PRINT Summer 2017


Mildred and Richard Loving at a press conference following their Supreme Court victory in the Loving v. Virginia case, Washington, DC, June 13, 1967. Photo: Francis Miller/Getty Images.

I OFTEN LOOK TO THE PAST as prologue to possible futures. This was especially true this January, which seemed like a moment of profound reversal.

I tried to think of past years as bookends as a way to look beyond the present. The first years are 1924 and 1967. The former was the year the Racial Integrity Act was passed, prohibiting interracial marriage, and the latter was Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that struck it down. Richard Loving, a bricklayer with a blond buzz cut, told his lawyers: “Tell the court I love my wife.” The Loving case was cited in 2013 as precedent in rulings striking down restrictions against same-sex marriage.

The second bookend is formed by 1924, again, and 1965. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 finally removed the quotas imposed by the National Origins Act and Asian Exclusion Act of 1924. For over forty years, that law restricted immigration by Southern Europeans, Eastern Europeans (especially Jews), and Africans, and banned Arab and Asian immigrants.

Today, some political forces want to return us to 1924 or, even earlier, to 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. This is a time when ethnonationalist forces want to decide who we can love, who is welcome in this nation, and who should be expelled from it. Perhaps the true reading of their slogan is “Make America 1860 Again.”

But it is never actually possible to run back to the past. I remind myself of two recent moments in my own experience. In October 2013, I became a naturalized citizen. The presiding judge at the ceremony was the granddaughter of a Russian Jewish émigré who came over in steerage. In 2016, a week after the election, I attended the Philadelphia wedding of a South Asian Muslim man and his Virginia-born white male partner. On both of these occasions, I could see hope in a room that was also the sum of all fears for others.

Remember that we can also dream a different “again,” of entering a place of imagining that is the antithesis of fear. In the coming years our future depends on being able to imagine better.

This text is adapted from a piece presented at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s J20 event (organized by Noah Fischer of Occupy Museums and Megan Heuer of the Whitney in New York). It was accompanied by a drawing of a 2013 US naturalization ceremony, as cameras are not allowed in federal courtrooms.

Naeem Mohaiemen is currently showing two films at Documenta 14.