and defeat. I move in this country the way I moved on the court, sensual to momentum, cultivating a patience that is not passive, laboring to hold, to seed until I might bloom. My existence requires a dislocation from traditional markers of time and score—a clock, the year 1492, the year of my birth, a scab and its scar, any election year. Before the beginning and always becoming I say to remind myself I am capacious, of origin, of rising at any moment and from any descent, including the descent of a country. As a Native in America, I must disallow being counted down on a nation-clock of beginnings—American time zones are designed to begin after my people. Natives were the last Americans to receive the right to vote, because we weren’t American. The Supreme Court, in 1884, made sure the 14th Amendment didn’t apply to us. Still Natives have largely volunteered to serve in America’s military for 200 years—as of November 2019, Natives made up 1.4 percent of the U.S. population and served in the U.S. military at 1.7 percent of its population, the highest per capita of any population. Even today Natives aren’t always American enough to vote—to be charged the responsibility of our own desires, to cast our wish for how we might live in a country. But Natives are ever American enough to fight and win this country’s wars, to kill and die in them.
“If I might make a gift of words in this moment, it is to remind myself that I will not be alone on the other side of this vote—we will be together in that place. Us and them, we and they, I and all who make up the I that I will be.”
I don’t wager to win America—it is lost and arrived to my people as such. I don’t desire its success. My country is in fulfillment—it has come to fruition, it is the self it dreamed of becoming. Sometimes the only way I know if I have won a day is to arrive at its evening exhausted, or to slide my foot across the bottom of my bed at three in the morning and graze the sole of my lover’s foot. Moments that add up to a life—a life’s momentum. Is it possible for me to win the outcome of any election in this country? Is it possible to reorganize the energy of a vote in America away from what so many terrible American votes have enacted—genocide, theft, enslavement, lynching, a bomb, a bomb, a corridor of desert where people are marched among scorpions to shallow graves, 545 migrant children with missing parents, a new prison, a new execution, a new wall, an old trick. All this and also a vote that is mine. All this and also a country that is mine, as so many terrible things are. A vote is an extension of my American hand—I too hold the hammer America holds—whether or not I mark and sign the ballot. Too, this vote is an extension of what I am imagining far beyond what it is capable of. My vote is my return to that fissured and weeded concrete court, three steps ahead as a practice, no shot clock, on the way to what hasn’t been imagined, intentionally impossible.
My vote will not stop or remedy the nation-acts that have shaped and continue to shape what is hardest in me, that have made me a gardener of my beloveds’ wounds and thorns. There are more impactful things I might do, but that I have not arrived at yet. With that in mind, I was dreamed to arrive at the edge of a piece of paper. As I often am at a poem, here I am at a ballot. I do not come to it as a choice—I do not choose the life this country has imagined for me, for my beloveds, for any stranger or living being. I arrive to this vote as an action, a constellated energy of resistance and complicity. It will start something. It is another origin that must occur in order to arrive at what might occur next—one momentum toward the possibility my country is asking of me and the impossibility I will answer it with. It is a rising in me—an unknown action I cannot be solved for.
I don’t know that my ancestors labored and suffered, loved and joyed for this vote—they did plenty of each. I do believe that I am the momentum of my ancestors having arrived—arrived and still in motion, still toward. I also believe that where you and I ever meet is in the space of what might happen next—not a location but what we do there and how we do it. A practice of our relations, and we must relate better. My ancestors will be there too—they always are—not in the past but in what lies ahead, and not just for me but for all of us. They will receive us in whispers, or winds, a crown of light they set upon our heads, a coyote stopping in the road to look you in the eyes, the owl or the snake, a humming, a stone, a poem. If I might make a gift of words in this moment, it is to remind myself that I will not be alone on the other side of this vote—we will be together in that place. Us and them, we and they, I and all who make up the I that I will be. We won’t agree—not about the way anything has happened, not about how deep anyone’s wounds were. Yet, together, and with, knowing or remembering a time when there were nations—when we were nations—that were not this nation. I understand if you decide not to vote, and I am also counting on your desires, your wishes for who we might become. Yet is the momentum where I wish to find us next—we are the ancestors of what is yet impossible of America.
Natalie Diaz is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. Her first poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, was published by Copper Canyon Press, and her second book, Postcolonial Love Poem, was published by Graywolf Press in March 2020. She is a MacArthur Fellow, a Lannan Literary Fellow, a United States Artists Ford Fellow, and a Native Arts Council Foundation Artist Fellow. Diaz is director of the Center for Imagination in the Borderlands and is the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University. She lives in Phoenix, AZ.