Artists resist in Guyana. Natalie Hopkinson marks the trajectory of the country’s painters, poets, intellectuals and activists in “A Mouth Is Always Muzzled: Six Dissidents, Five Continents, and the Art of Resistance.” The book — a mix of journalism, essays and academic research — is a sociological, historical tome that looks at democracy and art in postcolonial Guyana through the lens of identity and free speech during Guyana’s 2015 election year.
Hopkinson’s analysis focuses on the crossroads where two legacies meet: art created in response to white oppression and one of empire-building and their profiteers. By looking at Guyanese artists like painter Bernadette Persaud and writer Ruel Johnson, and resisters like novelist John Berger and scholar/activist Walter Rodney, she shows us how short the distance is from art to activism. But it’s a journey where the fight for artistic survival is ongoing; the fight for the lives of people of color is perpetual; and the quest to be seen, heard and a force of change is never-ending within political systems that seem separate from the will of the people. Hopkinson said she hopes to “inspire hope” for those who are living under political rule they can’t tolerate.
“Everyone should be picking up a brick, metaphorically,” said Hopkinson, a former Washington Post journalist and assistant professor in Howard University’s Department of Communication, Culture and Media Studies. “Because if (the Guyanese) can do it with their very few resources, if they can sit there and put their neck on the block and try to make a change, … then we can all do that.”
During Hopkinson’s recent visit to the University of Chicago, the Tribune chatted with Hopkinson about empowerment and the reason we should be “optimistic about the future of societies suffocated by a history of racial strife and economic struggle.” The following conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
Q: Where does the title come from?
A: One of the six dissidents I talk about is a late poet named Martin Carter. He was big around the time Guyana was fighting for its independence. The stanza in his poem is “a mouth is always muzzled by the food it eats to live” and it’s just something that spoke to me so powerfully — so that’s every mouth, not just those in Guyana — every single mouth by the food it eats to live, so it’s really just talking about just the universal quest to speak freely. … I also include artists like Kara Walker’s work and John Berger, who is a British novelist who spoke out on behalf of Guyana in the 1970s. He won the Booker Prize and used his speech as an opportunity to blast the Booker (family) for basically raping the country of Guyana.
Q: Do you think a meaningful conversation about race and dissent is happening in America?
A: In Guyana and here too, it’s very subtle, the muzzling. I think in America, people just hold out hope that they can be the one to benefit: Oh, Trump is crazy, but maybe I can make some money off of the stock market, or This is really bad that they’re privatizing all these schools, but maybe I can get my kid in the right one and I’ll be OK. It’s a delusion, because all of our fates are connected. You can’t think that you can just escape and beat the system; we’re all complicit, we’re all part of this and so we all have to be a part of making a solution.
Trump has had a real corrosive effect on everybody, and I just don’t think we’ve really begun to grapple with how it’s shaping the next generation, how he’s reordered our norms so much. It’s scary. I don’t know what the answers are, so that’s why I wrote the Walter Rodney chapter; he was the opposite of the armchair intellectual. He got his hands dirty …. He wasn’t the Let’s sit down and talk about this. He was: This is the way it’s going down, we’re changing this, we’re not waiting for anything and we’re not just going to sit around and talk about it. I think we need some more of that too. People need to get their hands dirty, in general, but we also need intellectual leadership, we need scholarship. We need all those things.
Q: Having feet in both worlds, are you hopeful about the future in Guyana and the United States?
A: I am, because I have children, and we cannot do this to them. We cannot raid the country and give tax breaks to ourselves and saddle them with a credit card that is maxed. That’s not acceptable. In Guyana, you can’t have hundreds of billions of dollars of resources, right off the coast, and have outsiders come in and take them and the locals don’t benefit. We just can’t accept it. And for those who lay down and say, This is how it is, that’s the problem. Whatever it is you can do, do your part. It is not just about poetry or painting; it’s about radical imagination. It’s about being able to imagine a world that is different. It’s about being able to transcend current positions, and it’s every citizen’s responsibility.
The time the Guyana election happened, I had never seen politics where the health minister threatened to rape somebody who speaks out against them or slap them for fun. I had never seen such corruption and misogyny. I had never seen anything like this, and then the U.S. election happened. I just laid on my couch for a couple of days, asking What is happening here? It was the day after the election, and Walter Rodney’s publisher, Paul Coates, said he felt great. I said why would you feel great? And he said, the world sees what’s happening: Our struggle in the U.S. is not just our struggle; it’s the world’s struggle, and we don’t have to think we’re alone.
When you see what other people have faced through history, then you know this little Trump thing is awful and catastrophic in a lot of ways, but it’s not unprecedented. It has happened and people have overcome. Does it happen immediately? I don’t know when it happens, but you can never just lay down.
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