Saturday, 12 November 2016

OPINION: ART AND CONFRONTING A TRUMP PRESIDENCY

By Dr. Claire Oberon Garcia

Black people in the United States have long known that we live in a divided nation, and that the fault lines of these divisions lie along what previous generations called “the color line.” These fault lines are both material – the neighborhoods where we live, the segregated schools we attend, the employment we attain – and theoretical: how we interpret the world we live in and our place in it.

A cartoon by high-school student JDC.
African Americans are profoundly aware of how race inflects every dimension of life in our country, and while many Americans of all backgrounds celebrated the election of the country’s first black president eight years ago, it has been clear that his election, rather than demonstrating how far the US has come on the racial front, the upsurge in anti-black behavior and sentiment that marked the years since Barack Obama’s election has shown how far we have yet to go. As CNN commentator Van Jones said as he viewed the electoral map on election night turning steadily red for Republican votes, “This is a whitelash.”

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States is white Americans’ definitive response to President Obama: a rejection of any legacy he may have tried to leave, and a repudiation of the forces that brought a black man to the White House after more than 400 years of African American presence in America. An overwhelming majority of white Americans chose a man who spent a lot of time and money trying to prove that Barack Obama was fundamentally unqualified as president on the level of the most basic criteria: citizenship. White Americans wanted their country back, and now they have it.

Even before Trump’s victory, I was frightened and dismayed that his candidacy had brought to the public sphere the barely submerged racist and misogynistic discourses that have become even more virulent in the wake of successes of civil rights and feminist activism (characterized by Trump and his followers as burdensome “political correctness”). Of course there is talk of “healing divisions” in US society. But these divisions aren’t mere policy disagreements, but incompatible narratives about the value and rights of human beings.

Race, Ethnicity and Migration Studies professors
Dwanna Robertson and Michael Sawyer
help college students understand and contextualize the
U.S. Presidential Election. (Photo: C. Oberon Garcia)
What to do in light of the resounding decision by millions of US voters to either ignore or malign the humanity, the citizenship rights, the sense of belonging, and the American Dreams of African Americans, Muslims, LGBTQ, women, and the disabled? The message that US voters sent loud and clear on 8 November (despite the fact that Hillary Clinton seems to have very, very narrowly won the popular vote) was that certain people do not belong, and the people who voted for Trump are willing to build literal walls and use language and stereotypes as figurative walls to keep these “Others” out of white, patriarchal spaces.

In the days following Election Day, social media was full of first-person accounts of people of color and LGBTQ citizens being taunted, and students, especially Latin and Muslim students, being bullied by white students. Spray painted on walls in various places were racist slogans and messages such as this one in Durham, North Carolina, on Nov. 9: “BLACK LIVES DON’T MATTER AND NEITHER DOES YOUR VOTES”.

Very quickly, the feelings of shock and rage among those in the US who feel frightened by and vulnerable under a Trump presidency developed into resolve. Thousands took to the streets in several US cities, chanting “Love trumps hate,” “Not my president,” and the perennial, “The people united will never be defeated.” Meanwhile, political leaders on both sides of the aisle, following the leads of President Obama and vanquished Secretary Hillary Clinton, spoke of “healing divisions” and “coming together.”

But how is it possible to “come together” when these divisions are marked by very real differences in values? When one side thinks that unambiguous racism is unimportant and disconnected from issues such as Supreme Court appointments, and the other side distrusts a candidate who has hundreds of supporters who sport t-shirts emblazoned with racist slogans and who chortles about his adventures in sexual assault? President-elect Trump’s characterization of all black citizens as terrified inhabitants of urban jungles, decades of disrespect for women, racialized maligning of immigrants, and other campaign rhetoric that sent his supporters into an avid frenzy confirms a long record of his denying the basic humanity and rights of people who are different from himself: people who are not white, male, wealthy, and powerful. But Trump is just one man, albeit as of the third Monday in January, 2017, one of the most powerful in the world. More terrifying to many Americans are his supporters, from his picks for positions such as Attorney General to the children of his voters who tell their classmates to “Go back to where you came from!”

Dr. Claire Oberon Garcia
Freshly wounded and fearful for a future that seems an all-too-familiar throwback to a shameful past of overt expressions and policies crafted to protect white supremacy, it is tempting to succumb to a feeling of panic, or dream of an escape to a personal Zion. Trump’s election is clearly a reaction to the hard-fought struggles and yet unfulfilled dreams of civil rights and feminist activists. Succumbing to panic and despair will threaten the very real gains that the US recently has made in becoming a more equitable and just society.  It is clear that those who don’t see themselves in Trump’s vision of the United States must unite, collaborate, and resist on the political front.

But we also must remember that when the humanity of individual or groups is violently assaulted, that we have the power of art. Toni Morrison, in an essay written for The Nation magazine shortly after George W. Bush’s election, noted that in times of violence and chaos and despair that “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” 

We must not interpret calls for “unity” and working as “one team” as calls to make peace with people, attitudes, and policies that strip people of their humanity and fundamental rights. If we truly want to heal our nation and the world in which it plays such a major role, we must confront our differences and affirm our collective humanity. Art, particularly writing, as Morrison notes, has the power to do this in unique ways. Through the shared medium of language, we are reminded that we are all in a web of community together, whether we like it or not: Americans share one nation but belong to many, as we all live together for better or worse on one irreplaceable planet.

The United States was already experiencing a racial and cultural nadir: Trump’s election puts the official seal on it. It seems as if white people and people of color live in parallel realities, and that one narrative simply can’t encompass the multiple truth of lived experience. But moments of crisis force us to articulate who we are and what we value. Just as in the period after the Civil War, perhaps the battles between the two Americas – white and “Other” – and the attendant suffering and loss will help us at least talk about how we might forge a more perfect union for the 21st century.

Dr. Claire Oberon Garcia is a professor of English and Director of the Race, Ethnicity and Migration Studies Program at Colorado College in the United States.