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Self portrait of an American | Column
What the year and the new year are teaching John Sims, a writer, artist and activist.
A Self Portrait, John Sims, 2020
A Self Portrait, John Sims, 2020 [ Courtesy of John Sims ]
Published Jan. 16, 2021|Updated Jan. 18, 2021

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Strength of Love, 1963.

Just when you thought the 2020 show was over, the encore starts. The insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol, a Confederate battle flag traversing the halls of Congress, five people dead and a democracy under siege are the mushroom cloud fallout from bombs that Donald Trump dropped long ago. So don’t blame this on Antifa, Black Lives Matter or 5G.

Blame it on the collective narcissist woundedness due to the loss of a presidential election, senatorial runoffs and white power, thanks to the likes of Stacey Abrams and other activists around the country who worked the front lines, turning votes into the power of change. As we approach Inauguration Day on Wednesday, let us remember that every nightmare breaks at daylight, and poetic justice eventually prevails. And as we prepare to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let us reflect on the lessons of this historical moment, push back on deadly radical Trumpism and campaign for a civil, compassionate and inclusive America.

This past year has been beyond the surreal — a fast-paced, neck-breaking concatenation of life-threatening, fear-provoking, socially divisive, world-connecting and once in a century moments all braided up by the fundamental forces of nature and the human spirit to survive, conserve and create in a time of great uncertainty. The main keywords of 2020 have been COVID-19, George Floyd, police brutality, Black Lives Matter, white supremacy, Confederate symbols and monuments, masks, intubation, Trump, elections, Biden/Harris, vaccination and most important — death and the fear of it.

These words and ideas provide a scaffolding from which hangs the pathologies and virtues that expose our conflicting humanity and fractured American identity. We will ponder and reflect on this time for years to come. And while 2020 has been a horrible nightmare for many, as an artist, writer and activist, this year has been my most productive as I have sought to respond to the critical themes of this year — the pandemic, American policing, Confederate iconography, the elections and the deep divisions of America. I want to share with you how and why this has been productive for me and what I have learned, and show how art and activism are central elements in the process of survival, healing and transformation of a nation in division.

When the coronavirus appeared in the United States early last January, I was more than casually concerned about it, especially since Wuhan, the point of origination, was on lockdown. As the virus began to spread east and west out of China, I am struck on how Americans were laissez-faire and business as usual. But when the reality of the pandemic hit, toilet paper was flying off the shelves.

Somewhere in there, many in the Black community thought this was probably another problem of white people with a travel budget. Well, if you followed AIDS in the ’80s you would know that those who are least prepared suffer the most, especially Black people. In response, I co-wrote with David Love the piece “Should Black America be worried about Coronavirus,” featuring a warning that pre-existing conditions like diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, added with medical racism, might lead our community into disproportionate disaster. The warning, as it was, became more a prophecy than unfounded paranoia, for I lost both my uncle and grandmother to complications from this virus.

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Coronavirus: BLM, John Sims, 2020
Coronavirus: BLM, John Sims, 2020 [ Courtesy of John Sims ]

Part of the difficulty with dealing with such problems like a viral pandemic is that when things are invisible they are more abstract and less emotional. Seeing is believing. And believing fuels a better understanding and a stronger call to action. And so, part of my work as an artist is to bring the visuals to the invisible threats, structures and power dynamics that divides us.

My desire to see and confront the fear and possible death from the Coronavirus inspired me to create the fine art video game KoronaKilla. This game, modeled after the ’80s iconic Space Invaders, was my way of fighting back and exercising and nurturing a protective anxiety to stay aware and on alert. While it is taught that life is not a game, perhaps life is the biggest game of all.

The pandemic was shortly interrupted by a video of George Floyd being drained of life in the most inhuman way. These visuals sparked an international outrage and fired me up to write an open letter/op-ed to the police published by the Orlando Sentinel explaining why we don’t trust cops and what we might do to move forward. Here I wrote:

When a police culture suffocates the voice of justice, why should I trust the police with my body? Why? If resisting and cooperating bring the same outcome — death — what am I to do, especially if good cops cannot stand up to bad cops? When there are no internal moral checks and balances, you become a pack of animals in an uncivilized wilderness motivated by fear and the naked power to punish and destroy. You become the judge, jury and looter of black bodies. You become a virus of racism and white supremacy. You become the face of a broken America.

Floyd’s death ignited the worldwide Black Lives Matter protest and the push to bring down statues of slavery traders abroad and Confederate monuments here in America. Even NASCAR and the Defense Department moved to create policies to ban Confederate symbols.

After leading the pushback on the Confederate flag for almost 20 years, with installations like The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate flag first shown in Gettysburg in 2004, and the annual Burn and Bury Confederate flag memorial event, the recent Confederate protest in Richmond, Va., and the new state flag in Mississippi, I was re-energized to look into the Confederate markers and memorials in Florida, where I am based.

Freedom Memorial, John Sims, 2020
Freedom Memorial, John Sims, 2020 [ Courtesy of John Sims ]

I was shocked at what I found. That search produced three columns in the Tampa Bay Times calling out Confederate memorials both nationally and in Florida, which led me to start a petition to repeal pro-Confederate laws in Florida, and to reimagine a Florida slave plantation as a slave memorial. All of this inspired the forthcoming four-part symposium series, Monuments, Markers and Memory, that will be presented at the University of South Florida, Gamble Plantation, New College of Florida and Ringling Museum, where I will deliver the keynote address.

And as 2020 came to a close we witnessed the greatest show of all, the presidential election and the evidence that shows how divided we are as a nation. The defeat of Humpty Trumpty, the slow COVID-19 responding, pro-police brutality, Confederate-protecting, two-time impeached 45th president of the United States of America was a beautiful blessing, sending me off to write my last piece of 2020, Five Ways to UnTrump America.

Trumpty Dumpty fell off a Wall, John Sims, 2020
Trumpty Dumpty fell off a Wall, John Sims, 2020 [ Courtesy of John Sims ]

2020 was indeed about death, division and disillusion, but it was also about resetting what is important, what matters most: respect for nature, health, and community.

So what did I learn? I re-affirmed that humans are not the center of the universe, being alone is sometimes a good thing, community and social engagements are so important. I learned that time, space, humanity and the place called home is our greatest resource.

As an artist, I learned that the creative process is an impactful response to destruction and decay, and that art can bring light to darkness and visibility to the invisible.

As a writer, the year taught me the beauty and power of telling your story and listening to the truth of others.

As an activist, this year was an opportunity to stand up for what is right and make a mark and cast a vote for life, justice and a new beginning.

Going forward as a nation, deeply divided and on the brink of social and political paralysis, I hope that we learn the lessons of 2020 that health, respect and peace matter and heed the following words of Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate on Monday:

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

John Sims is a Detroit native, Sarasota-based multimedia artist, writer, and activist. Currently, he is Artist in Residency at the Ringling Museum, where he will present his online world premiere performance work, 2020: (Di)Visions of America on MLK day, Jan. 18, 7:30 p.m.

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