American Refugee


Arts & Culture

In this American dark age we must all take a moment to travel through time. Dark ages are marked with violence, disease, economic and cultural erosion, scientific perversions as well as, surprisingly, technological advancements. Technology for violence and the science of war thrives in these periods while libraries shrink. Arts investments dwindle and our knowledge of history, both distant and immediate, fades. Some believe we are just now on the brink of a dark age, and yet those not invited to benefit from certain privileges of whiteness have been in one for centuries. The black American and the white American live in two bodies during the same hour with eyes that see vastly different shadows. Racism is an integral part of the American experiment. There is no more time or energy left to waste arguing that truth. Genocide of the indigenous peoples, enslavement of the African, abduction and incarceration of the Japanese American, exploitation of the modern undocumented immigrant and the current carceral state that grinds black and brown bodies into profit for private corporations is racial in design, an obvious and grotesque reality. That is the strategy of institutionalized national racism. Oppressed citizens of that nation possess no country. The land below them is controlled by the state, so they become nomadic and vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by delusional agents of the state. Black Americans have been citizens of a nation without a country for a very long time.

I tell my students of fiction that every character must exist in three temporal realms: past, present, and future. Without that consideration, characters will feel inauthentic. This is a lie. We all know people who seem either cursed or just stupid, who flounder between the same bad choices again and again. It is as if they have no memory of their last bad relationship, no ability to recollect and learn and strategize differently. That kind of person has a past, of course, but refuses to see it. When we deny our past we erase our experiences, our knowledge of what is possible. The only people that have no past and no experiences are children. Denial of the past means you have to think as a child thinks, act as a child acts, relegating one’s daily existence to the surprise of a child. The infantilization of the American psyche is essential to perpetuating grotesque institutional structures that require the suffering of many to pay the debt of power to very few. Yet, it is human nature to fantasize about the past. To live in history with judgment, whether it is reverie or regret, is dangerous.

I will not evoke any adages of wisdom or recount the overwhelming narratives of police violence because the hour calls for imagination, not nostalgia. Nostalgia is a paralytic curse as productive and healthy as consuming the meat and wine of a dream. We don’t need to dine with ghosts. That brings us to the present. When people live only to judge the past, the present body is neglected, left to rot. And yet, when they turn fully away from the past, ignoring it entirely, they are subject to incarnations of old traumas. When we carry the past objectively into the present with honesty, our memories become assets. A nation must remember its whole history fully without judgment to guard against reliving previous horrors. This kind of relationship with the past also prevents mistaking history for destiny.

I’m a very spiritual person. I know that we are all the same spiritually, yada yada, but the physical body has rules. The body must be protected and honored as sacred. The nomadic black American body is in jeopardy. She has been bound and hunted for centuries, her pain has become commodified into an operatic spectacle for the world to despair and consume. Those witnessing the protests across this nation are splitting in various factions. Some support the protesters but not the looters. Some support the police but not the president. There are those who want to be neutral, nonparticipatory, refusing to believe the truth that their own bodies are intrinsically knitted to the fate of us all. The rest say let the thing burn and drown the ashes. Just maybe they are all right? What if we must try everything?

Denial is a mental reflex of the cowardly and/or insane while also serving as a tool of all abusers. It is an old strategy to perpetuate a maniacal system. Abusers never have to correct behavior if both parties can agree to pretend it never happened. I don’t believe in forgiveness. I believe in justice. I believe in contracts. Broken contracts have consequences. I have little faith in elections because justice must be extracted from the least of our leaders, not just the greatest. To wait for an election is to wait forever and invite suffering continually in organized cycles. Forty million unemployed Americans have been given a powerful weapon: time. They have the time, time to see the interchangeability of words essential and expendable. They see a health care system that prioritizes profit over actual health care. They see an education system with so little concern for history that great swaths of the population did not expect this moment at all. They see that many Americans are paid just enough to cover food and housing with no hope for retirement or health insurance, meaning death is their only and inevitable way out of the system. And they see literal murders of fellow citizens by police go unchallenged.

We are done watching endless videos of our torture and death. We are done with echoes of civil rights greats. We are done blocking the swords of disinformation. The past has happened. Accept it. We need to bend a knee to leaders with clarity and foresight. We must envision a future not divorced from or traumatized by or nostalgic for our past but thoroughly informed by it, so that we may all feel the earth under our feet and call it home.


Read Venita Blackburn’s essay “White People Must Save Themselves from Whiteness.”

Read Venita Blackburn’s story “Fam” in our Fall 2018 issue.

Works by Venita Blackburn have appeared or are forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Apogee, Iowa Review, Foglifter, Electric Literature, the Paris Review and others. She received the Prairie Schooner book prize for fiction, which resulted in the publication of her collected stories, Black Jesus and Other Superheroes, in 2017. In 2018 she earned a place as a finalist for the PEN/Bingham award for debut fiction, finalist for the NYPL Young Lions award and recipient of the PEN America Los Angeles literary prize in fiction. She is founder of the literary nonprofit Live, Write, which provides free creative writing workshops for communities of color. Blackburn’s second collection of stories, How to Wrestle a Girl, will be published in fall of 2021 by FSG. She is an Assistant Professor of creative writing at California State University, Fresno.