Local writers resist, fearing erosion of freedoms

Alicia Askenase and Nathaniel Popkin were among the organizers of "Philadelphia Writers Resist: United for Liberty," at the National Museum of American Jewish History.

Fearing that the current political climate threatens this country's constitutional freedoms, a diverse group of 300 Philadelphians gathered Sunday to hear 35 local writers read emotional testaments to America's heart - and heartbreak.

"Philadelphia Writers Resist: United for Liberty," at the National Museum of American Jewish History, Fifth and Market Streets, was one of dozens of simultaneous rallies across the country that championed freedom of expression and fair treatment for America's racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.

Poet Alicia Askenase, a docent at the museum, was one of the event's three organizers. She said she was motivated by the Donald Trump campaign's having opened "this awful Pandora's box" of inflammatory rhetoric focused on "people in vulnerable positions who have been attacked and who feel threatened."

Another organizer, novelist Stephanie Feldman, said she was worried about Trump's suggesting that "immigrants and people of certain ethnicities are not welcome here. It's not just that we don't want to build a wall, but also that we don't want to have this kind of divisive, emotionally violent discourse."

Nathaniel Popkin, the third co-organizer, whose novels and Hidden City Daily web magazine reflect his love of all things Philadelphia, said, "Trump is a human being with an enormous amount of power, making threats against our open society. There is a way of thinking about this guy as an empty vessel. But once you're the president-elect of the United States, whatever you say and whatever you tweet has to be taken at face value. His instincts are always to threaten first, to beat you down, to treat every situation as an exercise of power. We better take this guy seriously."

The Writers Resist selections ranged from James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time), the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ("Beyond Vietnam"), and Bertolt Brecht ("When Evil-Doing Comes Like Falling Rain") to essayist Herman Beavers, a University of Pennsylvania professor of English and Africana studies, performing such an emotional reading from Toni Morrison's slavery novel Beloved that he had to pause to fight back tears and collect himself.

Poet Thomas Devaney received a loud ovation when he dedicated his reading to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the venerable Georgia civil rights leader recently involved in a war of words with Trump, then read "Let America Be America Again," as relevant today as it was when Langston Hughes wrote it in 1936: "Let it be the dream it used to be America never was America to me."

Singer/songwriter Joey Sweeney sang Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," unfazed when a baby starting crying during the chorus.

Beth Kephart, a young-adult author who has been a National Book Award finalist, chose a dramatic reading of Bruce Springsteen's 2002 song "Further On (Up the Road)" - "If there's a light up ahead, well brother I don't know, But I got this fever burnin' in my soul" - because she said, "These are simple words for the journey we are all on."

Kephart said she wanted to be part of Writers Resist because "There's a yearning for those of us who are writers and who love language to get back to some authentic use of that language, not as smoke screens, not as blather, not deliberately denigrating of truth."

geringd@phillynews.com

267-443-3540 @DanGeringer

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