Happy Bastille Day 🙂 a reminder of the 1789 rebellion staged at the infamous prison, which entered in the French Revolution and ended the French monarchy. France’s path to freedom from tyranny wasn’t easy — the guillotine, the Reign of Terror, Napoleon, financial collapse — but the French eventually got democracy, and now we can celebrate with mussels meuniere and tarte tatin.
Some believe the United States is in the early stages of a slow-moving revolution. Maybe not slow-moving. Probably neither, but the world’s revolutions seem relevant right now. Here are a few that might have some special messages for us, with examples of the art and music they inspired.
The Haitian Revolution — Ending Slavery
What Happened. On Bastille day, it’s good to remember that France had two revolutions going at the end of the 18th century. The Haitian Revolution was fought by slaves against French colonizers to end slavery. The war cost hundreds of thousands of lives, but the French were defeated and left the island. The success of the revolution was the beginning of the end of lawful slavery globally. In the long run, the people of Haiti have been impoverished and victimized by brutal dictatorships (sponsored by the United States, among others). Still, Haiti’s revolution was a gift to the world.
The Art. Hector Hyppolite is the “grand maitre” of Haitian art, a practitioner of voodoo whose paintings dig deep into the island’s history and culture.
His painting, “Papa Zaka Papa Ogou,” depicts two “iwas” (Voodoo spirits) who have been transformed into earthly beings to fight Haiti’s demons and protect its angels. The painting speaks to Haitians and their art in its use of color and abstract forms, but especially in the ways it connects Haitian mysticism to Haiti’s humanitarian victory.
The Music. The music of Haiti’s revolution is “rara,” which has been a Haitian tradition since the period of slavery. It remains popular for parading and festivals on the island and among the Haitian diaspora in the US. It’s wild.
Message for America. Maybe we should identify our iwas and put them to work. Maybe we need to bang on a few drums to end what looks a lot like slavery.
The Mexican Revolution — A New Constitution
What Happened. The Mexican Revolution was an uprising by the working and agrarian classes against the Mexican elite, who had for years confiscated farmlands and consolidated power in order to extract the country’s natural resources for export. Seven years later in 1917, Mexico adopted a new Constitution that acknowledged the rights of workers, imposed land reforms, and required separation of church and state. In spite of the country’s continuing struggles, the revolution established a national consciousness that has made a difference to labor, indigenous communities, and the poor.
The Art. The artworks of the revolution remain important symbols of grass roots empowerment in Mexico. “The Arsenal” by Diego Rivera portrays several of the revolution’s activists, including his wife, Frida Kahlo, distributing arms to farmers. Rivera and Kahlo, two of Mexico’s most beloved artists, were communists, and even hosted Leon Trotsky, Russia’s revolutionary, in their Mexico City home for the 7 months before his assassination. (During that time, Kahlo privately hosted Trotsky in a less revolutionary way.)
The Music. Mexico’s revolution inspired songs and story-telling “corridos,” many of which have inspired Mexicans in their more modern struggles. “La Adelita” sings the story of the women warriors of the Mexican Revolution who have become symbols of women’s rights and empowerment in Mexico.
Message for America. Maybe America should revise its Constitution. Our 13th Amendment permits slavery and is still used to enslave people. It does not guarantee equal rights to women. It structures federal elections and Congress in ways that ensure the wildly disproportionate influence of small, rural states that have traditionally suppressed the rights of non-whites. Probably other things.
The Sexual Revolution — A Path Toward Gender Equality
What Happened. The sexual revolution was an American, nonviolent movement in the 1960s that is attributed to the availability of the birth control pill. But the pill probably just jump-started something that would have happened anyway — a civil rights movement to empower women and people whose sexuality was other than what we now call cisgender. Since the 1960s, the role of women has changed substantially. There has been plenty of push-back and backlash, but, overall, the sexual revolution stuck.
The Art. During the 1960s, posters were an important part of pop culture. This one calls for women’s power and unity. Its simple message and symbolism, cribbed from the Black Power movement, may seem dated to those of us who have benefited most from feminism in the past 50 years. But the message remains relevant for many women who are exploited and oppressed by the powerful men in their lives and the system.
The Music. Here’s a classic song of women’s empowerment. But ho hum. With remarkable irony, the YouTube title credits Dave Stewart, a good musician who will be forgotten by history, and neglects to give credit to Aretha Franklin, who changed music forever. Sisters still workin on it.
Message for America. We need to do more to protect and promote the rights of women who are most vulnerable in our culture — the ones who work in hotels, agriculture, the military, sweat shops and the sex trade. We need day care and parent leave and laws that hold predators accountable, whoever and wherever they are.
The Cuban Revolution — A Fight for Solidarity
What Happened. Cuba’s revolution was a fight to end the control of the island by corrupt leaders, the mafia, and corporations, and the virtual enslavement of many Cubans. Cuba paid a high price for its freedom from colonial control. The US embargo has stifled economic prosperity, and Castro’s leadership was in ways oppressive. But the revolution was a success from the standpoint of promoting self-reliance and social justice. Among other things, its literacy rate is comparable to the US, and all Cubans are entitled to high quality health care at no cost.
The Art. Perhaps the most important art of the Cuban revolution shows up in the form of posters or murals, and they are everywhere in Cuba as reminders of the country’s commitment to revolution and solidarity. Yes, it’s propaganda, but so are the American billboards selling you junk you don’t need.
The Music. The Cuban government supports the arts by giving the same stipend to artists as it provides other professionals, and permits artists to supplement their income by performing or selling what they make. Carlos Varela is Cuba’s Bob Dylan. His haunting ballad, “La Palabra,” reflects the incredible art that has evolved from the revolution.
Message for America. Liberty and justice for all requires some sacrifices by individuals to serve the community. Special message to elites: freedom is not free for you either.
The American Revolution — Freedom and Justice for Some
What Happened. You know what happened. Ours was a revolution for independence from England, not social justice. It was a revolution for the few, explicitly protecting the institution of slavery and enshrining the exclusive rights and power of white male landowners. Although things have improved for some in 244 years, America’s legacy of elitism continues to undermine the promise of democracy.
The Art. The American Revolution’s most recognized and studied painting tells the story of “George Washington Crossing the Delaware,” on his way to victory over England. The painting celebrates an aristocratic leader in a dingy with a black slave, a farmer, a Native American, a man in a coonskin cap. The depiction of the boat’s passengers is usually interpreted to mean that the American Revolution was for everyone. Even accepting that interpretation, there are no women or children in the boat, about two thirds of “everyone.” Given the painting’s many layers of metaphor, it seems significant that the boat is too small to navigate the treacherous waters with all those passengers.
This arguably prophetic painting is not by, for or about the majority of Americans. Its style is finely crafted, mythic, heroic, addressing itself to the patrons of art salons and the ruling class.
The Music. The revolutionaries sang “Yankee Doodle Dandy” but “Hamilton” represents us better – for its genius and its flaws, it’s a metaphor for America. The play commands ticket prices in excess of many Americans’ weekly salaries. It taunts American racism by deploying actors of color, but fails to mention the Father’s original sin. Its score incorporates the music of black youth to celebrate a country that has best served aging whites. It has also been wildly successful in reminding us what is best about America’s spirit.
Message for America. We did an incredible job of creating a land of plenty that has been really great for some of us. It’s time to acknowledge what’s missing and turn the world upside down.
It seems history has its eyes on us.