To think better, to think like the best humans, we are probably going to have to learn again to judge a person’s intelligence, not by the ability to recite facts, but by the good order or harmoniousness of his or her surroundings. We must suspect that any statistical justification of ugliness and violence is a revelation of stupidity.
―Wendell Berry, “People, Land, and Community”, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays
Years after a catastrophe, resilience continues to express itself. Memory lets us relive and reinterpret past events, unpacking things that overwhelmed us and growing our response over time. It is not an easy process. The approach of a date, a particular smell, image, or snippet of music can send us back to a deeply fearful place. Some try to forget, but the things we hide from the daylight have a way of resurfacing in our dreams. Unexpressed emotions can be powerful poisons. A world that suppresses history is a world in which violence simmers continually just beneath the collective consciousness. Resilience grows in the soil of our stories, informing the people we become, passing through us into our relationships and communities. We must share with one another if we want to survive.
This prose poem is the work of my friend, Sherry Cheng, a vibrant, warm and intelligent Chinese American woman who came to the United States in her teenage years. In it, she relates how the catastrophic events that happened in Tiananmen Square on a fateful day in 1989 impacted her, her family and her future husband. Her raw honesty speaks volumes, simple and clear. There cannot be many things more terrifying than a government that kills, imprisons and intimidates people with impunity.
Let me set the stage. On June 4, 1989, a peaceful, student-led protest is violently suppressed by the Chinese government, as the military, armed with rifles and tanks, kills at least several hundred unarmed people in Tiananmen Square. The images of tanks plowing down students shocks the world. Wei, Sherry’s future husband, is at the Central Conservatory, where he studies viola. Almost a decade before he will meet his wife, he steps out of the conservatory into a war zone. Sherry is sixteen and sits in front of a television set in an apartment in Starkville, MS, as horrific reports of the violence in her homeland flood the screen. Sherry’s aunt, a student at the University of Chicago who had taken donations from Americans to the student protesters at Tiananmen Square, boards a plane back to Chicago with her three year old son. She is also pregnant. Plain clothes police waiting on the plane meet her and take her and her son to prison. They will be missing for nearly two weeks, while her family uses every connection they have to find them. It will take a couple of months and a promise that she will never again be politically active for the family to secure their release.
Violence is not an anonymous phenomenon. The aggressors, the injured, the killed, the witnesses: they all have faces.
June 4, 1989
29 years ago today the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, bullets flew overhead while a young man lay prostrate on the ground right outside the Central Conservatory gates. He saw a little girl shot down,
an innocent bystander,
her Mother wailing.
A 16 year old girl across the ocean sat transfixed, as events transpired on her TV screen. She could not control her tears as images passed by of bloodied bodies piled on makeshift carts.
Hope turned to fear that day and for months after. Innocent deaths, interrogations, terror, arrests… The girl’s aunt, who had helped distribute funds to the peaceful protesters, disappeared from the airport on route to Chicago, her whereabouts unknown for weeks. She had her 3 year old son with her, as well as another one on the way.
Fast forward 29 years… I mark this day every year because forgetting is easy, even for those who experienced the terror first hand, like my husband. even for those who believed so strongly in an ideal that they would’ve given their lives for it, like my aunt. Because life does go on. We move forward.
So many have forgotten. For each new generation the memory grows dimmer. History is reevaluated and reinterpreted. Black and white, right and wrong, everything is blurred. Amnesia sets in. Ideals are lost.
But I’m still here, so is Wei. We carry that history with us. We will tell our stories every year, even when no one is listening.
What is the matter with these people, these people who won’t stop fighting, won’t stop hurting each other long enough to see that a body is a thing of beauty, is a miracle of rivers and oceans and islands and continents contained within itself? That the brain is divided into two hemispheres, each symmetrical, each perfect, each with its own system of waterways. These people of war should be shown an x-ray of an intraparenchymal hemorrhage, of a hemorrhage in an eighteen-year-old girl’s brain, a girl named Ivy. Take a look at that, people of war. See, you should not hurt each other, and this is why. Without you ever even trying, this is what can happen to your body, your beautiful body, and your brain, your beautiful symmetrical brain, and your heart, and your soul.
―Alison McGhee, All Rivers Flow to the Sea
On either side of a potentially violent conflict, an opportunity exists to exercise compassion and diminish fear based on recognition of each other’s humanity. Without such recognition, fear fueled by uninformed assumptions, cultural prejudice, desperation to meet basic human needs, or the panicked uncertainty of the moment explodes into violence.
―Aberjhani, Splendid Literarium: A Treasury of Stories, Aphorisms, Poems, and Essays
There is an old German fable about porcupines who need to huddle together for warmth, but are in danger of hurting each other with their spines. When they find the optimum distance to share each others’ warmth without putting each others’ eyes out, their state of contrived cooperation is called good manners. Well, those old German fabulists certainly knew a thing or two. When you acknowledge other people politely, the signal goes out, “I’m here. You’re there. I’m staying here. You’re staying there. Aren’t we both glad we sorted that out?” When people don’t acknowledge each other politely, the lesson from the porcupine fable is unmistakable. “Freeze or get stabbed, mate. It’s your choice.”
―Lynne Truss, Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door
We’re going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask us what we’re doing, you can say, We’re remembering. That’s where we’ll win out in the long run. And someday we’ll remember so much that we’ll build the biggest goddamn steamshovel in history and dig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in it and cover it up.
Margaret Atwood, the Canadian novelist, once asked a group of women at a university why they felt threatened by men. The women said they were afraid of being beaten, raped, or killed by men. She then asked a group of men why they felt threatened by women. They said they were afraid women would laugh at them.
―Molly Ivins, Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?
How do we deal with things that scare and anger us? Art can help us work through fear toward hope.
My newest painting came about while I was meditating on fear. I wanted to know what my mind would put on the canvas if I thought about things that scare me and visualized the colors of terror. The result is The Execution of Peace, hued not only in the expected oppressive greys and blacks, but in bright oranges, pinks, purples, blues, reds and whites. This piece explores the sharper side of fear, especially those horrors which become active and aggressive. At the end of the process I found that I had obliterated any traces of green, which for me connotes growth. So, what is going on in this busy picture?
There are three zones present: earth, a blasted heath that looks ill and charred; sky, which is blue but teeming with yellow and purple “clouds” and pollution; and a celestial region above the sky which features a storm cloud and an enormous, bloated sun. The two levels of sky are separated by a red stripe spotted with many colors, an umbilical cord which symbolizes life and its continuation.
The action of the piece is taking place in the regions above earth. The sun has grown to enormous size and deepened into orange, suggesting something apocalyptic. The upper atmosphere has taken on the hue of the dying sun, but the left hand corner contains a dense storm, from which emanate three bolts of lightning. There is a dove, with a distinct halo, standing protectively on the umbilical cord. His halo is echoed by a similar nimbus around the sun. Both seem to be barely holding off the onslaught of the stormy darkness.
For me, the dove, associated with peace by many traditions, is here a Christ figure, with arms outstretched in the manner of the crucifixion. Depending on your beliefs and heritage, you might prefer to associate it with the dying savior archetype, or just the concept of sacrifice in general. Regardless, the dove is being blown apart–if you look closely you can see what looks like fire or blood streaming from his body–yet he holds his position while the lightning force is directed into him. Shock waves ripple through the upper atmosphere.
One lightning bolt is stopped by the bird’s flesh, while the other two cross each other on their way into the lower sky, where they connect with two red robed figures on pedestals. My husband took them for monks of some sort, and perhaps they are, but they are of a twisted and bitter variety. Red is a symbol for blood, and these figures are covered in it. They both contain a stripe of yellow down the center of their bodies which mirrors the lightning itself. The same energy is also disseminated throughout the surrounding air. Yellow is the color of aggression in this particular painting. In contrast, the purplish clouds seem related to the umbilical cord, as if life was floating free from its source. That’s a source for hope, I think.
At this point I find it impossible to judge whether the lightning strikes are feeding the red figures with the energy of the raincloud or whether the rage of the red figures is feeding the ominous storm. It’s probably both.
The two red figures face each other at a distance, proudly erect, while a third figure lies between them, bowed and sliding down the face of a cliff. This shape didn’t have a face and hands until paint was removed by mistake during an accident in varnishing. I left it that way because to me, it now looks rather like Mother Mary or some facet of the grieving mother archetype. Can you see her hands raised to her face in weeping? I see this mother as wounded and dying, her body pierced by aggression that lies like yellow arrows embedded in her bloodied body (thus the red and yellow on her front side). Does she protect the body of a child there as well?
Below this battle, there lies a group of peach colored folk who appear to be observing the scene, almost like tourists. The first two on the left appear to be running, followed by a man wearing a cloak that billows in the wind, and a well dressed lady, standing with two children behind her. I wonder how they understand the situation above them… are they being compromised? I think they are. Take a look at the blood on the man’s heel. I don’t know if it is his own or that of another. All of these folks have the yellow fog of aggression about their eyes. To me, they represent the civilized and comfortable of the world, who, whether they acknowledge it or not, will be impacted by the slaughter of others and the shattering death of peace itself. The resulting cataclysm is as deadly as a sun gone supernova. I belong to this tribe and you probably do, too. How do we stand against the injustice around us?
Humankind’s aggression threatens reality and the continuation of life itself. The sacrifice of life represented by the dying savior and lived out by children, men and women everyday is required not to appease some wrath of God, but because human beings will it to be so.
As always, I invite you to tell me what you see. We don’t always understand the visions we are given and we certainly can’t control what they mean to others.
Mary Engelbreit is a children’s book illustrator and author from St. Louis, MO, USA, who started her career as a designer of greeting cards. Her delightful books of brain teasers, projects and recipes for kids, her fairytales and seasonal storybooks and her collections of poetry and scripture have created quite a following and earned her a reputation as the Norman Rockwell of our time. Her work is known for its gentle and cheerful nature, so one might be surprised to hear Engelbreit’s name mentioned in connection with controversy.
A few days ago, Engelbreit posted a new work to Facebook. In the USA was inspired by the killing of teenager Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, a suburb of her hometown, and the volatile situation that has resulted from it. All proceeds from the work are to go to Brown’s Memorial Fund. Comments were largely positive, but some people felt the need to attack. From those who felt she was being un-American, to those who accused her of making profit from tragedy, to those who could not believe that she was siding with a criminal and giving money to his undeserving family, things got very ugly. So ugly in fact, that Facebook stepped in and pulled In the USA from her wall because it had been deemed offensive (they did later reinstate the post). So what does this earth shaking, saber rattling piece of art look like?
Wait, what? This sweet, chubby-cheeked mother and child is the subject of viperous rants?
Perhaps critics are vitriolic because they expect an author that writes for impressionable children to stay out of the way and to keep her subject matter light. Engelbreit has said that she uses her art to work through things that bother her, but doesn’t release most of those personal pieces to the public. This time she must have felt that she could do something to help the situation by voicing her empathy. It should be noted that Engelbreit lost a son, Evan, in 2000, when he was shot and killed at the age of nineteen. Seeing Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, on television brought back memories of a terrible time in her own life.
I hope we can all agree that the state of affairs in Ferguson challenges adults to explain the realities of violence and racism to children and young people. I’d venture to say that most people reading this blog have never had to put their hands in the air and ask not to be shot, but it can and does happen in the United States, especially for minorities and for those who don’t have the respect that money seems to buy. It is terrifying to realize how easy it is to revert to fear and suspicion of those different from us and it certainly isn’t un-American to wonder how we can approach equality and safety for everyone. Silence is perhaps the worst approach, as it encourages those who follow us to avert their eyes and turn off their empathy. We are already too far down that road.
Public Domain Image via Pixabay
Art often hits us at a more visceral level than words, speaking directly to the inmost parts of ourselves, places that don’t respond to reason and argument, but to symbols. In addition to breaking the silence and shattering the illusion that everything is fine, there are connotations in In The USA that are extremely provocative. The choice of mother and son calls up images of the Madonna and Child, a subject for countless artists for the past two thousand years. Depictions of Mother Mary holding Jesus are woven throughout Western history, fusing with the memories we have of our own mothers. Adding to the unique and sacred nature of the bond between mother and child, they tell of a God who could have approached humanity in fear and retribution but chose instead to empathize and become like us. Whether or not an individual believes in such a God the archetype remains valid– the one who makes things better for everyone else by dying. To make things more intense, this mother is crying and the child has his hands up in a gesture that isn’t so different from the crucifixion. These are things we might expect from a Stabat Mater or Pietà, a depiction of Christ’s death. Engelfreit has, intentionally or not, invoked two incredibly powerful archetypes, the grieving Mother and the dying Savior.
In the USA is a brave piece, as is any artwork that tries to make sense of violence. It is exceptionally tidy and decent, but that doesn’t mitigate its impact. Part of the legacy of racism is that many of those who have practiced it will do anything to keep from the embarrassment of being exposed, often becoming adept at rationalizing and hiding it from themselves as well as others. Art like this calls that kind of behavior out. We may feel shame for what we have done or what we have not done. At that point, we can share our disgust and admit our mistakes or we can hit out in fear at anyone who makes us feel wrong. Fear often wins. But it doesn’t have to.