Inside the American Snow Dome


Arts & Culture

Dear Reader,

Do you know what a snow dome is? I believe you do not so I will tell you. It is this: a snow dome is an object, dome-like in shape, resting on a flat piece of material that is fitted to it and sealed perfectly to its base. The entire structure is made of a material that is easily shattered. Inside, the dome is filled about three quarters of the way up with water. Scenes of one kind or another are created and fixed to the bottom of the dome. Flakes of something white made to resemble snow are settled at the bottom of the dome, and when the dome is shaken, as it often is by a playful hand passing by, the flakes rush up in a flurry around the scene that has been fixed to the bottom of the dome. All the figures and objects are lost in a blur of the pretend snow, they are consumed by it, and for a moment, it seems as if this will be the new forever: they will never be seen clearly again. Then the false snow slowly settles back to the bottom of the dome and everything returns to the way it was. The scene remains just as it was before, fixed, fixed, and fixed! The snow dome is usually found at the destinations of grim family vacations: Disneyland, the Bronx Zoo, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the area of airports near the gates of departure, places you very well might never visit again because you never wish to visit these places again. Such is the existence of the snow dome.

For the past four years, starting sometime in early November 2016, I have been living in a snow dome that resembles the United States of America. I have been a figure in this snow dome. The color of the water in it was sometimes orange, sometimes a rage red, and the color of the snow was never white. It has been a shameful experience. I have been trapped here. The United States of America is to me the most wonderful country in the world, and it really is, but only if while you live there you attach yourself to the best people in it and the best people in it are Black people, African American people. If, when you go to the United States, you attach yourself to the group of people who call themselves “White” you will consign yourself to misery and minor and major transgressions against your fellow human beings and also greediness and everyday murder. And more. Here’s how you live in America: your children must go to the best schools and the best schools are always for white children and you’ll completely forget the best schools have never helped anybody be a good person (see George W. Bush, just for a passing reference). With the exception of most likely John Adams (second president of the United States for one term) and most certainly Barack Hussein Obama, all the presidents of the United States of America were racists and their racism was especially and particularly directed at Black people of African descent. The great Abraham Lincoln, a president I am so deeply attached to I grow roses named in his honor in my garden, was a racist but he abhorred slavery and that’s good enough for me, being that I am most blessedly descended from the enslaved (I say blessedly but I really mean accidentally because blessings are so random, they are in fact accidents). The United States of America, before it even became such a thing as the United States of America, was a roiling unsettling snow dome of transgression, and from the beginning that transgression was caused by people immigrating from Europe.

Perhaps this land has been inside a snow dome since August 3, 1492, but right now, let me look at the one I am in that appeared in early November 2016. All at once the open skies under which I lived in the state of Vermont closed up, which was very odd, for in September of 2001, which was a time of darkness, the open sky in the state of Vermont under which I lived couldn’t have been more open, more blue, more inviting and welcoming. But now, or then, however I want to regard it, the sky above me in 2016, that November, grew dark: words do change the color of things. Shortly after November of 2016, the people who were not allowed to come into the United States of America could trace their exclusion to the America of the slave states, which, after they were defeated, found a way to rise again. That particular snow globe is the one most of us are in. To make groups of people feel they are less than who they are, to make groups of people feel they are more than who they might be, to make groups of people teeter between more or less is an American idea, an American aspiration. But nothing is permanent, even in a snow globe, for sometimes a stray arm will knock it off its shelf (the shelf is the permanent home of the snow globe). There was the ban on people from “Islamic” countries. But what countries were those? In the Elizabethan era, after the defeat of Spain, Catholics more or less became racialized; when I was growing up as a little girl on a British-ruled island in the Caribbean, I was told that Catholics—that is, people from Italy and Spain and places like that—were not really white people and that idea was so strong in me that when I came to the United States, and met so many people who said they were white (Italians, Spaniards, just about anyone Catholic), I lost any fear I might have had of white people. This was a great comfort for me personally: I met plenty of racism but usually the people directing it toward me, I knew them to have had their own difficult encounters with the permanent impermanence of the snow globe. And so the people from countries where Islam was the dominant belief were like Catholics and also they were like Black people in America: segregation is an American ideology. Only African Americans/Black Americans instinctively understand this and that is why we are the true Americans. It is also why many immigrants to America try to get as far away as they can from identifying themselves with African Americans (the Irish, the fair-skinned immigrant from India, the fair-skinned immigrant from China, Korea, Japan): because the African American is American for the long haul, there is no America without the African American/Black people. Everyone loves what Black Americans are and do, they just don’t want to be them. The American obsession with freedom is simply because we have lived so intimately with people we made “not free.” We know very well the situation of the “not free.” The African American is the definition of the “not free.” America is a peculiar place: it has fifty states, half of them are named after the Native people who inhabited the land called America; it goes from Alabama to Wyoming. The American national motto could easily be “kill the people, keep their names.”

On a morning over this past weekend, in early November 2020, someone passed by the table where the snow dome I have been living in for four years lay and just deliberately knocked it to the floor. It shattered into many pieces, the water disappeared, soaked into the wooden floor. The phony snow did not melt of course, but all the figurines were broken. I picked up the pieces of the good ones, myself included (yes, it’s my snow dome and I get to decide). I would mend them back and try my best to make them whole again. I then took a hammer, one I use in the garden to hammer stakes into the earth, and I ground and ground the rest of them into dust.


The writer, novelist, and professor Jamaica Kincaid’s works include Annie JohnLucyThe Autobiography of My MotherMr. PotterA Small PlaceMy Brother, and See Now Then. Her first book, the collection of stories At the Bottom of the River, won the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Professor of African and African American studies in residence at Harvard, Kincaid was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She has received a Guggenheim Award, the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, the Prix Femina Étranger, Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Clifton Fadiman Medal, and the Dan David Prize for Literature.

This essay originally appeared in Swedish in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter.