Photo credit: National Education Association
BY MARIANA MCDONALD
Truth is trouble…It is trouble for the warmonger, the torturer, the corporate thief, the political hack, the corrupt justice system, and for a comatose public.
Toni Morrison, The Source of Self Regard, vii-viii.
We are in a time of profound change. We are in a transformative moment when the Covid19 pandemic, uprisings against racial injustice and white supremacy, the unrelenting climate crisis, and rising forces of fascism and repression, all come together to force a shift that will either propel the world forward or drive it into a tailspin.
This moment pivots on how much and how well the United States deals with its past. As Joanne Freeman noted in her August 2020 essay in The Atlantic:
…before the United States can move ahead, it has to reckon with its past… America’s national identity is grounded in a shared understanding of American history—the country’s failures, successes, traditions, and ideals. Shape that narrative and you can shape a nation. (emphasis added).
How do we understand this moment? How do we address its urgency? How do we shape the US narrative? And what does this moment mean for artists, art, and the arts movement?
What ARE artists to do?
Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.
This is a time to reexamine and reflect on the role of art and artists, to ponder what artists should do. We need to be discussing this, debating it, and writing about it, not only among artists, but the whole community.
As a member of the community of artists, I offer my thoughts on what artists need to do.
First and foremost, we need to tell the truth. Artists tell the truth. We do not lie, cover up, obfuscate, gaslight, or avoid. Telling the truth in the United States, a nation rooted and rotting in lies, means we must directly and relentlessly fight the lies.
We also need to bring people together emotionally, spiritually, politically, geographically, and organizationally. We can play a role in uniting people, on racial justice (pro-Black Lives Matter and against racist violence), gender justice (women’s rights and rights of trans persons), and internationalism (pro-Palestinian, pro-Puerto-Rican independence, and against the Cuba blockade, for starters). We must also unite people to fight the climate crisis.
We can strengthen our communities through art. Art expresses the people’s anguish, sorrow, determination, pride, and joy, and helps us heal from trauma. We also need to get people to think. We need art that encourages questioning, art that promotes critical thinking in the tradition of Paulo Freire, whose theory and practice help people discover solutions to their problems. We need to reflect on our real history, rather than the white-washed one we’ve been fed. We need to unearth our peoples’ past contributions and realities.
Last but not least, we need to fight the fascist trends that are growing every day. These include, but are not limited to: voter suppression; racist anti-Black and anti-people of color violence; anti-intellectual and anti-science stances; anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-foreign language attitudes and policies; anti-women legislation and practices; actions that jeopardize the constitution-based courts system; and the wholesale obliteration of environmental protections. We must fight all fascist actions that curb our right to protest, and those that limit or simply refuse accountability for those in power.
A key step is deconstructing the lies.
DECONSTRUCT AND REFUTE THE LIES
I attest to this: the world is not white; it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.
James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro
To fight fascism and move toward the society we want and need, artists must confront, deconstruct, and refute what I call the Ten Big Lies That Blind US, 2020:
Lie Number 1: The United States was established based on freedom and equality; rather than forged in genocide and slavery. The Declaration of Independence was a document that belied the realities of its time. Certainly there were noble intentions among its drafters, who hoped the dreamlike vision they wrote about might one day be achieved. But as written, it is a kind of national creative non-fiction, a passage in a dreamed-of memoir about what might have been and what might be.
Even the country’s chosen name, made official on September 9, 1776, was equivocal. Long referred to as “the United Colonies,” the nation was on that day named the United States of America, in an action that decisively made official the erasure of both indigenous North America and indigenous peoples throughout the Americas.
Lie Number 2: White Supremacy. The fundamental, foundational lie of the United States was and is white supremacy, the ideology and system that allowed all subsequent lies to gain traction. White supremacy asserted, legalized, and operationalized itself based on the lie that Europeans persons were legally, morally, mentally, physically, and spiritually superior to all persons of color, be they indigenous peoples or kidnapped African people.
A lie based on a lie, white supremacy invented whiteness and considered persons who were “non-white” to be less than human, thus excluding them from standards of human treatment, rationalizing their captivity, and legitimizing genocide.
White supremacy can be likened to permafrost, frozen earth firmly held in place for centuries which now, due to earth’s increased temperatures, is disintegrating and destroying the stability of the land and everything rooted in it, while in the process releasing toxic gases that further poison the earth.
White supremacy is our nation’s permafrost. And it is melting.
Lie Number 3: The colonial settlers were helpful, kind friends of acquiescing natives; rather than murderers and thieves who oversaw the genocide of indigenous peoples that continues to this day.
Lie Number 4: Slavery was not so bad, and it’s over; rather than being the systematic, centuries-long oppression, torture, violence, murder, and genocide of Black people.
Lie Number 5: The United States colonized Puerto Rico to help the “savages” who could not govern themselves, rather than invading the island in 1898 to plunder its vast resources and use the island as a military outpost for intervention throughout the Americas.
What am I driving at? At this idea: that no one colonizes innocently, that no one colonizes with impunity either; that a nation which colonizes, that a civilization which justifies colonization—and therefore force—is already a sick civilization, a civilization which is morally diseased, which irresistibly, progressing from one consequence to another, one denial to another, calls for its Hitler, I mean its punishment.
Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism
Lie Number 6: “Manifest destiny” was a legitimate rationale for US expansion, rather than an excuse for outright theft of lands from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Lie Number 7: US worldwide interventions have been well-intentioned attempts to extend a helping hand to poor or disadvantaged nations; rather than a way to exploit populations and resources, establish and defend US hegemony, and control the planet’s wealth.
Lie Number 8: The United States is a unique, different, special, unparalleled, exceptional nation/geopolitical power; rather than using this essentially narcissistic lie as a veil to hide atrocities and excuse them, avoiding accountability for all crimes.
Lie Number 9: The climate crisis is a hoax to be exposed, rather than the global existential crisis that will determine the planet’s future.
Lie Number 10: Covid19 is a hoax, a little flu, and is under control; rather than a raging global pandemic that has sickened millions and killed hundreds of thousands.
We are rapidly approaching the figure of 200,000 US lives lost due to the lies of the current government, and by its incompetence and negligence responding to the pandemic.
What is happening now in the United States, with the high and disproportionate number of deaths among Black people and other people of color, is a painful echo of the past, when the genocidal system of slavery prevailed, when blankets infected with smallpox were given to indigenous peoples, and when one-third of Puerto Rican women of childbearing age were sterilized by force.
There are many other lies the country is based on, and they too should be addressed. These ten lies are essential to the nation’s DNA. These are lies that need to be pointed out, refuted, and replaced with the real history of how this country came about, and at what cost to what peoples.
What happens when we get rid of the lies?
We will need to arrive at a new narrative, one that acknowledges the grievous harm done, while affirming the positive characteristics of US history. It will not be a simple or brief or easy process. And it is bound to be fraught with contradictions and pain.
Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one identity, the end of safety.
James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name
As Baldwin suggests, the disruption of the lies, the disintegration of the long-accepted narrative, is disorienting. It is at once breathtaking and breath-giving for those long oppressed by the lies. The exhilaration of truth is both shocking and empowering. It leaves one yearning to know the real history, the real story, the truth. That search is one in which artists can play a key role.
For those who have long benefitted from white supremacy and its quotidian goody-bag, white privilege, “the end of safety” is a source of extreme reaction, hatred and violence, which shakes the rustling robes of those deposed by the truth, and galvanizes their stubborn refusal to heed norms and laws, stoked by 45’s unrelenting calls for chaos.
This is the dangerous moment we are in. We are facing “anti-maskers” toting guns into state buildings rather than heed public health guidelines, and “pro-blue” armed gangs driving vehicles into throngs of peaceful protesters or gunning them down with rifles, both scenarios starkly absent appropriate responses from so-called “law enforcement.”
The “end of safety” is the source of cries to “go back to where you came from” directed at people whose ancestors were the first to till the land here hundreds of years ago, cries coming from people utterly terrified of 21st century US demographics, which are constantly and irrevocably changing.
The fundamental fear and outrage that MAGA supporters express with brute force—and unprecedented impunity—is that they will no longer be able to keep others down, to enjoy “birthright” advantages in housing, education, employment, and all arenas of social and economic life. Fears that they will no longer be able to convince anyone, including themselves, that they are “superior.”
If white supremacy were the underpinning of “only” extreme right-wing forces, this moment would be difficult, though not as daunting. But white supremacy is our nation’s foundation, its permafrost, and it’s not just the red-capped brutes who can feel the earth beginning to shift. The police—indeed, armed forces of all stripes—are working hard to keep their footing, and their allies in domed towers and halls of state are stepping up to throw them a lifeline, as whole chunks of disintegrating soil break apart and fall into the depths.
This is the fascism we have to fight.
ARCHAEOLOGISTS & CREATORS
History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us.
We are our history.
James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro
As we tackle the big lies, we quickly encounter the role of erasure in white supremacy. For just as white supremacy invents, privileges, and sings the praises of whiteness, it launches the systematic erasure of Blackness. That erasure has served as an essential tool for genocide. White supremacy disappears Black people (and indigenous peoples, and colonized peoples), their history and voices, their actions and contributions, and even their names.
For example, in “The Problem is White Supremacy,” Barbara Smith speaks of Ann Petry’s novella “In Darkness and Confusion” (about the 1943 Harlem Race Riot) in a way similar to how Toni Morrison discusses, in “The Foreigner’s Home,” Camara Laye’s “The Radiance of the King”—as works of literature that shed light on, and are examples of, the rich writing tradition of Black peoples in the USA and Africa, which has been for the most part buried and ignored.
What this means for US history is that it must be excavated.
We must become archaeologists, digging to unearth the real history of our country from the mass graves it was tossed in, from the incomplete parchment documenting who lived and who died, from the systematically promulgated canons that obliterate Blackness, and have made whatever little is permitted to be written in invisible ink. (How many important primary sources, such as the selected works of Puerto Rican leader Pedro Albizu Campos, quickly fall into out-of-print status, becoming unavailable to the next generations of readers?) Enter, into deep trenches with dusty clouds abounding, the artists. And art. And artistic movements.
Support Black Artists and other People of Color Artists
As we dig, we need to combat erasure intentionally and consistently.
We must defend and support Black artists and other people of color artists by supporting and sharing the art they create, but also by identifying and breaking down the barriers that exist to Black art being embraced as central to US culture. These are publishing industry barriers, music industry barriers, art industry barriers, film industry barriers, media and social media barriers, and others, as well as the fundamental economic barriers that impede the work and success of virtually all artists. We should give special attention to the philanthropic and nonprofit worlds and their contradictions, as they are a source both of opportunity and of perpetuation of white supremacy.
Art by and for the people
Fortunately, there is a long and multi-faceted tradition of arts serving and advancing social change around the world. We can learn from cultural movements of the world’s past, from Lang Son to Santiago and from San Juan to Cape Town, as well as in the United States.
For example, when the AIDS epidemic raged in the 1980s, activists envisioned how friends and family could create a quilt to honor their loved ones who died from the disease. The AIDS Quilt project grew rapidly into a national phenomenon, with thousands upon thousands of quilts being made and displayed, offering a healing and unifying activity to remember those lost to the disease, while helping shatter the stigma surrounding it.
In the seventies throughout the Americas, protest music became a loud and ever-present part of movements against dictators and foreign intervention. Victor Jara, the beloved Chilean poet-songwriter who radiated courage as he fought to his death in the 1973 US-supported Pinochet coup, was a leading figure in what would become known (in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, and elsewhere) as the Nueva Trova, or new song movement. In the United States the songs of Nueva Trova were sung and played in movements across the country, deepening bonds of solidarity and friendship while educating activists about neighbors’ struggles.
We can also learn from socialist countries, such as Cuba and Vietnam, that have for decades utilized the arts and culture to transform their societies. There are lessons to learn from their experiences achieving society-wide goals by utilizing culturally effective campaigns, such as Vietnam’s recent campaign against the coronavirus. As a result of their decisive efforts, cultural and educational offerings, and diligent handling of infections, Vietnam has defeated the coronavirus, with only 34 deaths to date.
A New Nuremberg
We also need artists and artistic movements to demand accountability. Artists can point to individuals and regimes that have committed crimes against the planet and peoples of the world, such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Benjamin Netanyahu, Jair Bolsonaro, and Rodrigo Duterte. Artists can help create and advance the demand that these individuals and regimes be held accountable.
We need a global forum for accountability, justice, and consequences for those who have carried out genocidal crimes against people and terracide against the planet. We call on mechanisms and vehicles from the past century that were used to seek justice for crimes against humanity. Artists can and must declare that now, in the 21st century, we need a new Nuremberg.
Not everything is lost. Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated.
If one refuses abdication, one begins again.
“Thinking with Jimmy.” Eddie Glaude, Begin Again, xxix.
History is not in the rear-view mirror. It is straight ahead, every day, if we can only see it. It may sometimes be in our peripheral vision—fleeting, uncertain, intuitive, even hallucinatory. Artists must strive for, and nurture in one another, characteristics that foster vision: boldness, courage, creativity, and innovation. We must defend and support artists with vision, and unleash it in ourselves. As artists, we are called upon to ask ourselves, “Can we have Cassandra-like vision? Can we imagine this world we want to see?”
At what point do fortune tellers become fortune-creators? That dream-into-reality process can happen when artists combine vision, clarity, determination, and skills with the galloping will of the people.
It will not be easy. It will be a bumpy ride. The potholes have been growing, and sinkholes show up where they’re least expected. Then there’s that ominous Hummer hogging the road.
But there is a path that can be taken now, and artists must take it. For even in the darkest moments, we can call upon our ancestors to guide us, so that when we stumble, we can begin again.
I’m holding Jimmy Baldwin’s words close to my heart.
And I’m riding with Cassandra.
Baldwin, James. I Am Not Your Negro. Documentary film based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House. Directed by Raoul Peck. Velvet Film, 2016.
Baldwin, James. The Cross of Redemption. Uncollected Writings. Randall, Kenan, ed. New York: Vintage International, 2011.
Baldwin, James. “Faulkner and Desegregation.” Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son. New York: Vintage, 1992.
Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. Translated by Joan Pinkham. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.
Freeman, Joanne. “I’m a Historian. I See Reason to Fear—And to Hope.” The Atlantic. August 17, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/08/historian-historic-times/615208/
Accessed September 2, 2020.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1990.
Glaude, Eddie S., Jr. Begin Again. James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. New York: Crown, 2020.
Morrison, Toni. The Source of Self-Regard. Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2019.
Smith, Barbara. “The Problem is White Supremacy.” Opinion. Boston Globe. June 30, 2020.
Accessed September 2, 2020.
Vietnam Coronavirus Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9o6-TELdvRY. You Tube. Accessed September 2, 2020.
Worldometer Coronavirus Tracking. Vietnam https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/viet-nam/
Accessed September 2, 2020.