American history is rife with controversial symbolism: the Confederate flag and monuments; Mount Rushmore; the Liberty Bell; and most especially these days, the American flag itself. These symbols are a visual shorthand for the sorts of high-minded principles this country was supposedly founded upon (freedom, democracy, equality). But more and more, the ugly truth behind their histories is being exposed. We’re taught at an early age to respect them unwaveringly as emblems of American supremacy. But because 2020 is the Year of the Great Dismantling, it’s become increasingly important to reckon with not only how problematic these patriotic relics actually are, but also with how the history that’s being made today is already at risk of falling victim to the same fate: of congealing into empty symbols that lack nuance, and—depending upon your news source—truth.
Human beings are visual creatures. Not that we are all equally equipped to be visual learners, only that—biologically speaking—most of us learn how to understand the world and navigate its relationships more through images than any other form of information. So it matters a whole lot what sorts of images are accompanying today’s biggest headlines. Our visual nature, for instance, is exactly why George Floyd’s murder sparked a worldwide outcry and the largest civil rights movement in history to date: the image of an unarmed Black man being slowly choked to death by a white officer kneeling on his neck was something that people couldn’t unsee. There was no way to justify what played out in an agonizing loop on TV screens and laptops and phones on May 25, even though the same atrocities have been happening for generations.
Our visual nature is also why televising protests and marches can be at turns empowering and dangerous. When peaceful protests surrounding Floyd’s murder began to crop up around the globe in late May and early June, it signified to many that a line had been crossed, and that much-needed institutional change might be attainable and possible—maybe. But it also represented, to others, a threat to be quashed, an uprising that skewered their own personhoods and their beliefs in an America they had been raised to love unconditionally. Protesters vs. rioters, that sort of thing. The visual is the same, though the narrative is not. What determines how this pivotal moment in time will be remembered several millennia from now is who gets to write the story that accompanies these images. And unfortunately, if history is any indication, it will be written by the victors—aka white people.
America is a country that was built upon white amnesia. Assertions of its greatness rely on a combination of selectively faulty memory and carefully crafted narratives that quietly gloss over acts so dehumanizing that we require soft euphemisms in order to even talk about them: Manifest Destiny (land theft), gentrification (displacement), Jim Crow laws (racism and white supremacy), and microaggressions (tiny little daily deaths)—just to name a few. In history texts, we learn about the Confederacy as though it were a thing of the past; we memorize the names of the four presidents carved into the Black Hills of South Dakota, but not the names of the tribes whose sacred land was stolen in order to create the monument; we revere the Liberty Bell as an icon of freedom even though it sits on property that once belonged to Philadelphia’s largest slaveowner; and we pledge our allegiance to a flag that, ultimately, signifies more irony than sincerity these days.?
In all of these instances, our education has failed us. (Or it hasn’t, depending on who you ask.) Through these symbols, we were indoctrinated with unquestioning loyalty to a country that has chosen to twist history into a palatable narrative that favors both white supremacy and innocence. And the scary thing is that the same thing is already happening now, in real time, as the world falls apart and those in charge continue to do things that defy logic in order to preserve their reality.
Think about Trump’s recent tirade at Mount Rushmore. The visual of a president, speaking to the public on the eve of Independence Day—and in a solemn tone, no less—would make sense if it weren’t for the conflicting context surrounding his visit: the Native Americans protesting his presence, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and the fact that pretty much everything he railed on was a misrepresentation of the truth. But how will that speech be remembered 10, 20, 100 years from now? If the same sort of whitewashing that vindicated Confederate statues is applied to this headline-making event, it wouldn’t be surprising if Trump’s words were spun to serve his own agenda. Images of Native protesters being pepper sprayed and handcuffed will be chalked up to savage insurgency, rather than righteous resistance against an invasive force (aka Trump). The protesters will be blamed for causing a ruckus, even though they were the ones who were wronged in the first place. And a semblance of order will be restored.
“Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children,” Trump said during his speech. “Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities. Many of these people have no idea why they are doing this, but some know exactly what they are doing.” Without context, his accusations, coupled with the imagery of protesters and his own smug mug in front of Mount Rushmore, seem reasonable. Patriotic. Years from now, how will this moment be remembered?
Or take the infamous Bible incident, wherein Trump decided to take it upon himself, amid the ongoing protests in Washington, D.C., to carve a path toward a small church across from the White House in order to have his photo taken with a Bible. Peaceful protesters were dispersed with tear gas and rubber bullets so that the president could make this meaningless gesture, more a flex of power than piety. But regardless of how senseless his behavior was in the context of the moment, it served its purpose: he has his picture. Years from now, how will this moment be remembered??
Perhaps the most symbolic image from these past few weeks, however, has nothing to do with Trump, and it’s already started to fade from news headlines in the days since its own dismantling. In Seattle, protesters set up what came to be known as the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), formerly the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), for four weeks in June. It was an experiment in what a police-free zone could be like, with a volunteer medic station, free food and drink, a community garden, and nightly speeches and screenings. It was far from perfect, as most human-run efforts tend to be, but it represented a hope for a different system, one that welcomed marginalized folks into leadership roles and reimagined a society in which protective forces aren’t also the ones killing its citizens. ?
As of early July, however, police reclaimed the streets. Tents and protesters have been cleared out of the park; cars are once again permitted to pass through where before there were concrete barricades. All that remains is a mural stretching several blocks that still reads “Black Lives Matter,” a symbolic reminder of the CHOP experiment. During the occupation, Trump declared that the “radical left” had taken over the city of Seattle, and some news outlets ran digitally altered photos to stoke the imagination of a city all aflame. Years from now, how will this moment be remembered?
The fact is that we’re all so glued to our screens these days that images matter more than ever. Our visual literacy is being put to the test: can we make meaning of what we’re seeing? And our memories are short; even a year from now, we’ll have to rely on photos and footage to recall all the events that have come to pass in the hellfire that is 2020. It will feel like every historic thing happening now took place a lifetime ago, the same way the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown seems like it was ages ago; every week another year. Context and nuance matters, but those who write history will inevitably try to simplify the images we see into symbols of these times, visual representations of this moment, skewed to serve a narrative that neatly aligns with the march of white supremacy that this country began so many years ago. What will we remember?
Joyce Chen is a writer/editor/creator from LA who spent a decade in NYC before relocating back to the West Coast in fall 2017. She has covered entertainment and human interest stories for Rolling Stone, Refinery29, Paste magazine, the New York Daily News, and People, and her creative writing credits include LitHub, Narratively, and Barrelhouse, among others. She is one of the cofounders of The Seventh Wave, a bicoastal arts and literary nonprofit, and holds an MFA from The New School and a BA in journalism and psychology from USC.
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