The dancing fools
And the watching fools
Are the same
So why not dance
— Awa-Odori Festival chant
I first encountered “The White Album” when I was 16 and full of anti-establishment zeal. I fell in love—admittedly a teenage love—with the cool remove, the collage, the word-to-word manufacture of the sentences, and with Joan Didion herself. That same year, I was lucky to see Roger Guenveur Smith’s brilliant solo performance A Huey P. Newton Story. Ever since, the Black Panthers, theater, revolution, and Didion have been tangled in my mind. There’s nothing like the art, the people, the movements that knock you out when you’re young and the brain is both awakening and pliable.
“The White Album” is the piece of writing to which I’ve returned most frequently. I’ve built my artistic identity around the double-edged truth of the first sentence, which has evolved in emphasis as I’ve aged: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” First, storytelling is living, is the workbench where meaning is honed. Second—and this is the sharper of the edges—stories are creative acts of self-delusion, coping mechanisms to get by.
I keep seeing a meme of a woman who clearly lived the Sixties holding a sign that reads, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this fucking shit.” I can’t believe it either. And then I realize that the story I’ve been telling myself, some variant of ‘things will bend toward justice if we help bend them,’ may be my longest-running delusion of all.
“If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect a man’s fate in the slightest,” Didion writes in “On the Morning After the Sixties,” another essay included in the 1979 White Album collection, “I would go to that barricade, and quite often I wish that I could, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending.”
I’m grateful to Joan Didion for channeling her experience of the narrative’s fracture into words, for laying bare the near breakdown of her coping mechanisms and, thereby, crafting one of the most illuminating stories of all. I am humbled to have the opportunity to do this dance with Didion’s voice, to turn the monologue into a conversation.
Didion spends time in the essay with striking students at San Francisco State College. This group of anonymous young people has become an inspiration for me—it’s their voices I’ve been hearing and have most wanted to feature alongside Didion’s in this performative conversation. I’m referring not only to that particular group of students, but also to their legacy, when people form coalitions over shared grievances and go about the messy work of doing something about it.
In the spirit of my 16-year-old self, I remain a believer in the barricades, whatever form they take and wherever we may erect them. I hope to meet you there, armed with the power of a delusion well-sharpened.