“This Land Is Our Land”

We all have a part to play in how our world operates. The interconnectivity of our lives can no longer be ignored. Beloved, justice-loving President John F. Kennedy once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Now, more than ever, this question is pertinent in its application to service in this country, and also to the required work in our cities, families and extended communities. Perhaps we need to expand the definition of poison, broaden the scope to encompass of how actions that intend to harm one group inevitably undermines all of us, since we share the same ecosystems.

img_2140
Cristiana Briscese

When Regan took office, he implemented all manner of racists policies as a backlash to the reforms of the 1970s—the product of much bloodshed and activism during the mass Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s—he wanted a return to the past, to once again disenfranchise black Americans, who were at last prospering with gainful employment, access to the ballot and a legislated end to centuries of legal discrimination. So the 80s became the decade for undoing the gains of previous decade, by first closing the factories that employed thousands of workers all over the country, but especially in the motor cities of the mid-west, where many blacks had migrated the century before. Other manufacturers shuttered plants as well, lining their pockets and resting their large heads on soft pillows in the great old US of A, while keeping their portly purses well out of reach of Uncle Sam. Combined that with the simultaneous economically devastating white flight from urban cities and the strategic divestment in the remaining communities, and America’s working class was dealt a mortal deathblow.

Just as many whites as blacks lost jobs to the factory closings. The lose of tax revenue from those who left the cities, dwindled, and then, those who could, packed their bags and left. But it seems that now the desolation of a targeted group of people has inexplicably, at long last, trickled down to the rural areas of Virginia and runs amok in the woods of Pennsylvania, where the toxic stream meanders through the land and fords the vast wildernesses where once stood the fabled factory of the well-paying job for the undereducated. And just like that, it becomes woefully apparent, that though poison will at first killed the intended undesirable fish in the immediate vicinity, it will, before long, also kill the frogs in distant ponds as it runs it course.

Take the clever example offered in the movie There will be Blood when oil tycoon Daniel Plainview, takes his straw and says to his nemesis, “I drink your milk,” he clarifies that the oil beneath the ground does not honor property boundaries; the milk, of course, is a metaphor for the oil in the earth, the same collective resource of all those who inhabit the land, sustenance that may as well be any resource from housing, to jobs, to healthy food, to lead-free water.

Your consent is unnecessary.

Similarly ironic, when decades of fracking leads to earthquakes in places like Oklahoma that had never before been susceptible to the shifting of tectonic plates, it give pause—to some. Or, when oil pipelines that have long mapped over Native lands like arteries outside an ailing body leak oil into formerly pristine waterways, we see that it’s only a matter of time before what we have done unto others gets done to us:

Pillage the forests; get land erosion and warmer climes.

Spray pesticides, and kill all the bees.

Undermine the livelihood of black American, and sow widespread unemployment.

We are all connected.

img_2141
by Cristiana Briscese

No one can escape the poison once it seeps into the land, the water and the air. We have to clean it all up, or we all perish. We don’t get to choose who lives or who dies. We must be the stewards of the land, and not solely the environmental aspects of our shared geographies, but of the people, especially, and the plants and animals that are sustained or destroyed by our daily choices, and our insatiable hungers. We must invest in each other, with our hearts, and be willing to extend that love to our brothers and sisters—no matter what skin tone, regardless of papers, beliefs, notwithstanding.

It is our responsibility to seek these reconciliations—each one of us. When we have done these things, all will be well.

Advertisements

The Uses of Visual Images as Envisioned by Douglass: The Necessity of Art (Part VII)

 

Art is a visionary’s tool (among others). For a long time artists have used the medium of photography to foretell, criticize and reimagine the way we see, what we see, but also why we see. Take the great reformer, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who in moving from images of Black poverty and nakedness to dignified and well-dressed statesman, understood and recognized that art could liberate Black men and women in the consciousness of the viewer. Douglass embraced photography in the form of Daguerreotype and used his own image to bombard the social media of the era. What had easily become a keepsake token of affluence, the portrait became a force for transforming consciousness in the hands of a powerful Black American, who used it to define himself and a people. With his actions as a writer and a subject of the gaze, Douglass used art to change America.

frederick-douglass-1852

Today selfies are a widespread phenomenon misused by young people all over the world. The intoxicating image of the self has us giddy with self-absorption (you can even by a stick for this). For his part, Frederick Douglass employed the power of the portrait that few of us seem to value or recognize today because of the proliferation of cameras. Yesteryear, however, Frederick Douglass, the original selfie King, sat for numerous portraits as an act of liberation, intending to shatter static notions of Black identity using his own changing image. Given that he did so well before the advent of cell-phone cameras, the selfie king had to make deliberate efforts to make his image available to a 19th-century populace, many of whom eroticized the African body as a side-show attraction, or relegated them to an exotic sub-human status unworthy of the lens. It was under these circumstances that Douglass envisioned a narrative that could only be told through the camera’s eye—a story he would repeat dozens of times to become the most photographed figure of his epoch.

img_1761
Pillar in Print

For Douglass, art in the early manifestation of the selfie, the portrait, was a vehicle used to normalize Blackness. By sitting for portraits wherever he went, Douglass realized that the image of a free Black American would provoke the viewer to consider his personhood and, thereby, challenge the perceptions of White Americans that he used to gain a kind of social currency, an invented algorithm inserted into the mainstream dialogue. Douglass did so in the struggle to abolish slavery; Douglass knew art had power, whether by creating it, starring on the canvas or generating a frequency of sound; art’s power was undeniable.

Frederick Douglass was able to harness the power of art and use it to reframe an entire narrative about Black identity. Later artists of the Harlem of Renaissance—writer, painters, poets, dancers and sculptors—would continue his legacy, crafting a movement of empowered self-expression that would begin to heal a people from a history as a formerly enslaved people. Art and change are not separate. One births the other and the other fathers the revolution—more on that later.

 

Historical Repetitions: (Just Waiting to See What Will Be Considered Next) d

Charity begins at home. Sometimes Trump seems to be saying just that. Perhaps freedom from hunger is the freedom we all need. When our people are starving, roving the streets looking for shelter, chronically unemployed, then it is at last time for a movement. It’s what prompted the revolutions of the 19th century and it’s what drove the 1960s Civil Rights activism. We are no more impervious to ills of imposed poverty than to the desire to feed and shelter our families. The people have spoken, and beneath the rhetoric of hate, misogyny and bigotry, are the very real concerns of people who have witnessed a steady decline in resources, opportunities and wages, as well as the intangibles: loss of pride, purpose and dignity. Unlike the bulk of Trump’s electorate, I don’t draw the boundary along a color line. I see that in San Francisco, the disenfranchised, displaced and working poor are blacks, averaging salaries of $24,000 a year. These communities, long-time residents of this thriving metropolis, are in need of jobs, resources, supermarkets and hope. Maybe we will see change.

img_1949
What’s Happening Here?

 

That said, this is not the time to go to sleep. We need to remain watchful, vigilant and engaged. Trump’s policies need to provide for all of us, not just White Americans, who are feeling the pain that historically, only Native Americans, African Americans and Latino Americans and countless other minority groups have experienced. It’s the same pain. The pain is momentarily evenly distributed among those of the working class and working poor: groups, which are increasingly indistinguishable from one another. Let us look upon the lessons of history and see that we are our brother’s keeper. We’re in it together. Four years, or less: Who knows? But if we get more jobs, better paying jobs, I’m okay with prosperity. img_1896

In the meantime, let’s practice agape, friends. I’m talking about love. Kindness is contagious.