If you look at the cover letters I have sent out for the past two years, you will attest that my most salient approach to marketing myself was a claim to unfathomable self-assurance.
Obnoxiously, one letter starts: “As a writer, cruel optimist and Human Rights scholar-in-training, I think I know the biggest secret to the world.”
Adorably, it proposes later: “We have been hoodwinked by the cynic and the unimaginative. The world possesses very well the capability to transform itself. Better yet, all we might need are our stories.”
To put my naivety in perspective, let me announce to you that these cover letters were sent as far as Hollywood with these assertions for a “better” world.
I have spent the past 21 years of my life knowing what I want, need and could create. I do not know a lot of other people who spend most of their childhood and adolescence assured of themselves. As a result, of course, I retained the belief that I was special for a shockingly long time. My incentive towards this self-assurance always came from a belief in my own intelligence. I am ashamed and unashamed to admit that I have considered it infallible on multiple occasions. To my brown heart at a place like Yale, that confidence/arrogance has been as life-saving as it has been frustrating or alienating.
In a few months, I will officially be a Yale graduate. At 22, it turns out that I’m quitting this rigidity of self-assurance. What’s that thing that white boy everyone loves said? I know that I know nothing. That’s a good place to start.
Last semester, I was returning to Yale from a chaotic summer and an eye-opening study abroad term in the U.S. south, Nepal, Jordan, and Chile. I was invigorated to materialize my education into organising and art — my plans ranged from throwing raves to somehow abolishing all frats in a single swoop. “Blasphemme Army” at Yale! Gender-troubling cyborg goddesses organize Yale students to risk everything they could gain from an Ivy degree to stand up for working-class and oppressed people worldwide. It would be a revolution — one big, intelligent and radical enough to merit that it was initiated by Yale students.
What would we be if we could be anything?
I do believe America can be brought to consciousness about any of its crimes against humanity, whether that’s the genocide of indigenous peoples that begets America, the enslavement and systemic brutalisation of Black people, or its unnecessary imperialism. People here are not stupid. However, the economic realities of the American consciousness must be accounted for. The simple truth is that America cannot face the socioeconomic truth of the reparations its sins require. What would Yale be without the enslavement of little kids from Madras? That question, in terms of inflation, could be spent decades on. The simpler question is: do we want to know? A better concern, however: shall it be let known, shall that knowledge materialize?
A few days ago, a friend of mine wrote on his Instagram: “Who will survive in America?”
In the graduating Class of 2020, I have to ask myself that question. The person I have been all my life would tell you eight bitchy things about what kind of obedience would suffice for survival and what kind would not. I would talk about frats, Wall Street, consulting, legibility, the NGO-ization of social justice, citizenship and children in cages.
In the promise of having quit that, today I will only tell you that I know who would not survive in America — me, in all my immediate, Pakistani, lax, interlingual glory. I am very intelligent and competent, it appears, beyond people’s expectations. I think I could navigate the politics behind a $50k/year, or health insurance, or grad school applications, or taking a faculty position on the tenure track in some random but celebrated institution. I carry the burden with me, though, that the person who will succeed through those English, international, and moneyed checkpoints of life will not be the immediate, Pakistani, lax, interlingual person I love.
Perhaps this is wistfulness. People tell me life knocks naïveté right out of its most ardent admirers. In my first year, my friend and I wanted to make a movie in which a dark-skinned girl with curly hair came to Yale, engineered a yellow Volkswagen to fly, and rode off to the moon with the help of a makeshift wooden launchpad on the Welch and Bingham roofs.
The person I was for 21 years believed that this was a dreamy idea that would make a swell movie. I still hope some opportunistic Yale kid reads this article, steals our idea, and turns it into a feature film.
At 22, on quitting knowing, I think I am bucked up in my own metaphorical yellow Volkswagen on a Bingham roof and I am afraid we are taking off for the moon, only it is located at home.
Zulfiqar Mannan | firstname.lastname@example.org