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The Power of Art

Posted by on Mar 19, 2017

The Power of Art

Yesterday was a milestone for me in my freelance video production career. I showed a film I produced to an audience of 300 people and when it was over some people were in tears. The host was visibly affected by the video and asked that everyone stand up and hug a person next to them. I received hearty handshakes and hugs from people I work with.

It was a moment I won’t forget. As a freelance artist working in a town with a poor arts economy, I often wonder why I still go on. Yesterday was the reason.

I teach part time at The Academy of Arts and Academics in Springfield, OR. We’re a project-based learning high school with a healthy focus on not only academics, but various art forms including painting, photography, theater, sculpture, costume design, dance, and video. Being in a creative environment often leads to amazing opportunities to collaborate with other artists.

This creative environment also leads to some students who express themselves in shocking ways. Sam, a teacher I work with at A3 has encountered various forms of hate speech and drawings over the years and seemingly, nothing can be done to prevent this from happening. Earlier this year, she yet again came across scrawls of the Swastika symbol on desks and walls.

Knowing the history well, growing frustrated and angry, she did the only thing she could. She wrote. She wrote a deeply moving slam-style poem about the history of the Swastika and its unfortunate power in spreading hate towards minorities.

When I read the poem, I knew it had to be made into a video. Our school director pitched us both an idea. We would have nearly every student (~360) read different sections of the poem on camera, and then I would edit a video together showing the community of A3 reading the poem.

It was a way to adapt the poem from one art medium to another, to spread its reach further. It was also a way to hopefully have who ever was doing this be confronted with the fact that their actions were hurting others.

All the teachers worked with their students to film different sections being read. The creativity was amazing, but also made editing the video into a cohesive experience a challenge. Simply gathering videos from 30 or so groups was a headache because

  • no central repository to upload video files
  • not all teachers are comfortable with technology
  • we’re crazy busy teaching

During editing, my organizational skills were essential, as I had to sort out which videos to place in the correct order so the poem was read properly. Teachers were very supportive, and helped by giving me photos to use in the video.

The act of everyone coming together to collaborate on this video project shows that we will work hard to create an inclusive, supportive community for all people, especially minorities, those who are alter-abled, transgender, queer, weird, and different in some way from the mass media created “norm”.

Donald Trump became President of the United States earlier this year. Since the beginning, he has been spreading his hate, trying to ban people from specific countries based on their faith, deport people he doesn’t think belong here, and build walls to keep others from coming here.

He also has proposed to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

With the recent political events on my mind, the impact my video had in that theater reminds me that my art is important. That even though I struggle to produce a sustainable income with my art, the work I do is necessary to fight against the spread of hate. Together we must counter that hate by pushing forward the values of community, empathy, safety, and love.

Text of original poem:

A lesson in why I’m tired of seeing the swastika
in 5 parts.

I: Introduction—A History Lesson

The word swastika was derived from the Sanskrit
meaning good fortune,
or well being.

The shape is a monogram,
the interlacing of two Brahmi words,
a hooked cross which, over 5,000 years ago,
represented the rays of the sun,
the four directions of our natural compass,
and the four elements of our world.

Earth, wind, fire and water,
the symbol was balanced,
sitting firmly on its base
like a poised animal
on its haunches.

In other interpretations,
the symbol was a sacred text
explaining, “here is how the sun moves across the sky.”
A map of the heavens,
a lesson in astronomy.

The swastika, when standing on its base,
is still sacred today
in many religions.
It is
the Buddha’s footsteps,
the seventh saint in Jainism,
and the four possible places of rebirth
in animal and plant world,
hell, earth and the spirit world.

In the 1870s the swastika was changed forever.
An archaeologist engrossed in discoveries
from ancient Troy and Mycenae,
Heinrich Schliemann,
found the symbol likeable
and claimed it,
because as a man he had the power to define.
He designated it
the symbol of his people—the Aryans—
and soon this is what it became.

By 1907 the swastika was turned at an angle
becoming a hooked cross precariously balancing
on its side.
Its meaning, however, was turned upside down.
The cult of Aryan supremacy
claimed it,
and finally Hitler adopted the
bedraggled image
as the symbol of the Nazi party
marking the beginning of its legacy
as an image of hate,
a harbinger of genocide,
and unthinkable atrocity.

In the course of twenty five years,
under the direction of Hitler and Himmler
and Heydrich and Daluege
and Jeckeln and Prutzmann
and Eichmann and Mengele
and countless other men with vacant expressions
and the ability to spell death with pointed fingers
the swastika came to mean loss
of integrity, of citizenship, of basic rights,
of personal safety, of property,
of an untarnished image of humanity
of hope.

Under the swastika
unraveled a calm, coordinated,
and systematic extermination
of 6 million Jews
200,000 gypsies
70,000 handicaps
and unknown numbers
of people of color,
political prisoners,
and deportees.

Under the swastika,
there were gas chambers
and the burning of children’s bodies.
There were prison-like ghettos,
and there was no humanity.

Part II: A lesson in Linguistics

First, language is meaningful only
because of shared understanding.

Words mean nothing,
symbols are vacuous
unless we share recognition
of the things that they signify.

All language is arbitrary
if we cannot agree on what object,
or emotion or event in history
are called forth by the words that we say.

Second, to be able to change meaning, you must have power
and you must have time.

Trust me,
if I could rewrite the meaning of every blood-soaked word
I would.
I would scrub them clean of their histories.
I’d redefine them,
make them useful,
maybe even kind.

But I can’t, and neither can you.
At least not alone
and not on command.
Because I’m sorry to say
that that’s not how language works.

I’m sorry to say
that a symbol made synonymous with hate
cannot be used innocently,
cannot only mean what it meant before Hitler
and Himmler
and Heydrich and Daluege
and Jeckeln and Prutzmann
and Eichmann and Mengele.

Even if you claim to redefine it,
even if you claim to only use it for what it once was
even if once it was beautiful,
like the stalwart path of the sun,
the swastika has innocent blood on its hooks
and it eyes us sideways like a crooked lamppost
burdened with memories we cannot dismiss.

We remember.
As a society, we remember,
because pain is a finicky creature
that will not be reasoned with,
or re-defined out of existence.

We cannot use the swastika without remembering the pain
how it was ironed onto the starched coats
and painted on the national flags
of those who murdered
6 Millions Jewish men, women and children,
200,000 gypsies
70,000 handicaps
and unknown numbers
of people of color,
political prisoners,
and deportees.

Even if you say so.
Even if you claim to only use it for good.
We remember,
we remember.

Part Three: A Story

In elementary school my Hebrew teacher was Mrs. Wygodski.
When I was ten she seemed ancient.
I remember her shaky hands, but the steadiness of her voice.
Most of all I remember the numbers on her forearm
from when the Nazis decided she was no longer a girl,
but a numerical value.

I remember her telling us about the concentration camps
when they shaved her tiny girlish head
and gave her dirty, ill-fitting clothes,
when they took her arm and erased her
like a message in the sand,
and she became a number.

In elementary school someone wanted to play a joke
so they scrawled a swastika
on its side
in large black ink on the white board of class.
The symbol was the first thing you saw
when you entered the room.

I remember
when she came in she was smiling
as usual
her grey hair down, her kind, open face,
a miracle of a woman,
to withstand the darkest night and still smile.

I remember that Mrs. Wygodski said it is important to forgive
but I could never understand how she forgave the Nazis.
She would look at us and say
“hate is the darkest tunnel,
and harder to climb out of
than forgiveness is to bestow.”

The day she walked into the room with the swastika
looming large on the white board
I will never forget the look on her face.
As the symbol spoke to her directly
it unearthed everything she spent years flattening down,
memories she sifted through for decades with trembling fingers,
images she shelved in the recesses of her mind
to make room for the possibility of tomorrow, and the warmth of smiling children.

For a moment
that symbol broke her,
and in that moment, the swastika once again stole her humanity,
and turned Mrs. Wygodski into the number
they once told her she was.

Part Four: Land of the Free

Today thousands of hate groups continue to use the swastika
teetering sideways
the way that Hitler intended it.
Once a symbol of good fortune,
it is now the most widely recognized symbol of hate
the world has ever known.

Used in the United States
the swastika has opened its claws
and staked claim to the beating hearts,
and hopeful sovereignty
and promised dreams
of countless African Americans,
who became the targets of the same bottomless hate
that engulfed millions in the holocaust.

Under our star spangled banner
the swastika has overseen
thousands of racially driven lynchings,
ongoing police brutality
the imprisonment of one out of three black men
and the bombing of black children in their Sunday school dresses.

In Oregon,
the swastika celebrates the sealing of borders,
is embraced by the very groups
who once outlawed black existence
in our very own state constitution,
the same groups
who once dictated the state’s refusal
to ratify the 14th amendment
of equal protection,
and the 15th amendment
giving African Americans the right to speak
at the ballot box
and be heard
by their government.

In the land of the free, the swastika
is still tattooed on chests
and ironed to coats
and scrawled on the walls of my classroom.

In our communities
there are
the European Kindred,
the Northwest Hammerskins,
the National Socialist Party,
and the Ku Klux Klan.

And they wear the swastika
because they recognize its meaning,
the meaning we all know
the meaning imbedded deep
by the pointed guns of the Einsatzgruppen

they wear the swastika because they want to swallow the world.

Part 5: In Conclusion

To whoever drew the swastika
last week,
last year,
in every year before that
in the bathroom, in the hallway, on my classroom wall and desks.

I forgive you.
Not because I want to
but because Mrs Wygodski would.

I will give you the benefit of the doubt.
I will believe you didn’t mean it.
I will believe you didn’t know.
I will still have hope in your humanity
because what choice do I have?

This is my refusal to become what the Nazis wanted,
what hate groups still want.
That is how I resist.
I refuse to hate you,
I refuse
to hate.

However, now that I’m addressing you directly,
I want to take this moment to make clear
that when I see the swastika
this is what I see:

I see Mrs Wygodski,
with her kindness that was like a spring
flowing from somewhere dark and unseeable
and I see her face when she walked into a room with that symbol
and I see the colors of her world bleed out.

I see my missing family members,
who I never actually had the chance to really see.
So I imagine them,
my grandfather’s aunts, uncles and cousins
from a shtetle somewhere in Poland,
erased completely from history, from record, from existence
by swastika wearing men
who forgot how to be human.

Finally, I see my students.
The rest of them,
with their still young impressionability
and their beautiful array of skin colors, backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures
and their intact understanding of love.
They are the hope that our grandparents thought was lost,
and this swastika is their antithesis.
It is the undoing of their sanctity,
it is you spitting in the face of everyone who is not you.

And if you do that intentionally,
if you do that knowingly
and with purpose,
well, that
is unforgivable.

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