What Has Changed (essay and photographs)

INTRODUCTION BY JENNY GROPP

In January 2017, the poet and visual artist Rachel Eliza Griffiths traveled to Washington, DC, her birthplace, to document the Presidential Inauguration, the Women’s March, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Afterward, she sent me the photographs from her trip, and we wrote to each other about the potential for publishing her images, but the question of how to present them remained unanswered. It was not until July that I revisited them.

Six months after the fact, Griffiths’ black-and-white photographs of the Women’s March produced startlingly deeper emotions in me. Gathered together as a diverse gallery of portraiture, the aggregate had become, for me—a white, queer, cis-gendered woman—even more potent as a marker of the American historical record . . . but why, exactly? I had theories, though none felt sufficient. Rather, they seemed to demand a conversation with the artist behind the lens, and so I reached out again to Griffiths to tell her about the reaction I’d had to the photos this time around. “What has changed?” I asked her in the middle of a letter, speaking of the half-year that had passed. “And what have we learned?”

Griffiths seized these vast, vague questions, and the resulting portfolio and essay, What Has Changed, offers her perspective on the march as a Black woman, an artist, and a DC native who is reaching reflectively into American history and the art of photography while placing her body firmly in the crowded January streets. Through this work, she has delivered a prismatic engagement with these initial questions and reveals through them a platform from which others might begin their own examinations of selfhood and history.

That Griffiths’ photographs of the Women’s March could generate such dialogues conveys perhaps a natural progression of the event itself. The Women’s March, which took place on January 21, was the largest coordinated protest in U.S. history and one of the largest in world history, bringing an approximated five million people into the streets on all seven continents, including an estimated half-million in DC alone and about thirty people in Antarctica. An impressive, collective feminist surge against the misogyny perpetuated by the 45th president and a fraught intersectional attempt at gathering together people from, as the Women’s March’s website says, “all backgrounds,” the moment provoked commentary from participants and non-participants alike concerning people’s motives to march, as well as a questioning of the various feminist ideologies held by different groups. The march’s place in history has almost certainly been solidified based on sheer numbers, but our reactions to it have continuing potential: What voices and histories can and should be amplified as a result of this event, and how, through interactions with those voices and histories, can we—with an awareness that this pronoun must be considered both inclusively and exclusively—create understandings about who “we” are that will better shape the future to come?

Curated from hundreds of images, Griffiths’ twenty-photograph portfolio documents some of the march’s many singular faces. Though white women were the dominant group visible at the march, Griffiths sees beyond that majority to consider what other groups were present and emphasizes their experiences. In her essay, she describes how, less than a day after the Inauguration, “The American Body, for some of us, had suffered a shock, while other older, oppressed parts nodded at the recognition of centuries of trauma.” Moving within that larger body, Griffiths ruminates on her camera as her sole chosen instrument of expression, her emblem within a field of material declarations—and through that rumination and her physical interactions with the camera itself, she demonstrates her agency and establishes herself as a person of singular vision. This active self-examination implores further inquiry regarding the individual agencies of American citizens: Within the “American Body,” where does each person fit, or not fit, into a conception of selfhood in relationship to that “us,” or to those “older, oppressed parts”? What should a person claim, and through what lineage? And where to go from there, once the claim has been made?

Earlier this year, Rachel Eliza Griffiths took the risk of placing herself within crowds to chronicle history, and has since taken on the expansive work of considering her own life as a Black queer artist in the American state while also offering a charged and inclusive narrative of a worldwide event. In this essay and portfolio one has the opportunity to witness Griffiths’ vision, and to then productively participate in the mirrored universe of the question I first asked her, which she hereafter considers as only she can, turning the inquiry into a statement that has different resonance for us all: What has changed.

 

•  •  •

 

 

Months later, I realized even more strongly that a camera can hold a truth and a lie.

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“I’m a photographer,” I said on 21 January 2017. I said it more than once.

I said, “Oh, I’m already carrying so many things.”

I said, “I don’t think that hat will fit over my hair.”

One camera rested against my hip. Another camera strap pulled against my neck. My pockets bulged with batteries and memory cards. A small notebook was inside an inner pocket of my jacket. The weight of my cameras calmed and incited me at once. On this day, my camera would be my pink hat, my womanhood, my oyster knife, my witness.

This is what I wanted the women who offered me pink hats and Black Lives Matter buttons to believe when I said I couldn’t accept the outstretched pink hats or Black Power buttons. These were offerings. Objects that intended to convey a new power in their eyes.

In the giddy sincerity of nastiness I wanted to try to explain that I would never trust my identity, my authority, my womanhood, my art or dignity, as an object—as a thing that could be granted to me, finally, through the permission and self-awareness of certain brands and breeds of feminism.

In my mind I could hear a circle of Brown and Black women shouting at me to remember: What good had any Black woman ever sustained when white women persisted in their good intentions?

Let me be clear that I am both generalizing and not. After all, there are white women and white men in my own blood. As there are Jews, Native Americans, West Indians, and Africans. How easily I could have smiled back and accepted the pink hat. Perhaps I would have forgotten my misgivings as I looked out at the world through my camera for hours that day.

What was I looking for?

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The language thrilled me. There were signs everywhere. The act and art of reading those signs was a sort of signifying. The imagination and articulation of rage and outrage were everywhere. I could almost hear a distinct voice as I read the block type, the hand-painted lettering, the graphic illustration of lady-parts and pussies. (I could suddenly see my mother’s frown just now as I typed that last word.)

The insistence of flesh, of women and all those who identify as such, was wonderful to observe. All of our distinct bodies gathered to defend it, the hidden place and politics of birth itself revealed. Nobody could look away from those inflatable installations floating high against the gray silhouette of our Capitol.

Photography has always fascinated and troubled me in terms of time, privilege, and history: linear lines of shadow and sight capturing (and often colonializing) a diamond of prisms and psyches. An event, a landscape, a face, a people. Ruins, war. Anonymity that becomes so beautiful we mistrust the origin of whatever was once whole or functional.

Moments ago I called the camera my witness, but it is actually a machine. It becomes a witness when I manipulate it, which suggests that I am always invested in the craft of what is both visible and invisible. For me, witnessing requires action and courage. Without my presence the camera is a complex, mechanical corpse. I am charged then, to breathe my own visions and terrors into it. From this machine I insist upon the indefatigable spectrum of beauty and fear as organized by humanity. This evidence is articulated in skyscrapers, farms, theaters, wars, weddings, portraits, parades, and so forth. While the camera allows me the agency and space to see the world beyond me, it also demands that I allow myself to be seen and remembered.

Which women did I want to remember? Who would remember the women America has not yet truly seen?

During the Women’s March there were collisions firing in every click of my camera. I was trying to look at the whole thing until I grasped I would never be able to see it with my eyes alone because it was something to be felt in the cries of these glorious women, men, and children who had gathered themselves in fury and faith and innocence. The thing was quite mortal and imperfect in every dimension. That was why it mattered. Through photography I could try to be as specific as possible. I could try to use a very small machine to convey profound feelings, however complicated and flawed—which most feelings are. And so, what does that mean exactly?

Through the diamonds of shadow and light appear stories and faces that are seen, told, spoken, and remembered. Other faces and narratives are gagged, buried, and disfigured. There are visible relics, abandoned and fading in the cinders of memory.

I’m thinking of the American Body, through which we citizens are inseparably and morally wounded. Nothing, including racism, can breathe or survive without the functioning of the other. This includes dreams, individuality, and pursuits of equality, identity, and freedom. This even includes death.

Before me the Women’s March was already aging only hours after America inaugurated its 45th president. How long could the breath and fury of these protests last? The American Body, for some of us, had suffered a shock while other older, oppressed parts nodded at the recognition of centuries of trauma.

Could this even last—because when exactly had the terror begun and for whom?

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Beneath the waves and waves of women who had rarely recognized or tolerated me on the streets of daily life; who had looked at my natural hair with wonder and fear and often touched it without permission; whose voices and eyes changed or did not change when I said I wrote and published books; who had followed me around in stores because it was their job to do so; whose children had come into my classrooms and offices inquiring whether my hair was fake or a wig while reminding me that their parents owned me; who had dismissed, attacked, or assumed young Black girls sitting at desks in their classrooms were spiritual and social casualties; who had insulted and infantilized my elders; who had offered me amorous invitations to sleep with them and even with their husbands at the same time; who had voted for policies and leaders who labeled people like me as rapists and terrorists; who had inquired in a friendly tone about my race and ethnicity when her son or daughter I was dating brought me over for an introduction; who had demonized, fetishized, capitalized, incarcerated, and criminalized my body and the bodies of my brothers and fathers; who had simply and wholly rejected the idea of my imagination or humanity unless I appeared to them to be starving, depraved, godless, and naked in Africa; who had sat around my workshop table or at the bar during graduate school and explained patiently to me what racism and feminism really mean since apparently I didn’t understand the terms; who had looked the other way over and over when I experienced sexual harassment on the street or by the under-qualified boss on a crappy temp job or harassment by the police or on the subway or as a guest at their generous make-sure-there’s-at-least-one-of-them dinner tables or institutional meetings regarding the state of diversity . . . considering, did I have the right to be angry and present at once?

The circle of women in my heart wept, blinking away my blood.

_____

 

My hope is that one day, in difficult solidarity, I’ll look back at my own steps and failures. I want to look clearly at everything I took that day and offer my voice. It is not important for me to know now whether there is any worth to this effort. Feeling compelled to stand up however I can is enough. The photograph is always some vestige of an afterlife of reality and reckoning, where the heart of time stops and lives forever. That day my heart clicked and stuttered. I shouted until I was hoarse and could not tell you for whom or for why I couldn’t stop screaming and protesting. The image is a resonant voice, arriving in the present as a preface to the future.

_____

 

I don’t believe the camera is always a spiritual mirror or witness. Sometimes it is something else. Anonymous, cold, merciless, fugitive. An instrument for an argument in a mind that requires clarity and proof of life. Existence. During the march I filled and emptied myself, over and over. Language and vision synchronized without time lapse or delay. So much of me is ruled by intuition and instinct. But how does one see that, what was happening to me?

Each image expanded my perception of a half-lit, illiterate geography in me. I had to keep walking and moving through the bodies. Literally and psychically. Sometimes I found myself locked into cords of bodies. Sometimes someone fell down or was shoved or squeezed against me so tightly the camera scratched my face. People shouted to make space, announced the presence of children and elders who couldn’t breathe, who had gotten sick or dizzy, who needed more time and our care. Everywhere I looked there were people climbing poles and trees. People were scrambling to the roofs of trucks with their signs. Everyone wanted a view of what was possible, of what had been achieved. People raised their voices. This is what democracy looks like. They lifted Lady Liberty Styrofoam torches, wore flags, capes, rainbows, stars and stripes, pink tutus, and denim jackets adorned with F-words (like Freedom and Formation). Their pussies bit back. They spoke in tones of pink. They wore new maps.

I’d never been here before.

_____

 

Some of the discoveries arrive inside of me. Internalized words and images open like hundreds of eyes. Other discoveries synthesize themselves in the massive arsenal of faces, signs, and clothing. Everything was so fragmentary and blurred. The internal and external frames and edges of seeing collapsed into ripples of the mind and the eye:

 

“Ain’t I a woman?” (Sojourner Truth)

“Let the people see what I’ve seen.” (Mamie Till to the funeral director who prepared Emmett Till’s body)

“When they go low, we go high.” (Michelle Obama)

“I will light you up.” (Texas police officer to Sandra Bland)

“Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation!” (Beyoncé)

“My name is Peaches!” (Nina Simone)

“You just killed my boyfriend.” (Lavish Reynolds to the officer who murdered Philando Castile)

“Your silence will not protect you.” (Audre Lorde)

“Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” (Toni Morrison)

 

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I wanted to belong. I did not want to belong. Often the intensity of the majority only served to increase the contrast with the minority—reminiscent, both conceptually and bodily, of a visual work by the artist Glenn Ligon: Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background). The linguist in me revised Ligon’s title so that now the words white and pink offered a kindred tension. I held back. Held on. Melted into the silent company of my camera’s curved, uncolored lens.

As an artist it was good for me to feel lost. As a Black woman it was good for me to try to suspend my disbelief, necessary to lower my camera to look at our faces, to look those wonderful women in the eyes and say No, Not Yet.

My tension wasn’t literally about the pink hats. But maybe it was about the capital of the image, the privilege of the visual language that has yet to be offered, without agenda, violence, or fear to me and women who look like me, whose majority did not vote for the 45th president. I work tirelessly to create new images and languages about images so that I can see and hear myself. This is a sacred and common insistence.

Even during the march there was something about the opportunity of the pink hat. There is as much psychological profit in the proliferation of pink hats as there is psychological revenue generated in the imagery of Black bodies as threat, enemy, alien.

_____

 

It is true that the morning of 21 January 2017, I sat up in bed and thought, Why am I Here?

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I was struggling to make my way out of an area that was so congested it had become dangerous. Claustrophobic, my breath shortened. I panicked. I couldn’t stop to take a full breath. People pushed in wherever there was air. My cameras were digging into my sides and chest. Back inside my body, my gaze returned to the stretches of faces all moving, raised in triumph and rage.

Then, I saw her somehow. And in some way had been waiting to see her all day. A powerful, beautiful Black sister with a reddish afro. She was glowing. Her lips were bright, brilliant red. A kind of lipstick that transforms our mouths into fruits or fires or wombs. A kind of red that can deliver shade and sugar at the same damn time. Her skin was bright and she glowed. And I loved her. I had seen her. Loved her enough to lower my camera and blink. There were two red hearts drawn at the corner of one of her large, brown eyes.

When she smiled at me I began to breathe again. I could see her. The Why and for Whom. Us.

And it mattered.

Then she winked.

_____

 

If I’d picked up my cameras and known what I was looking for I wouldn’t have dared bring them in the first place. This is the way poets and writers often speak about their process. They must travel through a complex map of language and silence. Only after the journey, as they are coming out of it (and they will keep diving in and returning and revising and remembering), do they acknowledge that they now find themselves far from the origin and intention of what they hoped the poem or story might be.

Some of us do it another way. Begin at the ending only to go backward and come out at the very beginning. Or we gather the shards and arrange them despite what’s shattered or missing. With America it is always all of these journeys. How often do each of us attempt to explain how and why we arrived and who was already here? How do we reckon and reconcile the moral intention (religious freedom) and its seduction by the economic intentions of America’s first pilgrims and settlers? Is there any distinction between the moral, the spiritual, and the economic? How can we ever accept and understand that this trinity may have always been indestructible because of the human condition itself?

Change comes down to the becoming—the critical action—not what it became. Because for the reader, in that sublime moment of intimacy, the point is the altered self and gaze, the becoming.

This is what happened to me.

Beyond the camera was a great story.

Where is the becoming now?

_____

 

Months later, the pink hats have been packed and tucked away. Framed into memory the way my camera has framed these faces and signs.

Outrage has tangled itself into black holes of undiscerning, indiscriminate shaming and blaming. Fatigue is rampant. Concentration on any one scandal becomes useless as we are blinded and distracted by a feverish crossfire of spectacle, whether it is liberal or conservative, sexist or racist or classist, institutional or privatized. (Don’t forget or deny the slaughter of the planet.) Every one is under critique and thus offers critique.

A proliferation of digestible videos explains a few things to White People, such as Intersectional Feminism, Trans and Non-Binary vocabulary, Mansplaining, Hoteps, Aggressive Self Care, Accountability, Narcissists, Good Allies, Woke-nesses, and so on.

At the airport I am still being asked to stand still during the security check so that a TSA officer can comb through my hair and scalp with blue-latex gloved fingers.

I could be a threat.

_____

 

By the time I woke up on the morning of the Women’s March I was already numb and frightened by my lack of surprise regarding this country. This saddened me because I wondered what would it take for me to scrape away the hardness that reinforced itself in the smallest parts of my mind. I was becoming and assuming. Assuming the pointed, weary stare I’d seen in my elders when they recalled their childhoods and their hopes. Assuming endangered my practice as an artist and as a person. And yet there was no way to escape as I organized my camera equipment, recalling the images I’d witnessed at the inauguration of our 45th president. I saw and heard the signs again: Not My President. I heard the voices circling round and round, tossing the rejection back and forth like a grenade. But he is Our President. Because America voted for him. We the People.

Whose People?

Perhaps it is right to hold up a sign with statistics while serenely tending a lollipop, and let that image speak. Later I would come across this when I returned to New York. The subtext, both direct and implicit, would go viral. Just as the virus of race consists of and spreads through politics. We don’t require an image anymore because we have all seen it, whether we are rendered invisible and inhuman by race or empowered and profiting by it.

The day before the inauguration of the 45th president I had made my first visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. By the time I was preparing for the Women’s March I understood that some part of me was still squinting in the dark hull of the bottom levels of the museum. That darkness and solemnity continue to curate the embryonic birth of America herself.

Another part of me was still sitting on the small bench next to a sobbing elderly Black woman. We had stared at—but could barely see it after a few moments—the original casket of Emmett Till. I remember listening to the sound of his mother’s voice as it came from a video screen of an interview with her on the opposite side of the exhibit. A word she said made me recoil when I think about it now. The wrong word was also the right one for America. Maybe it was viewing or wake. Sitting there in the dark, an alertness came over me. Each pore of my skin became an eye of memory and remembering. Images that I hadn’t made. Images that preceded my own birth.

Walking out of the NMAAHC I’d blinked as my eyes dilated. Where was I? There were Confederate flags everywhere. White men adorned in hunting camouflage and dark wraparound sunglasses leaned against trucks. A group of them followed me down the street laughing as they explained to me that I needed white dick because I was a hot, fine bitch. Women, Black and white, passed by me as this was happening.

Holding my camera—filled with snapshots of Harriet Tubman’s shawl, Nat Turner’s bible, the miniature iron shackles of an enslaved African infant, James Baldwin’s passport, Mohammed Ali’s boxing gloves, a yellow dress that belonged to Rosa Parks—I reminded myself that I was home.

I had been born here in Washington, DC, during the late ’70s. Most of the women in my family, except my mother, were buried within miles of this wide sidewalk where I was being harassed. All I had to do was step into the center and memory of their bones, a circle that waits for my death too. I could feel what they believed and hoped for me, those women who had seen me before I was ever born and who had, like me, experienced visions because they were seers.

When I could cross the street safely I did. I heard nothing. Saw nothing. Alone, I walked quietly back to my aunt and uncle’s apartment.

The next day at the inauguration of the president, there were white women and men whose eyes were pepper-sprayed, who ran from officers on horses and from the deafening flash bombs. Masked figures in black—they were the anarchists or antifa—sprinted past the rest of us as we ran. I remembered the Black men who were selling inaugural memorabilia. Make America Great Again. I remembered fires being set and a giant elephant balloon and people pounding drums while walking on stilts.

I would remember the moment when I couldn’t bear to look anymore.

_____

 

The wink. The way she did it was the way we, as Black people, can laugh the deepest laugh when we must. In the face of cruelty or delight the cadence of our laughter is only decipherable to us. There’s a texture that must be seen from the inside, and she shared it with me. Reminded me to really look around. Something’s happening. Becoming.

Let’s wait and see, the wink seemed to say, and in the meantime—which went back, far to the hulls of dark ships and the pink-and-red welts suffered in the name of freedom and justice—show up and be seen.

_____

 

Whether I wanted it or not, the hope the Women’s March provided me was involuntary and tense. My hope provided me with no relief, no delusion, and no epiphany. It was not the kind I witnessed during the march and on which I place no judgment. I remember hearing and seeing the word CHANGE everywhere. Of course it echoed President Obama’s call to arms, and the poet in me plainly heard Rilke’s aching line, one of my absolute favorite lines of any poem, “You must change your life.” At so many moments I am able to exist inside of Rilke’s notion of change, which sometimes, for me, is about occupying one’s life, the depth and width of the wildest joys, desires, and fears—and griefs. I’ve lived many lives inside that word.

After spending those three days in Washington, my birthplace, I was certain that if I’d looked down at my palms there would be new lifelines crisscrossing my skin. Whether I adored these women, whether I believed (in) them, whether I loved or liked or suffered them, I was changing.

Nothing has ever been easy for me in such spaces of identity. I’ve always appreciated the contradictory discoveries. For thirty-something years, the troubling of the spirit and body has breathed its tempest of survival through me. The practice and psychic business of art has been my organic ally. Suspicion, interrogation, discipline, risk, joy, and solitude serve as inherent tools.

But during those three days, some aspect of my seeing had re-rooted itself. The skeptic and dreamer held tight to each other’s throats with each symphonic breath.

_____

 

Yes, it was unforgettable.

The torrential pounding of poetry, songs, and faces joined. The circle of women was wide. What has been so deeply internalized in me throughout my lifetime nearly reached the surface, and that is one of the first things I notice in the photographs from that day. The lives of women are a vital pageant, a ritual. Writing these words now I can only think of nuance, can only remember how I filled myself with songs. My rage was my right. As was my art. As were these women.

All of them. Us.

When I think of What Has Changed I am astonished that these three words possess the power and authority to be both still and frenetic at the same time. This question, this declaration, drags and chokes time, narrative, and agency with its short (or very long) three breaths.

“What has changed?”

From Muriel Rukeyser’s “Poem as Mask,” a fearless order and answer has become my mantra for America (and myself): “No more masks! No more mythologies!”

Then, hovering under my ribs, a hiss. I don’t know if the long sigh inside of me was innocent or exhausted that day. It was the voice of a young girl or an old woman. So many questions and conflicts persist. It is difficult, nearly impossible, to challenge or silence the circle of women in my heart who wink and chuckle at these words and masks. How could I ever tell them to stop speaking when my life depends on what they have seen, what they have listened to, what they have celebrated?

I think of Lucille Clifton’s gorgeous resistance in her poem “won’t you celebrate,” of the joy and defiance in her assertion that “something has tried to kill me / and has failed.”

It is this tradition of resistance that demands I not fail this circle of women.

 

Copyright © 2017 Rachel Eliza Griffiths. All images appear courtesy of the artist.

 

Rachel Eliza Griffiths is the author of four poetry collections: Lighting the Shadow (Four Way Books, 2015); Mule & Pear (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2011), selected for the 2012 Inaugural Poetry Award by the Black Caucus American Library Association; The Requited Distance (2011); and Miracle Arrhythmia (2010). In her capacity as visual artist, Griffiths most recently curated American Stanzas: 2006–2016, an exhibit at Poets House in New York City featuring portraits, mixed media, and archival photographs of poets of the Cave Canem collective over the last decade. She is also the creator of Poets on Poetry (P.O.P), an intimate series of interviews, which gathers more than fifty contemporary poets together in conversation to discuss poetry in relation to individual human experience and culture. Her honors include fellowships from Cave Canem, the Millay Colony, the New York State Summer Writers Institute, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and Vermont Studio Center. Griffiths currently resides in New York City, where she teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College.