Living in Precarity

One of the courses I am taking this semester is entitled Precarity: The Deplorable and Invisible, taught by Dr. Elaine Cleeton and Dr. Michael Restivo (in Dr. Cleeton’s absence). A main focus of the course is how American Capitalism has been taken to such an extreme that it marginalizes many different groups of people, including Native Americans as well as the black community, to name just a few.

In my Native American Literature class with Dr. Caroline Woidat last semester, we talked a lot about how Native Americans are stereotyped and have been used in certain ways throughout the history of the United States for selfish causes. For example, the actor portraying a Native American man in the Crying Indian PSA to “Keep America Beautiful”, Iron Eyes Cody, was actually Italian-American. Nonetheless, he was used in a commercial to portray a different race, which is racist in itself, to promote a cause typically stereotyped as related to the Native American identity. Not all Native Americans are in touch with nature, or feel the need to be, but the association is strong enough that a whole commercial was based off of it. The commercial also plays into the idea that Native Americans are incredibly stoic; this made the actor’s tear at the very end of the film even more significant.

Dr. Kim Vaz-Deville mentioned the Mardi Gras Indians in her lecture here at Geneseo last month. According to this website, the Mardi Gras Indians are perhaps the least recognized of all who participate in the parade tradition. Everything about their presence seems to be fleeting—their parade routes are unannounced, and Dr. Vaz-Deville told us that the Mardi Gras Indians have to destroy their suits every year because they are made with organic materials. I would argue that this even speaks to another stereotype, that of the “Vanishing Indian”. This one in particular can be interpreted in a multitude of different ways. An obvious one is that Native Americans have historically been forced off of their land so often that we always see them leaving in order to move somewhere else. Another lens through which we may choose to look at this is how Native Americans have been so heavily persecuted, and how they have had the English language and American culture pushed so forcefully upon them that their very culture is disappearing.

One of the books we read in Dr. Cleeton’s course is called How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race, Political Economy, and Society, by Manning Marable. Marable’s main point, as you may gather from the title, is that American Capitalism and the racism that is a part of it makes it nearly impossible for black people in America to raise their socioeconomic status and improve their social and economic standing in America. Through this lens, we can more clearly see how black people did not and often still do not have the means to move out of certain neighborhoods and rise up in the world as other people have the agency to do. This leads me to think about some of the primary issues that Steve Prince discusses and represents in his art, like the displacement and suffering of black Americans because of the building of the interstate and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Between my studies so far of marginalized communities such as the Native American community and the black community (again. just to name a few, as there are many others), the relevance of Dr. Cleeton’s title for the course I am taking with her, “Precarity”, has become especially clear to me. So much about the lives of these marginalized communities are precarious, especially when we think about representations in Prince’s art of the thousands of black individuals that were adversely affected after the installation of the interstates in New Orleans, and the injustices they suffered at the hands of law enforcement following Hurricane Katrina. These communities have long been pushed or cast aside, and it is time we consider how to remedy these disparities and achieve total equality for the future.

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