This text was written in response to artist Joshua Dylan Rubin’s work, “450 West 17th St. #7, oil on panel, 5 7/8″ x 7 13″/16″ ” and was performed at Tom’s Etching Studio in London in August 2016 as part of the exhibition, 3459.
This is the News at Ten. Tonight’s headlines:
- Four hundred men, women, and children have drowned in the Mediterranean after their boat capsized while attempting to cross into Europe. The victims were from Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea. The people smugglers and the politicians remain at large.
- The United Kingdom has voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. The UK will go it alone as an island nation in an irreversibly globalised world, putting an end to the post-war dream of unity and tolerance. The fear-mongers have fled into exile.
- And millionaire businessman, Donald Trump has become the presidential nominee for the Republican Party vowing to build a wall along the US-Mexico border and, eventually, one across the Canadian border. Trump is riding high in the polls, as is the threat to the world of his presidency.
- And, in other news, the price of lettuce has gone up by 20 cents a head.
Two years ago, while briefly living in a bohemian suburb of Barcelona, Spain, I was introduced to a young man who my landlady thought I should meet. I was sceptical – just because we were both Black in an uncomfortably homogenous city didn’t mean we had anything in common – but I acquiesced, and reluctantly agreed. Like me, Ousman was from Ghana, but while I was born and raised in the UK, he was born and brought up in a small village in Ghana’s poorer Northern region. We were of the same root but from two different branches.
I listened as he recounted his softly spoken story, how, at age nine, his parents could no longer afford to send him to school so he went to live with an uncle further south, where there were more economic opportunities, even for a nine-year-old. From there, he moved to the capital, Accra, where he plied his trade as a mechanic, learning on the job. When, at fourteen, he was approached by a man who told him he could get him to Europe, which was only “two hours away by car,” he jumped at the chance, not just for himself, but for his family back north, who he supported by sending home some of his meagre wages.
Had he been in possession of even a basic education, a universal human right, he’d have known that Europe couldn’t be reached from Africa by car and that the man who had promised him the prospect of a better life was swindling him out of his cash and, potentially, his very existence. But he didn’t know any better, not until he was deep in the Sahara, surrounded by dead bodies, not until he was halfway across the Mediterranean clinging on to the edge of a rickety boat, desperate for life. But even if he did know better, there was no other way out for Ousman because the borders have been all but closed, the legal means of entry to the West fortified.
Soon after meeting Ousman, a striking image went viral. Taken by an activist-photographer on the border between Morocco and Spain, it showed asylum seekers stuck on a high, razor wire fence above an elite golf club, dangling like strange fruit, Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze. With all legal routes blocked, there was no other way. This was survival at its peak.
The history of the western world has been building up to this. Every human development, every technological innovation, every political action and political inaction has brought us to where we are today. Empires rise and empires fall. States thrive and states decline. Borders come and borders go. Through all this, the people remain. Injustice and inequality breed not contempt, but the will to survive at all costs.
In 2015, 244 million people, or 3.3 per cent of the world’s population, lived outside their country of origin. The majority cross borders in search of better economic and social opportunities. Others are forced to flee crises by heading straight into others – life or death served twice, first at home then at the hands of the xenophobe.
Xenophobia has morphed for the post-racial age. Hate is no longer simply about the colour of one’s skin, but like any other resistant disease, it’s mutated to attack all forms of difference – religion, language, culture – bigotry on a post-industrial, technological scale.
We want cheap food, but we’re unwilling to pay the price for it. We want to move around the world freely, but we only want that freedom for ourselves. Are we really overwhelmed by invading migrants or are we drowning in a sea of statistics, swamped beneath the barrage of unfiltered stream-of-consciousness thoughts that pass for 24-hour news?
You’d rather pay more for your lettuce. You’d rather pay more so that others live less. What price for your comfort? What price theirs?
Close the borders and open the floodgates to state-sanctioned hate. We left the EU, not the continent of Europe! We left the EU, not the family of man!
The history of the western world has been building up to this – the advance towards freedom.
History is being re-written for the digital age. It’s been condensed, refracted, redacted and reduced to 140 characters which, when all’s said and done, amount to nothing more than this:
That, in today’s world, the value of a lettuce is worth more than that of a human life.
This is the News at Ten and these are today’s headlines.
© Sylvia Arthur, 2016