Postcard image from Learning to Labor, Remembering to Resist. Solo exhibition at University Gallery, Saginaw Valley State University (February-March 2010).
Note: to coincide with the release of my new Celebrate People’s History Poster, I have written the following blog, which discusses, in a round about fashion, the meaning of the print and the impact Michigan has on my creative process. I hope you are not too bored…
As many of you may know, two-and-a-half years ago I moved to Michigan. Although born and raised in the Great Lakes State, I was always one of those kids that dreamt of escaping the place of their birth. While I my dreamtime was spent in unknown and far away places, my waking hours were spent in a miserable and frigid home in woods. How I hated having to wear a hunter’s orange hat and vest when waiting for the school bus (my mother didn’t want me to be shot by “drunken hunters,” as she called them).
Following high school, I spent a year at art school, dropped out, worked as a designer for corporate and Detroit techno websites, had my heartbroken, moved to Kalamazo (the heart of Midwest hardcore, remember Jihad and Constantine Sankathi?), fell in love again, had a daughter, finished school, and finally moved away to la tierra encantada.
While it took a few years for me to escape the Winter Wonderland, I was certain that my time in Michigan would be limited to holidays and family reunions. Little did I realize that Michigan would hold such a strong pull for me. Nearly a decade away from my family decreased the harsh feelings I had for the state of Michigan and the rural location where I was reared. I slowly began to forget the childhood fights with (children of) the Michigan Militia on the bus ride to the technical school meant for non-college bound students. I had nearly forgotten the time when a dear friend’s house was covered with swastika’s and graffiti telling her family to go home. I had equally intended to remove any remnants of the county-sanctioned Klan rally on the steps to the courthouse in the village where I was raised.
So when I was offered a tenure-stream job at Michigan State University (it was either here or Iowa), I was ambivalent about returning to a place that I had worked to hard to escape. While the first summer back was difficult, Estrella (my partner) was away doing research and I was fully responsible for our daughters and doing all the necessary home repairs. The last two years have been a series of positive and negative moments, only recently beginning to enjoy the very personal relationship I have with this region and the positive impact it has had on my current creative and intellectual practice.
As I see them, both of these practices revolve around issues of Indigenous sovereignty and working-class radicalism. It makes perfect sense then, that Michigan, the traditional lands of the Anishinaabeg and the Great Lakes Métis (Drummond Island Michif represent!), is the ideal location from which to make my own work. If you combine the amazing Indigenous projects (I discussed many of these in Temporary Service’s recent publication Art Work) with the ongoing legacy of working-class/union activism and it would seem that Michigan is the ideal location for both me and my work.
As hard as it for me to acknowledge, I am coming to terms with the state’s strangehold on my creative and intellectual labors and their capacity to serve as a creative and political muse. Over the next year, I will have no less than four solo exhibitions, all in Michigan or the Great Lakes, which will address Indigenous and working-class radicalism in the face of continued economic oppression.
For my recent Celebrate Peoples’ History poster, I decided to reflect upon the important legacy of the Flint Sit-Down Strike, an event commonly acknowledged as the birth of the modern union movement. While borrowing direct action tactics from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), this strike remains a specter of the possibility of working-peoples uniting themselves at the site of struggle: the workplace. But for whatever reason, this type of project is only a specter for most people in this country. In Michigan, the Sit-Down Strike, which adorns the name of highway running through Flint, the city where my parents live, is little more than a remnant of a bygone era.
For the poster I decided to focus on a significant individual, Roscoe Van Zandt. Mr. Van Zandt was most likely the only Black worker to remain inside the plant for the duration of the 1936-1937 occupation, pointing to the unfortunate racist residual that infiltrates even the most utopian projects. While women and workers of color were involved in the strike, they have often been written out of the strike’s legacy.
Utah Phillips, the Wobbly folksinger and labor activist who recently passed into the spirit world, believed that the IWW had (or rather have) a “long memory.” While the capitalist project may only function by establishing a short memory within its subjects through removing any and all resistant memories (except those that it may incorporate into its amorphous project), Indigenous and working-peoples need to maintain a long memory. Through long memories, we may reclaim the countless working and colonized peoples who have struggled to create a better and more just existence for ourselves and our children. This reclamation must be simultaneously critical and celebratory. We must recognize the problems of past movements, while not being preoccupied by them.
One of the aspects that has always excited me about Celebrate Peoples’ History, and this can also be seen in a current project where I am making a series of piñatas, is that it allows us to remember the positive and celebratory moments in our collective history. For too long, activists (from a variety of theoretical positions) have fixated their attentions on negative developments within the world. By refocusing our attention to the significant impact that radical thinkers and practitioners have had on our quotidian existence, I believe that we may live happier and more fulfilling lives.
How awful would this world be if we solely focused our waking lives on figures like George W. Bush (remember when he was the focal point of all Leftist discourse?) or Christopher Columbus? By remembering everyday people like Roscoe Van Zandt and his contemporaries, not only do their lives become more meaningful, but so do our own. By making work about radical Great Lakes history (see my present show at ARC Gallery or my upcoming shows at Saginaw Valley State University or the College for Creative Studies), I am becoming increasingly content with my present location and in the abilities of my fellow Michiganders.
This isn’t to say that I see myself living in Michigan forever, only that by interrogating local histories within my work I have reclaimed a collective humanity that, like the harsh memories of my childhood that I nearly cleansed from my mind, needs to fully recalled if we are to maintain a sense of long memory. I engage this long memory through everyday activities with friends, family and other kin: things such as hunting (for a full discussion of my pro-vegan, pro-hunting stance, you will have to wait), fishing (ice fishing and fly fishing), hiking, biking, running, visiting, conversing, having lunch with elders.
Through these quotidian activities, I have reclaimed the long memory that the capitalist and colonial projects have attempted to strip away. Roscoe Van Zandt and his co-conspirators are only the most obvious examples embedded in Michigan’s long memory. It is for this reason that I chose him and the strikers. But countless other figures could also have been selected. My grandfather, Uncle Dave and best friend Rock, all of whom have moved into the spirit world, were just as significant. Respectivally, they taught me the power of everyday activism and the power of daily decisionmaking. While the so-called ‘Anti-Globalization Movement’ revolves around corporate colonization of our daily lives, these individuals each maintained lives that reclaimed their humanity in smaller everyday actions.
By remembering everyday stories, be they the radical gestures of Roscoe Van Zandt and his fellow Flint Sit-Down Strikers or the stories told by my grandmother over dinner, I hope to use my long memory to engage in an active resistance to a society that wishes to commoditize our every action. Let’s refuse to become commodified! Let’s maintain a long memory!