I am just a little painter, a painter of small things.
In the National Palace of Mexico, I saw that artists had painted the walls after their Revolution. They had painted a history of Mexico from the ancient times right up until just before they started to paint.
Tall painted murals showed the green and gold crops of the Toltecs on barges of floating earth. In one, a man climbed to the top of a tree and carved down its trunk in a long spiral so rubber sap would drip down. In another, all the people came for market day, offering tribute to the ruling Aztecs in the complicated city with its pyramids and bridges. There was the god going off to Heaven in his dragon boat, the sun with its eyes upside down. Big murals showed the Spanish conquest and Catholic conversions by torture, the chinless soldiers and priests all painted the same sickly pale green. There were huge panels crowded with conflict and hundreds of faces, and an arch full of the decadent thigh-fondling of the pale-skinned robber barons with ticker-tape hearts. In another archway, the good brown worker family sat down to dinner with loaves of bread on the plate and love in their eyes. Viva. Viva. And Marx and so on and la Revolución. Their paintings told a story opposite to the story the imperial Palace had told for hundreds of years, after Spaniards had crushed the Templo Mayor and built their own great building on top. With their paintings, the artists made the palace say something new.
I came home to the United States and thought about it all. I thought about my country and I wanted to be historical. So I started painting in my little notebook.
In my notebook I painted the first peoples, their cities and villages and farms and canals and the wild lands where they hunted. I painted pictures of Columbus enslaving the Arawaks. I painted pictures of the Arawaks and Tainos all dead. (I knew the right blue for the water; I knew the right red for the blood.) I painted Puritans putting their own people in stocks, hanging their own people, dunking their own people, burning them, beating their children with sticks and going to church.
I painted men galloping over yesterday’s treaties, their arms outstretched for free land, and the Iroquois dying, the Apache dying, the Choctaw, Ojibwe, Hopi, Zuni, all dying or crammed onto strange lands. On the shining sea, I painted ships’ decks full of blood, I painted grownups and children in chains, the trailing sharks. When I painted the Trail of Tears, I put my great-great-grandmother in, but no one knows what she looked like so I painted her to look like my little sister, beautiful. In the South, I painted lots of rape and whipping and gave the white men sickly green skin and no chins. I made the white women thin and pallid and cowardly, afraid to come down off their porches and fix things, but to be generous I included the sticks their husbands were allowed by law to beat them with and the dicks their husbands were allowed by law to rape them with. I painted white women crying in their canopy beds.
You know what else I painted? Every time I painted a man, I painted a woman. Maybe she was only hoeing the dirt, but she was there. Maybe she was only carrying a baby, but she was there. Maybe she was only dying, but she was there. And for every little boy I drew, I drew a little girl. It made my pictures look weird, like there were many more girls than boys, more women than men. But really it was equal. It didn’t look like history. Oh, I thought. I’m just not used to seeing that.
I like to paint, so I kept painting. I don’t like wars but I made some: the wars in Texas, the war in the Philippines, the first war in Europe and the second, Korea, Viet Nam. I drew My Lai, I drew the Fall of Saigon with the helicopters, I drew Nixon rising from the lawn. I painted a big video game with boys in suits and army clothes gathered around, excited, and on the screen was the Gulf War. I painted trailer parks, and the last of a family’s food stamps, and drive-bys, and school shootings. I drew polluted rivers, and dirty air, and lanes of stalled traffic ringing the cities, and coal miners dead underground. I painted rich families on Long Island whose children go to Paris and Yale.
I forgot the Ku Klux Klan so I went back and drew them in. I thought, How could I forget that? But I did forget it. Because I am not black. So I took my book to my black friends and said, “What else did I forget?” and they said, “This and this and this,” so I drew those things in. Then I thought I’d better ask my white friends and they said, “This and this and this,” so I drew those in, too. I double-checked with my brown friends, too, and then I asked my rich friends and my poor friends, I asked my queer and my straight friends, my cynical skeptical friends and my sweet optimistic ones. I asked my friends whose grandparents came from China, and my friends from North Dakota whose great-grandparents came from Sweden, and my friends who just got here from Bangladesh last year. I asked all my friends, and I painted everything they said.
Then I realized that those were just my friends, and I began stopping people in the street, and the ones who had time would say, “Oh, yeah, you forgot this and this,” and I would paint those things in, too. Until, finally, no one I met could think of anything left out, and my book of pictures was very full.
I didn’t know what to do with all my paintings. I couldn’t just put them on a shelf, so I took my book and went to the White House. I had a meeting with the President and asked permission to paint my pictures on the walls of the White House, like the Mexicans did in the National Palace, and he said yes, art was very important for society, if I would just be sure to put him in and to please make him look heroic.
“Okay, sure,” I said.
So I started painting, and all my friends who could get time off work came and helped, and then people just taking tours of the White House said they wanted to paint, too, so I said, “Okay, sure.” With everyone painting, the work went very quickly. Sometimes people wanted to include someone specific, their grandparents or some historical figure they cared about, and I said, “Okay, sure.” Newspeople saw us and stopped to film, so the paintings were on TV, and all over America and all over the world people watched the paintings grow, and all over America psychologists recorded a drop in nightmares. All over America, pharmaceutical companies became alarmed.
More and more people came to Washington just to paint. They came in busloads from churches and neighborhoods and Oberlin, and everyone painted. We sang songs and painted long into the night.
I had to paint four planes crashing out of the sky. I painted tiny bodies falling down the sides of buildings and then the buildings falling. I didn’t know how to draw controversy and I didn’t know how to draw lies but I painted little dead children in a cold, rocky place, and a thin-legged man with a black hood on, and ancient cities all bombed up, and the people scared and exhausted or dead.
I remembered I was supposed to paint in the President looking heroic, so I painted him in his Oval Office picking up a big sword and hitting his desk with it, and it became a ploughshare, and people lifted him on their shoulders and looked very happy. Then I called his secretary and said we were finished.
The President came to see the finished murals, which stretched for miles and miles in the wide corridors of the White House. He began before Columbus and looked a long time, walking very slowly and saying, “Hmm,” and conferring with his advisors in low voices. Then he got to the end, with him in the Oval Office and the sword that he struck into a ploughshare.
“But that didn’t happen,” he said.
“Okay, sure,” I said. “We can fix that.” So we went back to his office together, and I took a big ceremonial sword from history down from the wall. I gave it to him and put my hands around his hands. We swung it high over our heads and down hard onto the desk. Then we were holding a ploughshare.