One evening, when helping my children with their homework, an illustration in my son’s second-grade social studies text book grabbed my attention. It was a photograph of a reenactment of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The actors in the image were all young children. One of the actors was a Black boy, dressed as one of the signatories, wearing a white wig and aristocratic colonial attire, and holding a quill pen.
I pointed out the photograph to my son and said, “What’s wrong with that picture?” He said, “The Black boy. He wouldn’t be signing the Declaration of Independence. He’d be a slave. He wouldn’t be free.” My son knew that slavery had continued for generations, after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He knew that “all men are created equal,” meant “all White men are created equal.” My children know that their enslaved African ancestors were called “chattel, possessions” that they were not considered men, but rather “three-fifths men.” They understand why Frederick Douglass therefore criticized the celebration of “Independence Day.”
Being myself, descended from activist men (my father and grandfather) who risked their lives fighting against oppression in Cuba, and being married for almost two decades to a dark-skinned Black, long locked, solo-practicing civil rights attorney who has always boycotted July 4th, and having myself spent over two decades fighting discrimination, via community organizing and artistic expression, it is no wonder that my husband and I would birth six children who would embrace, keenly understand, and critically examine the history of their subjugated ancestors.
My children’s sensitivity and inquisitiveness, and their yearning for truth, make it easy for me to ask them to participate as subjects in my art. They pose for my paintings, wherein they appear at times as slaves or indigenous people. They act in my videos, and they perform with me on stage, in gallery settings, and at learning institutions. Often the nature of the scenarios we reenact involves violence. My children handle it well, because they are acutely aware that being on the receiving end of violence is a large part of their family history. They know that they are here because their White ancestors pillaged and raped their Black and Indigenous ancestors. “Violence is as American as Cherry Pie,” said the Black Panther, H. Rap Brown.
When my children and I reenact the torture, it is an exercise for us in remembering the suffering that our forbearers endured. It is a reminder that we are their dreams come true, that it is their shoulders upon which we stand. At times, when reading the text before we shoot a scene or rehearse a performance, we cry. Other times, we laugh and have fun with the mixing of home-found ingredients to simulate blood, or the retractable knives, or the donning of wigs to make us more resemble our Siboney (indigenous people of eastern Cuba) ancestors.
One video-art piece we made, The Legacy of Christopher Columbus: A Short Account in Technicolor, has received almost 25,000 hits, since it’s been on YouTube for just two years. It is one of the most violent works of art I’ve created. The video is filled with fast cuts of graphic reenactments of the genocidal slaughter. Based on the thousands of viewer comments; the graphic depiction of the violence serves in eliciting reactions of anger and sadness. The work also elicited a plethora of racist comments from a few people, claiming to be indigenous, who were disgusted and angered at the portrayal of Natives by “Niggers.”