by Adana Protonentis
“They forgot where they live. We never forget where we live.”
It was November 9, 2016, the day after the last presidential election, and I was on the phone with my mom. I’d been telling her about how everyone in Seattle seemed to be in a state of shock. Everywhere I looked, people were in tears or stunned into silence — they just hadn’t seen it coming. They’d never honestly considered the possibility that Trump would become president. They were completely unprepared, and I was completely baffled. So I called my mom, the wisest person I know, and asked how these election results could possibly be such a surprise? A crushing disappointment, sure, but a surprise? And then she reminded me of a truth I’d been taking for granted: Some people get to forget how cruel this country can be, but Black people never can. We can’t afford to forget.
For folks living at the intersection of multiple forms of oppression, forgetting where we live can be dangerous. We see this country and its people clearly; guided by our lived experience of oppression and our knowledge that liberation is our birthright. We exist in the past, present, and future at all times. We never forget what the state has done to our communities. We know exactly how bad things can get. We understand how the past created the systems that impact our present. We see the relationship between the redlining of yesterday and the gentrification of today. We notice patterns in the past that give us a glimpse into the future. As a Black, disabled mother, seeing the future by understanding the past is my superpower. Living at the intersections of racism, ableism, and misogyny gives me a unique insight into how these systems reinforce each other and what these forms of oppression look like in policy and practice. I saw Donald Trump coming a mile away. I know exactly where I live. And I understand that our collective liberation depends not on winning an election, but on changing the conditions that made a Trump presidency possible.
That work includes today but also goes far beyond 2020.
Lately, the Greek myth of Cassandra has been on my mind. Cassandra was a Trojan princess of legendary beauty. Apollo, in an effort to win her affection, gave Cassandra the ability to see the future. However, when she didn’t return his affection, Apollo cursed her: She would be able to see the future, but no one would believe her predictions. For the rest of her life, Cassandra would try to warn others of coming disasters, and she would be ridiculed, called hysterical, and ignored.
The Cassandras among us are our marginalized and minoritized neighbors, colleagues, and friends. They see this country for what it was, what it is, and what it can be. They are the children of survivors and have a survivor’s aptitude for sensing danger. Their intuition can be a gift and our future is only as healthy and inclusive as our commitment to hearing and believing them. The more marginalized she is, the more powerful a Cassandra’s foresight, with each form of oppression serving as another lens that sharpens her vision. The Cassandras — Black and Brown women, LGBTQIA+ folks, disabled folks, immigrants — have been mobilizing to tell us what’s coming and what’s at stake. Have you been listening? Do you believe us this time?
As a disabled person, I see many dangers on the horizon. We have a new Supreme Court justice who poses a serious threat to the Affordable Care Act. A pandemic is raging that is stretching our healthcare infrastructure to the limit. COVID-19 is especially dangerous for BIPOC communities, especially for disabled folks and elders within those communities — these are groups who are less likely to be prioritized for care if resources are scarce. Locally, our policymakers are considering budget cuts to essential services that our disabled siblings depend on — cuts that will push families into a state of crisis. As the mother of a disabled child, I see how special education students are being left behind in the pandemic and the ways that the gaps in opportunity widen by the day. At the intersection of race and disability, I see the threats posed by environmental racism, climate gentrification, and growing wildfires and hurricanes as existential.
As a Black person, racial justice and the struggle against state-sanctioned racial violence are never far from my mind. I can’t afford to forget what this country has done to Black bodies. As a Black disabled person, especially as one with a psychiatric disability, my heart broke again when Walter Wallace Jr. was killed last week. Having a mental health crisis should not be a death sentence and yet, when police are involved and the person in crisis is Black, violence and death are frequent outcomes. As a Black, disabled woman, I notice the stories that are missing from our monolithic ‘national conversation’ about racism and police violence. The more marginalized the victim, it seems, the quieter the public outcry. We marched and raged for George Floyd and Philadelphia was put under curfew to curb the protests over Walter Wallace Jr., but how many know the names Tanisha Anderson, Michelle Cusseaux, and Kayla Moore?
Here is the opportunity and the call for action: Seek out the Cassandras in our community and believe them. Whatever happens on election day and in the weeks afterward, the most marginalized among us have the most intimate understanding of what isn’t working. These are the people whose voices should be amplified as we rebuild our democracy. As we hold our newly elected officials accountable for their campaign promises, we should be looking to our Cassandras, to the most marginalized members of our community, for guidance. Our success fighting the pandemic should be measured in terms of our most marginalized communities. Our success addressing violence in policing can best be measured by the outcomes for disabled, Black, trans and gender nonconforming folks. By listening to Cassandra we can write a new ending for this very old story.
In some ways, the story of Cassandra reminds me of my mother. My mom was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1944. She grew up poor and Black in the Jim Crow South. She has seen just how cruel this country can be and yet, she keeps showing up. She volunteers as a poll worker for every election. She keeps offering warnings and guidance. She keeps trying to protect this country from the worst parts of itself. She keeps trying to love this country into being the best version of itself. She can see the future because she knows the past.
Listen to Cassandra. Believe her. Let’s get free.
Adana Protonentis is a consultant, advocate, scholar, and a mother. As an organizational development consultant, Adana helps organizations put their values into practice and develop strategies that promote cultures of care, belonging, and accountability. She identifies as a mixed race, Black, disabled woman and her work is rooted in the belief that our stories have the power to heal and liberate. She lives in South King County with her two kids, husband, and two dogs.
Featured image by Johnny Silvercloud (used here under a CC BY 2.0 license).
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