I don’t have very many memories of my great-grandmother. She passed away when I was five and all I have are very vague memories of visiting her when she was in hospice with my dad, wandering through the too-clinically white space and being vaguely scared of the machines. However, the stories my dad and aunts tell about her live on. The problem is, is that not all of them are good memories.
She grew up during the Second World War where her (much older) brothers fought in the Pacific theatre. As a result, she was deeply racist towards anyone of Asian descent, saying things that are almost funny in how ignorant and prejudiced they are. Imagine a stereotype of a racist old white lady and you pretty much have a good picture of how my great grandmother talked about anyone who didn’t look like her. Her racism towards everyone else who isn’t white was less obvious, especially as she grew up and lived most of her life in a predominantly white area, but rather unfortunately, it came out towards the end of her life when she was put in an assisted living facility and hospice with primarily black nurses.
These nurses were some of the best of humanity — you have to be to work with the ill and dying and retain some of your compassion. My great-grandmother didn’t care. She was terrified during her stay there. She grew up being taught harmful stereotypes about black people and she believed them. Despite this, the nurses there not only took amazing care of her through the end of her life, but they absolutely loved her. Of course, the romanticization of memory absolutely comes into play, but to hear my relatives speak of the nurses there, it seems as though they were able to look past her racism and see a scared, old lady who needed help. Purportedly, her main nurse cried when she finally passed.
I can’t claim to know what my great-grandmother was thinking during this time, but I also can’t imagine that encountering these nurses of color and having them treat her with love and compassion didn’t change some of her racist views. This in no way exonerates her from her racism during life, but it helps to know that before she died, she was confronted with some of the harmful views she had and was shown that they were wrong and that the people she was so scared of helped her have a comfortable end of her life. I know my family is very grateful that the nurses didn’t treat her as an enemy but instead proved her wrong with love.
And that will be the point of this blog post: countering hate with love and care, which is something I have been thinkING about since our group blog post, where we talked about Mariame Kaba’s excellent essay, Free Us All: Participatory defense campaigns as abolitionist organizing.
In this essay, Kaba focuses on various methods used by the prison abolition movement, evaluating them in terms of long-term efficiency. For this reason, she argues that, while important in the short term, campaigns that only focus on freeing one person don’t lead to long-term success. She talks about cases where people who used violent self-defense methods were criminalized, an issue that particularly affects black women, and the importance of individual movements to help them now. But in the long run, the entire system needs to be uprooted and fixed and freeing individuals isn’t the best way to achieve this long-term goal unless they are integrated into a larger, long-term aim. Kaba writes, “The mass practice of decarcerality that intends to win must include fighting to free individuals from cages, and that must include fighting to defend and free criminalized survivors of violence. This will ensure that our movement for abolition is strengthened and can grow,” indicating the need for both kinds of abolitionist care — individual cases and long-term change.
In this article, Kaba quotes Saidiya Hartman with a phrase that has stuck with me since first reading it two semesters ago: “care is the antidote to violence.” There are infinite ways this statement can be interpreted, but I have chosen to interpret as the following (and this is partially pulled from a self-reflective essay I already wrote about this). The word “care”, among its many other definitions, can be defined as “the process of providing for the needs of someone or something.” This is the definition I chose to work with in that essay, and the one that I continue to believe that Hartman meant when she used the word care. Thus, in the face of violence (which is more than just physical violence, but also emotional and social violence), acknowledging and addressing the needs of a situation is the best form of care and the only kind that can lead to long-term solutions. In the case of Kaba, her form of care is organizing and helping participatory defense campaigns, which addresses the needs of an individual, and integrating them into the larger movement of prison abolition, thus helping with the needs of the movement on a larger scale.
Working with this phrase, “care is the antidote to violence,” is incredibly fruitful as I begin to look back on this semester and consider the throughline of the whole course. Though it isn’t mentioned anywhere in the syllabus or, I truly believe that this quote from Hartman can be considered as a link between the concepts we have talked about in this course.
To begin with the real throughline of the course, the artwork of Prince is an act of care in every sense of the word, and the Katrina Suite prints are a perfect example of this. In this suite of images, Prince is responding to the violence of Hurricane Katrina that both physically ripped the city to shreds and emotionally harmed the survivors. According to public health officials, the aftermath of an extreme weather event like a hurricane, the toll of long-term psychological injuries builds in the months and years that follow, outpacing more immediate injuries and swamping the healthcare system long after emergency workers go home and shelters shut down.” And this observation is based only on the people that come forward to tell their story or actually seek help — one can only imagine how many more are suffering in silence.
The Katrina Suite is an act of care for several reasons, the first being that it raises awareness of the racial violence of Katrina. Katrina’s Veil: Stand at Gretna Bridge, as so many of my classmates have discussed, takes inspiration from Goya’s Third of May to show the racially-motivated violence that took place at Gretna Bridge during Hurricane Katrina, thus raising awareness for a terrible situation that needs addressing. And the situation at Gretna is just one example of racial tensions rearing their ugly head in New Orleans, especially during Katrina. Only two months ago was a man finally sentenced for racially-motivated murder during Hurricane Katrina. Thus, Prince’s art, such as Stand at Gretna Bridge, is an act of care in bringing this kind of violence to public attention and keeping its memory alive until we finally deal with the problem head-on, which is certainly part of meeting the needs of the situation — it is so easy to forget these kinds of things because of the consistent barrage of information and tragedy, so using art to keep them in public awareness is certainly a step towards solving this problem.
However, it goes beyond just this; after all, the definition of care we are working with requires action, and this is where some of the other images from the suite come in. Katrina’s Dirge, Flambeau, and Rebirth tell a story of the death and rebirth of New Orleans after Katrina and in this, I believe they can and should be read as a map for what comes. Katrina’s Dirge is a difficult piece to parse out because of the presence of the horseman (who, as Claire pointed out, are presented “as both protectors and destroyers”). However, the title gives us a clue — a dirge, in New Orleans jazz tradition, is the music of the sad part of the funeral. Thus, Katrina’s Dirge can be read as an homage to the city after Katrina, both for the physical destruction of buildings and bodies and for the psychological toll it took upon the survivors. Flambeau and Rebirth provide the clues as to what happens next — the flambeaux carriers are traditionally part of parades and thus have a positive connotation, which is supported by the dancing Baby Doll at the forefront of the work (which, as we know, is certainly an appropriate symbol of healing and renewal!). And this healing energy continues into Second Line: Rebirth, where the Second Line is for the rebirth of New Orleans after Katrina, as suggested by the slogan on the hat of the man in the bottom left.
In this way, Prince not only raises awareness of a situation that needs to be remedied but also provides a path forward, a path of reconciliation and rebirth, making his works an act of care in the fight against racism and racial violence, a need highlighted by the events of Hurricane Katrina. And of course, as Prince himself has said, “At the heart of my work is love. Love of self, and love of people. The work is challenging, first to me, and to my audience. History holds a lot of pain, if we choose to look at it clearly, but it also holds undeniable beauty, power and majesty. We have a responsibility of the self and others in which we are in contact with. We are “our brothers’ keeper,” and you are my ‘neighbor.'”
In using the image of the Baby Dolls, Prince evokes another person that has been instrumental in providing care as the antidote to violence: Kim Vaz-Deville. As I wrote in another post, her work with the Baby Dolls provides care to them in multiple ways. The first is that their history and stories are documented so that people like me, who have never been to New Orleans, can learn about them and thus raise awareness of the important work they have done and continue to do. Second, in her effort to build a sustainable relationship with the Baby Dolls, Vaz-Deville, actually does care for them — she sees a need, such as lack of transportation or need for an audience for an event, and provides it for them. Third, in doing both of these things, she empowers them to do the work that they are doing, taking back white male-dominated spaces by owning their own sexuality and being confident in their place in New Orleans society, which in and of itself is an act of care in responding to oppression experienced by black people, but especially black women.
Because of all of this, I need to acknowledge the role of this class as an act of care. I can’t thank Professor McCoy, Prince, Vaz-Deville, our TAs and all of the guest lecturers enough for their role in this class, which in and of itself is an act of care for interdisciplinary studies and a furthering of the work of Prince and Vaz-Deville.
Thus, this class and its contents really do embody Hartman’s assertion that “care is the antidote to violence.” Care, as found in the work of Prince and Vaz-Deville has the power to change minds more than responding with violence ever could, which is why I really like and agree with the conclusion to Liv’s last post, which reads “Caring about others is one of the most simple things we can do to make the world a better place. So let’s aim for empathy as the default and actively reject casual discrimination.” I truly believe, in Liv’s description of it, empathy is part of care and part of solving the problem of racial discrimination.
To close this post, I’d like to leave you all with a line from Joy Harjo’s poem “Reconciliation,” which I think embodies what I am trying to say with this post in much fewer words:
All acts of kindness are lights in the war for justice.