I spent inauguration day, January 20th, 2017,not in front of the television but with my wife touring New York City’s Metropolitan Museum’s extraordinary exhibition by the artist Kerry James Marshall. The retrospective ranged from Marshall’s diverse depictions of black interior life to his sometimes playful and often searing considerations of various aspects of American history. For me, it was a powerful and necessary alternative to the shameful spectacle unfolding in Washington that morning.
Yet try as I might to take my mind off of the installation of the new president, and all that his ascension represented, it was impossible to fully escape from the looming dread of our new collective reality. As I neared the end of the exhibition, two sets of images in particular spoke to me about the need for vigilance and sustained, principled resistance under the new regime.
In the first, a triptych entitled Heirlooms and Accessories (2002), Marshall takes a well-known photograph of the 1930 lynching of two African-American men in Marion, Indiana, digitally “whitewashes” the gruesome scene, and isolates individual white bystanders captured looking directly towards the photographer’s lens. Marshall frames each of the women’s faces within a locket-like necklace. Though I teach about lynching in my courses and invite my students to dwell on questions of both individual and group complicity in the horrors of systemic racial terror, there was something about the guile with which that stopped me in my tracks.
Beyond the artist’s statement regarding a specific historical moment or any simple condemnation of distant actors long ago, I was compelled by what I took to be Marshall’s challenge to the viewer: To what crimes against our common humanity are we all accessories?
Just around the corner from these images another of Marshall’s works delivered a message seemingly tailor-made for this fateful moment. The large scale abstract painting “Red (if they come in the morning)” (2011) dates from just a few years ago, yet it conveys the weight of decades of black struggle. The phrase that appears in large block letters filling the sweeping red canvas bookended by narrow black and green borders was immediately recognizable to me as an adaptation of the words of that signal American prophet, . In November 1970 Baldwin penned an , then incarcerated and charged with capital crimes for which she would later be exonerated following an international grassroots support campaign. Baldwin ends his letter with a potent statement about the need for people of conscience to act.
It is not enough, Baldwin insists, simply to be aware of a moral crisis. “If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name,” he writes. Baldwin concludes:
If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.
I have read that letter often, shared it with friends and students. Encountering Baldwin’s caution, via the work of Kerry James Marshall, on the day an unrepentant xenophobic, misogynist, white nationalist took the oath to assume the nation’s highest office was auspicious.
Exactly one week later, the illegitimate president signed yet another immoral and unconstitutional executive order – the latest in a series of cruel, punitive, and profoundly short-sighted measures meant to consolidate his power, punish the vulnerable, and isolate the United States from the rest of the world. As promised, they had come for the refugees, the immigrants, the Muslims.
“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated,” the human rights lawyer reminds us. If I were to heed the lessons my mother had taught me, if I were to honor who had made possible the considerable privileges I enjoy, if I were to be true to the history I write and teach about, then there was only one choice. I boarded the subway for the hour and a half journey underground through Manhattan, Brooklyn, and eventually out to Queens: John F. Kennedy International Airport, Terminal 4.
I joined the protests in solidarity with the vulnerable populations targeted by this capricious decree; with the immigrant workers whose labor allows this city and this country to function; with the activists, organizers, and lawyers struggling on the front lines; and with my fellow New Yorkers wishing to embody and make manifest genuine compassion, democracy, community, and resistance. I joined the protests for my students – past, present, and future – who dare to speak up and speak out. I joined the protests for the migrant diaspora that is my father’s family, originating in eastern Nigeria and now residing in three countries and at least seven states. I joined the protests for my children who are (thankfully) too young to understand the viciousness and hatred of the current moment but to whom I will one day have to answer.
I have been to scores of demonstrations in my life in support of a wide range of causes. I have felt the euphoria of standing tall and “doing something” and the nagging despair that says that clever chants and razor-sharp slogans are meaningless in the face of entrenched power. I know well that protests and marches are not the only valid forms of resistance and that, for many people, participation in a mass demonstration is not an option. Letters and petitions, phone calls to elected officials and business leaders, strategic voting, investigative reporting, lawsuits, boycotts, strikes, slow downs, walk outs, sit ins, the full range of art and human creativity. We need it all.
But on this cold Saturday in January I knew I needed to be shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people of like mind, signs, fists, and camera phones in the air, voices raised in unison — facing down the agents of the state, demanding justice, and refusing to accept the unacceptable.
“Resist, fight back, this is our New York …”