In 1939, Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” for the first time at a cafe in New York City. More recently, the young adult book and film series The Hunger Games released its own haunting song, “Hanging Tree”.
Both songs tell of oppression, of violence. One tells the true story of a people oppressed at the hands of an imperial, colonial power that to this very day weaponizes education, strongman rhetoric, and white supremacy to empower some citizens while demonizing others. The latter centers whiteness in a fictional universe.
Make no mistake: I am by no means a hater of The Hunger Games. As an angsty 14-year-old, I read the series along with 1984, Brave New World, and all the other dystopian classics whilst coming of age. These stories revolutionized me. They allowed me to begin the process of decolonizing my mind by entering into it the suggestion that blind faith and loyalty to one’s nation are not patriotism, but ignorance both sinister and irresponsible. However, all of these stories share something in common beyond their wariness of authoritarianism: they are all white stories. They tell tales of fictional oppression, a nondiscriminatory oppression, filtered through the perspective of a white protagonist. For many years, I was so intent on watchdogging this kind of hypothetical transgression that I paid little attention to the very real oppression happening all around me; I didn’t notice the black bodies hanging in the trees. I thought these were crimes of the past. When I was a little older, and for the first time read The Handmaid’s Tale, I was oblivious to the theme of white supremacy in Gilead, conveyed with Northern European names and brown servants. I missed this because, despite being hypervigilant in my watching out for totalitarianism, my perspective centered whiteness. I was oblivious to the facism and authoritarianism that existed in my own country because I was, for the most part, not a victim of it. I could get along very well without ever having to notice the police state, because I was not its target. When I heard the headlines about Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and countless others, I assumed they had done something wrong. Perhaps, I thought, they didn’t deserve to die, but if they were innocent they wouldn’t have been killed. I confess with not inconsiderable shame that this kind of shallow and illogical thinking was enough to satisfy me for a long time. Even as a woman, I felt little affected by discriminatory policies in areas such as reproductive rights because I was “from a good family” and I would “never need an abortion” because I “wasn’t an idiot”; I would just make my partner use a condom. I thought very little about the women who didn’t have the privilege of being sexually educated, or those who had been assaulted, or those who, for whatever personal reason, could not sustain a pregnancy. Instead I haughtily read my books and cast my eyes overseas, or to the “intolerant left” that wanted to “take away our free speech.” I did not believe there was oppression in the United States, despite how ridiculous that notion is to me now. I thought anyone who was killed by police or incarcerated must have deserved it, and if people would only comply, they would be treated appropriately. I lacked compassion and understanding. I was naive. I was wrong.
I think that there are at least three contributing factors supporting the psychological barrier between Black stories and the dystopian genre. Firstly, I think this barrier exists because dystopian fiction centers whiteness. There are few novels in the dystopian genre that center the Black experience. The only one I can think of is Noughts & Crosses, and I confess that I have neither read the book nor watched the television series. Secondly, I think the commonly taught nonfiction accounts of systemic and governmental oppression also center whiteness: we think of the USSR, the European Jews in the Holocaust, fascist Italy and Spain, etc. Sometimes, when we are feeling very inclusive, we also consider the dictatorial regimes of Asia, such as Mao and Pot and Kim Jung Un. Thirdly, in both the fictional and nonfictional stories we read about people living under such conditions, the stories are mostly bleak, lifeless, hopeless, and short; this is not the case when reading Black stories. Stories of Black oppression in the Americas are unique in that they span the duration of over 400 years, and despite the abject oppression they have faced, Black people have created unparalleled beauty, life, love, and culture even within the context of slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and all the other indignities thrust upon them by a racist, imperial, and white power.
Additionally, to some extent, I think we often do not categorize Black stories under the umbrella of the dystopian genre because we have become desensitized to Black suffering. We either think this is acceptable or we deny its existence. But it isn’t acceptable, and it does exist. There is a plurality of evidence showing that it does exist. Why is “Strange Fruit” less dystopian than “Hanging Tree”?
We must free ourselves from indoctrination and propaganda. The United States and other imperial Western nations love to present tokens of Black empowerment and success. “See, we’re not oppressing anyone! The past is in the past! We are a post-racial society!” No, we are not. And we never will be until we face the truth: that we are Panem, Gilead, Oceania, the World State. We are not a beacon of progress and justice. We are a dystopia, complete with gaslighting and propaganda and nationalistic rhetoric campaigns. “Buy, buy, buy!” They distract us. “USA! USA! USA!” They feed our tribalism. “I’m so glad to be an American, where at least I know I’m free” (as long as I am white, and wealthy, and heterosexual, and male, and…).
When George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis, I remember saying to my boyfriend, “I am less concerned with the racism and more concerned with the facism.” This is what centering whiteness does. It creates this kind of passivity and blindness even in those who are well meaning and actively trying to be anti-racist. I particularly address my white fellows when I say this: we must decolonize our minds. We must assume the burden of this fight against tyranny. It is very much our burden to bear, not because we instituted the system, but because we are still its beneficiaries. In the United States, racism and fascism are two sides of the same coin. They are a double-headed serpent, and we must behead both. We must be equally concerned with both. Until we accept the truth, that we are a nation of capitalist exploitation that was built on the backs of Black, brown, and indigenous peoples, in addition to the working class, we will never be the land of the free nor will we live up to any of the other pretty values we pledge allegiance to. Until we acknowledge entirely the harm we have committed and continue to commit, we will never change. Further, we must then be willing to undergo the discomfort and disruption of the status quo inherent to correcting past wrongs.
I see the tension growing in the streets. I hear the people screaming, and crying, and begging for change. I see the division and terror. I fear that the change will not come fast enough, and desperation will lead some to violence that we have not seen in this country since 1865. I fear that our leaders and our people will not heed the call of progress, of equality, of human dignity, and many will be convinced that nothing short of revolution will bring about the necessary change. I hope that we can prove those people wrong.