Riding With Cassandra
by Mariana Mcdonald
Mariana Mcdonald is a poet, writer, scientist, and activist. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including poetry in Crab Orchard Review, Lunch Ticket, and The New Verse News; fiction in So to Speak and Cobalt; creative nonfiction in Longridge Review and HerStry; and journalism in In Motion Magazine. She co-authored with Margaret Randall the recently-released Dominga Rescues the Flag/Dominga rescata la bandera, the story of black Puerto Rican heroine Dominga de la Cruz. Mcdonald lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
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:
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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 is our nation's permafrost. And it is melting.
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.
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.
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.
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 U. 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."
This is the fascism we have to fight.
Archaeologists & Creators
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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/
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.
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/
Published in In Motion Magazine September 29, 2020
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