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The Healing of America
Grace Ndiritu

The Healing of America is the title of a 1997 book by Marianne Williamson, who campaigned to become the Democratic nominee for the 2020 US presidential election. It’s also the title of an unrealized performance of mine that was meant to take place at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City in 2018. My Healing of America addressed the issue of police killings of unarmed Black men, but it was cancelled abruptly because of “administrative” reasons. In our current context, the title still seems fitting as society speculates about what the future of America will be.

I met Marianne Williamson in 2012, at a conference on spirituality in the UK that she was speaking at. It was in a period of my life and art practice when I was feeling increasingly disenchanted about the art world. After following Williamson for many years, I had the opportunity to get her full attention for a few moments during a coffee break. As we sat together, I wanted to discuss my own tricky path in life as a spiritually and politically minded contemporary artist. I conveyed to her my deepest fears about the neoliberal attitudes steadily undermining the art world and the lack of depth in most of the works I had been seeing lately. I asked her about faith and how she had managed to keep going, despite the ridicule she faced for daring to dirty her “spiritual purity” with political activism.

Over the past several decades, Williamson has made a name for herself by giving clear, no-nonsense practical life advice to those who seek her out. In 2014, Williamson ran for Congress in California and, although she lost that race, a lot of people began to take her more seriously. This once disowned political “ingenue” slowly came to be regarded as a serious political candidate—someone with a different background who could offer the country a new perspective. During the AIDS crisis, Williamson worked in healthcare activism, before becoming a household name when her 1992 book A Return to Love became a bestseller and she was anointed as Oprah Winfrey’s personal spiritual guide.

During our 2012 encounter, she challenged me to “stick in there” as an artist and to risk humiliation by taking my radical ideas into the street. Williamson’s advice would eventually manifest in my artistic practice through my unusual take on social practice: my research formed the basis for an off-grid alternative community called The Ark: Center for Interdisciplinary Experimentation (2017), and another project, COVERSLUT© (2018–), is a fashion and economic project with refugees, migrants, and young artists that focuses on issues of democracy, race, gender, and class politics.

Knowing Williamson’s politics well, I was totally unsurprised to hear, eight years later, that she was campaigning to run in the 2020 US presidential election on a radical platform:

From free college tuition to a removal of the college loan debt to universal healthcare to the expansion of Social Security to the adoption of a Universal Basic Income, we will transition from an economic to a humanitarian bottom line. We will make this question the core principle of all public policy: What is it that would help people thrive? Thus we will pave the way to greater peace and prosperity for all. Turning love into a political force is not a pipe dream; it is simply a choice.1

Her platform ran across six main ideas—dubbed “The Six Pillars for a Season of Moral Repair”:

1st Pillar
  • An Agenda for Economic Justice: We will repair the damage done by trickle-down economics.
2nd Pillar
  • U.S. Department of Children and Youth: We will repair the damage done to millions of traumatized children.
3rd Pillar
  • Mass Mobilization to Reverse Climate Change: We will repair the damage done to the earth.
4th Pillar
  • U.S. Department of Peace: We will repair the damage done to America’s moral authority around the world.
5th Pillar
  • Reparations: We will repair the damage done by historical wrongs.
6th Pillar
  • The Whole Health Plan: We will repair the damage done by an obsolete healthcare system that treats symptoms but not cause.2

All six of these pillars were progressive—turning embedded Western ideas of democracy on their head. The most radical was Williamson’s fifth pillar: her unabashed commitment to reparations. She elaborates:

The next pillar of moral repair has to do with recognizing that whether you’re an individual or you’re a country, you’re not going to have the future you want if you’re not willing to clean up the past. That’s why it’s time to pay reparations for slavery and why it’s time to take reparative measures towards Native Americans in this country. Both of those things represent an underlying turbulence and toxicity that this country will not be free of until we do the right thing. Sometimes people talk about random acts of kindness; but when it comes to the moral repair of this country, we need more than random acts of kindness—we need huge, strategized acts of doing the right thing.3

In 2016, a few days after Donald Trump was elected president, I received an email from Kathleen Ritter, a Canadian artist based in Paris. In her message, Ritter outlined her plan to erect a large-scale neon sign displaying a single word: “GASLIGHT.” This word would be a spectre, haunting the city and the world, shadowing Trump throughout the length of his administration. In reality, the red tape and bureaucracy involved in bringing Ritter’s powerful statement into reality would cause the project to take four years to unwind.

Last month, November 2020, in the aftermath of the 2020 US election, Gaslight was finally installed at the roofline of the Del Mar Inn at 555 Hamilton Street, in downtown Vancouver. Since the 1990s, this building has been the site of a single-room-occupancy hotel for the chronically poor in the city. I saw how it was a safe haven for the forgotten people of Vancouver.

The word “gaslight” comes from the title of a 1938 play by the British dramatist Patrick Hamilton. From the play Gaslight— and the 1940 Thorold Dickinson’s film of the same name—we borrow the term “gaslighting” to describe the type of events that unfold in its plot: a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented to victims as truth, with the intent of making them doubt their own memories, perceptions, and judgments. The use of the term became increasingly prevalent during the Trump presidency, because of his refusal to accept facts as reality and the erosion of fundamental truths, science, and reality itself. “Gaslighting” became part of our everyday lexicon, revealing an ever present cognitive dissonance within the right-wing resurgence happening worldwide. In the US, this dissonance has been demonstrated through a string of statements and legislative actions over the past four years: Trump’s underwhelming response to the COVID-19 pandemic, his embrace of white nationalists, and his unwavering support for the police, which included ordering militarized police action against peaceful Black Lives Matter protests in such cities as Seattle and Washington, DC.

However, Ritter’s own belief continues undeterred: that the haunting spectre of Gaslight will serve as a reminder to us in the coming uncertain times of a post-COVID-19 world. This determination echoes her resilience to do anti-racist work within the post-secondary art educational system she teaches in—and comes at a time when many art institutions have put out statements promising to do anti-racism work. At her own institution, Ritter has taken it upon herself to start an interdepartmental taskforce to deal with this subject on a long-term basis and not just as part of the current trend. This work is being informed by many of her students’ own activism. Conversely, many other organizations have been drawn to the glamorous work of promoting Black curators and administrators to positions of power and collecting Black artists’ work—important efforts, but that’s not strictly what’s meant by “anti-racist” work. This misunderstanding has led to a large-scale backlash in recent months, as art workers protest for fair pay and individuals in positions of power are called out and publicly shamed across social media platforms.

As a result, the potency of language and the significance of wordplay have become even more loaded—punctuating a moment when protests against political correctness have manifested in increasingly public ways: in the form of proudly worn cherry-red “Make America Great Again” hats and Melania Trump’s “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket. Hers wasn’t a PR fumble as first thought, but, as the First Lady later admitted, an intentional provocation aimed at the liberal media.

For the left, the hard slog of examining one’s own racism and racial bias has not sunk in either. It can’t be encapsulated in media-friendly sound bites created by institutions, governments, or corporations. Or as African American artist Tony Cokes proclaimed in one of his memorable signs: If UR Reading This It’s 2 Late: Vol. 3 (2020).

Cokes forces us to question what, exactly, is it too late for? Is it too late to stop the second American Civil War that QAnon so clearly wants to begin? Is it too late for Americans—and therefore all human beings—to redeem themselves in the face of a looming Climate Crisis? Because what happens in Vegas does not, in fact, stay in Vegas. It filters down, polluting the groundwater and distorting the airwaves, as we saw recently while we waited, with bated breath, for Nevada to slowly count ballots and announce its winner of the 2020 presidential election.

Yet, is it possible to twist Cokes’s prescient words toward a glimmer of hope? Is it too late for organizations founded on hate to stop the process of healing begun in the wake of the current pandemic? Perhaps it’s too late to stop the onslaught of love and activism coalescing in 2020? As Italian feminist Silvia Federici reminds us, the time has come for the commons and the practice of “commoning”—when we reclaim the wealth from the state and corporations, moving it away from the military industrial complex and toward new forms of a shared economy and social gathering.

It is not a coincidence that Ritter, Williamson, and Federici all focus on women and children in their respective artistic, spiritual, and political activities. During the first COVID-19 lockdown in the spring of 2020, we saw a 40 percent rise in domestic violence globally. Williamson’s U.S. Department of Children and Youth, the proposal for which boldly declares the need to repair the damage done to millions of traumatized children, still needs to be built—even if Williamson is not in the White House. This would at least then demonstrate publicly the inability of most working-class and BIPOC women to socially reproduce each day because the status quo hasn’t changed in over a century. Or as Federici aptly puts it: “Wages are still not given for housework.”

In today’s world, it is much easier to reward bad behaviour. It’s much easier for governments to give the 1% a tax break and provide corporations billion-dollar COVID-19 incentives than it is for them to guarantee that the rest of their hard working citizens—the 99%—will be able to cover their rent and medical bills during the pandemic and its economic fallout.

Ritter calls this kind of selfishness the “Age of Crisis”:

The world is going through a crisis on multiple fronts—ecological/pandemic/social—and this is a reflection of a crisis of consciousness we are collectively undergoing. And worse still, we have been told to accept that a certain level of gaslighting and disempowerment is normal and that there is nothing we can do to change that. We just have to accept this new reality without question.4

What a low bar indeed we have set for ourselves.

For Ritter, the last four years have not passed so easily. She became a single parent of a young child and she now wonders how she and her daughter will get through the next phase of the Age of Crisis. Ritter witnessed Trump’s destruction of women’s rights when he appointed anti-abortion hardliner (and Climate Change denier) Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court. Still, Ritter’s strength has also grown by watching the #MeToo and TIME’S UP women’s movements as well as witnessing the Joe Biden and Kamala Harris campaign gain momentum and ultimately win the 2020 US presidential election.

The events of 2020 ask us to question how those who seek to change the world—whether through activism, community, or artistic practice—will maintain their mental health, when just thinking about the future creates anxiety. Will it be through sheer willpower and adrenaline (and inevitable burnout)? Or will it be through the type of “joyful militancy” that Federici writes about—in which “knowing ourselves and each other’s limits is increasingly important”?5

This last US election cycle has been one of the most complicated political times I have ever lived through. Back in 2016, I was residing in France in a meditation center, and I stayed up all night worrying about the election results. This time, beaten down by a second COVID-19 lockdown in Europe, continued Black Lives Matter protests in America, and an unwavering worry about Brexit (remember that shitshow?), there were days when I would dissociate from the US election. Instead, I would focus on getting out of bed and getting on with doing what needed to be done. The stakes were simply too high to mentally process the 2020 election at the time. Whoever won would be in a position to greatly dictate the future of our planet and how we globally would face the shared issues of Climate Change. Yet, I know that I will need to prioritize my own sanity if I am to survive the difficult years to come. For you know as well as I do that the Healing of America will be the Healing of Us All.

Notes
  1. “A Season of Moral Repair,” Marianne 2020 website, 2020, https://fillip.ca/8fbz.
  2. “A Season of Moral Repair,” Marianne 2020 website.
  3. Silvia Federici, “Rethinking and Restructuring Social Reproduction in Times of Racist Violence and Global Epidemics” (public talk, Kunstencentrum Vooruit, Ghent, October 28, 2020), Vooruit, video, 2:08:14, https://fillip.ca/cqpe.
  4. Kathleen Ritter, conversation with the author, November 2, 2020.
  5. Federici, “Rethinking and Restructuring Social Reproduction.”
About the Author

Grace Ndiritu is a British-Kenyan artist whose artworks are concerned with the transformation of our contemporary world. Ndiritu has been featured in​ ​TIME magazine, Phaidon’s The 21st Century Art Book, Art Monthly, Apollo Magazine’s “40 under 40” list and Elephant magazine. Her ​​work is housed in museum collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the British Council, the Modern Art Museum (Warsaw). Her writing has been published in Whitechapel Gallery’s Documents of Contemporary Art anthology series, The Paris Review, Le Journal Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, Animal Shelter Journal (Semiotext(e) & MIT Press), and Metropolis M. Her debut non-fiction book, Dissent Without Modification, is scheduled to be published in 2021 by Bergen Kunsthall, Norway.

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