The Personal is Still Political
As an academic, using self-reflexive language in one’s own work can be terrifying. Arts writing requires a measure of critical distance, so a first-person voice feels clunky and awkward. And it’s often easier to look to tangible things outside of ourselves that speak to hard-to-tell truths, which resonate at a personal level, than it is to allow oneself to be truly seen.
However, life can be poetically absurd sometimes; and as such, the work in Still They Persist and my own personal narrative could perhaps—if for no other reason—serve as a frame of reference for the labor of love that is this exhibition. So forgive the solipsism and wander with me just for a moment into the interstitial space where narrative, memory, and history collapse upon themselves like a house of cards. We are all so much more than one story can tell. But it can be a worthwhile journey.
Over the course of much of the United States’ 2016 presidential election race, I was organizing a two-site exhibition of feminist artwork from the private collection of philanthropist, perennial board member, and museum docent volunteer Sara Vance Waddell entitled The Personal Is Political. Little did I know when I named the project just how much I would be forced to examine the implications of that idiom in my own life.
During the spring of 2016, in the early stages of organizing the shows, I suffered a miscarriage (my second) as so often happens, in the first trimester of pregnancy.
My partner of over 20 years and I had been trying to get pregnant again for the past several years, so I anticipated my monthly schedule down to the day. I knew within 6 weeks of conception that I was with child. Calculating the due date revealed a potential scheduling conflict so I felt compelled—and subsequently disheartened—to confide in the few close friends and colleagues that first I was, and then that I wasn’t, with child.
Though I mourned the loss of a child, my husband and I had been struggling to conceive, I found solace in the women around me who offered words of support and comfort—many of whom had themselves gone through similar woes.
I felt the same deep loss only months later when I realized that both of my parents voted for Trump in the last election.
My Puerto Rican father, who has received countless awards for his advocacy of Latinos, whose sister is a Muslim and whose son is blind and developmentally delayed, not only voted for #45, he also walked my brother into the voting booth and as his legal custodian, voted on behalf of my sibling to elect the nominee who makes inhumane jokes about people like him.
It was an act of betrayal from the same family who fought to keep my brother Jorge from being institutionalized for the better part of his childhood; and, though nearing 70 now themselves, continue to care for him on a daily basis at the age of 32. When we were young, my mother volunteered in schools teaching Everybody Counts classes, and she too voted for that monster.
The struggle with my staunchly Republican parents feels like it has more to do with a generational difference rather than their unwillingness to grapple with issues of identity. Raised by and in corrupt authoritarian institutions like the church and the corporation, they do not think of themselves as complicit in their support for politicians who spit venom and hate. White, wealthy, powerful men are the yard stick by which all other truths are measured in their world, so they excuse away issues of assault, misogyny and bigotry with their usual defense: “We always vote Republican.”
What my folks (and others like them) are perhaps unwilling to concede is that, in a world where the class bully can get elected president, every action—from something as small as walking down the street or cruising the internet, to those bigger decisions involved in navigating a career and having a child—inevitably puts a target for public scrutiny on one’s back.
Womxn’s bodies—particularly those of color—have historically been legislated and policed; and with Neil Gorsuch’s recent Senate confirmation as the newest member of the Supreme Court (among countless other ominous nominations & appointments coming out of the Executive branch since the inauguration), that trend does not seem to be going away anytime soon.
Because such intimate issues can feel soul crushing and all encompassing—and because women are often the backbone of society—it’s good for the world when we galvanize to support each other in ways that feel monumental; and the Women’s March was one such moment in time.
Walking around DC all day with eight other friends on very little sleep, surrounded by womxn and their allies as far as the eye could see, felt like a personal catharsis.
After the election, I mourned for my country and our apparent lack of support for women, immigrants, persons of color, trans folks, Muslims, et.al. But I was also grieving for the family I thought I knew, and who had raised me to be the person that I am today. So having this moment to feel connected to others who were likewise mad as hell, and ready to get radical, was a large part of my healing process.
We carried our handmade signs, huddled in groups sharing food and stories; chanted “Black Lives Matter” and “this is what democracy looks like;” chatted with strangers who came on foot, in wheelchairs and with walkers, from Tucson, Dallas and Portland, via bus, plane, and car. Not since I’d attended the Million Man March, 22 years ago as a supportive bystander, have I ever felt that kind of power in mass assembly.
In the midst of picking up artwork for The Personal is Political exhibition, Sara mentioned that she was reaching out to the many talented feminist artists in her network to acquire signs from the then-planned Women’s march, and I enthusiastically and whole-heartedly jumped aboard. What started out as me curating one wall in her home led to a mass inundation of signs—both with known provenance and without—from all around the country and it was clear that this project was bigger than any one show.
The pieces in Still They Persist are commanding, witty, angry, poetic, insular, and powerful. Frequently text coupled with imagery (or sometimes nothing more than image), the various approaches range from painstaking craft to simple, scrawled out, and cobbled together messages—so one cannot help but imagine the breadth of personal reasons that may have led up to the creation of each object.
Which leads me to the point of this exhibition: though these signs, placards, banners, et. al. were overwhelmingly made to be ephemeral objects, traveling them around the country seems like an appropriate way to allow the voices of resistance to continually reverberate in public.
The struggle is not over. Our country’s history is just as wrought with disparity and the current administration gives little hope for easy solutions.
There is work to be done. And like every woman who gets up in the morning knowing there is challenging labor ahead, I need my sisters around me now more than ever.