Walking into the Emerson dining hall as a freshman of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent, I felt as if all eyes darted to me immediately—staring at my hair, my outfits, and most of all, my skin. I felt naked. My coping mechanism became my art. I was in a school where people would see my work and hopefully listen. I recognized my new platform and decided to use it to inform the community of the adversity faced by students of color in a predominantly white collegiate system. In a similar fashion, artists around the country are using their art to highlight topics of importance that have historically been wrapped in shadows.
The exposure of my work matters not only for me to build a career as an artist. I feel that through art, creatives can help inform society of the impacts of historical events that are often omitted from our telling of history. The documentary, "13th," directed by Ava DuVernay of "Selma" acclaim—available to watch on Netflix—retells American history through detailing the faults in our country’s prison system.
When I saw that 2.3 million Americans are currently imprisoned, a statistic from "13th," I was shocked. Furthermore, 40.2 percent of these prisoners are men of color. Men like me. These prisoners are used to provide cheap labor known as “insourcing” for department stores, the agricultural industry, and even manufacturing companies. Companies like AT&T, Walmart, Victoria’s Secret, and Whole Foods all use insourcing. People wonder to where our domestic job market has disappeared. China? India? No. Our jobs are serving a life sentence in our own backyards.
With so many people of color in the United States working below a living wage, not getting the resources to survive in their communities, and living in a system of mass incarceration, I have to ask myself, “Am I a prisoner to the history of my people?”
My whole life I have been told slavery was abolished in 1865 when the 13th amendment passed. The amendment reads: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." But the amendment was written with a loophole by which the white majority has been able to force people of color to perform jobs that are, at best, undesirable. Words, as we all know, are important. The wording of the 13th amendment allows insourcing to exist. And the result is that slavery never really ended, but was transformed.
Between 1619 and 1865, the maximum number of enslaved Africans brought to the U.S. was 35,000 in one year. The U.S. currently incarcerates 716 people per every 100,000. While the population of the U.S. has grown since 1865, the ratio of imprisoned people far outpaces the rate at which slaves were being brought to the country. The 13th amendment not only failed to end slavery, it fine-tuned it into an industry that has never been more lucrative.
I feel artists have a responsibility to shed light on topics of value—like America’s broken prison system—in order to drive people to take action and create change. We need to pay attention to the artists who choose to do this because their messages are important.
Artists like novelist Junot Diaz, who speaks of the immigrant experience in the United States, and singer turned producer John Legend, have joined the ranks of those informing the country of racial issues. Seeing names like these starting to create music, films, and books about tensions regarding race and the daily trials of people of color gives me hope for a better future.
We can only change the future of our country once we fully understand the ramifications of our past. Contrary to popular belief, history is not fact. History is a retelling of the past—a story told from a certain perspective. We need to pay attention to works that attempt to rewrite history from the perspective of the oppressed, not the oppressor.