“Artists are here to disturb the peace,” James Baldwin told Studs Terkel in a 1961 interview. “They have to disturb the peace. Otherwise, chaos.”
In a year dominated by political upheaval the world over, a time marked by natural disasters like Hurricane Dorian and other catastrophic climate events, disturbing the peace was a gesture of survival. In the face of chaos, it was an effort to ask urgent questions, to talk back to power, to shine a light into darkness. For some, it was about telling new stories about the past to uncover narratives shaping our future today.
With a new year and a new decade soon before us, this week we’re highlighting some of the top cultural criticism and social commentary that kept us going in 2019. (You can also see the 100 op-eds that tell the story of the 2010s here.)
The voices we can’t afford not to hear
As S. Mitra Kalita observed in her remembrance of film director John Singleton and his legendary film “Boyz n the Hood,” if “They don’t know, they don’t show.” Which stories get told — and remembered — can change everything.
Rosem Morton, a photographer and survivor of sexual assault, described how photography has helped her process sexual trauma. She wrote on the eve of the one-year anniversary of her rape: “I felt like every survivor out there. If there was not enough proof, it did not happen. I kept photographing my proof … As I complete this photo project, I am learning that rape is not just an assault of the mind and body but also of the voice … The world may be determined to silence us, but I am even more determined to speak up.”
Too often, women and girls who report sexual abuse are ignored or punished — even after the Larry Nassar scandal and even after #MeToo, argued Abigail Pesta. In reporting her book “The Girls,” Pesta “noticed a disturbing trend. Many people believe that this story ended in the courtroom. But that was just the beginning … We need to put survivors and their stories front and center — not just once, not just when the victims are famous, but always. Every single time.”
To hold stories of violence so close hurts, even if they are fictional, as actor Gbenga Akinnagbe explained in the Washington Post.
He played Tom Robinson — a black character falsely accused of raping a white woman — in the Broadway production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “I was prepared for the long hours, the conversations dissecting race and class, and what the role would demand of me,” said Akinnagbe. “I loved the work. I still do. What I did not anticipate was how deeply it would affect me — how wearing it would be to play a part that makes me the daily object of racist invective and racial violence for a majority-white audience.”
The year in one withering comeback
You can’t hang it on a museum wall, but if shade can be deemed a work of art, then call New Zealand parliamentarian Chlöe Swarbrick Picasso. She was giving a floor speech about the climate crisis and an older colleague heckled her. Swarbrick, who is 25, shut him down with two words — “OK, boomer” — deftly dividing two generations while simultaneously delighting the internet.
Jill Filipovic and Paul Callan engaged in a Millennial vs. Boomer showdown over the term, revealing that it’s about so much more than an easy insult over technological helplessness or overpriced avocado toast. Boomers “were born into post-war prosperity, enjoyed the riches of government hand-outs and affordable education, then moved into your subsidized suburban homes and pulled the ladder up behind you,” opined Filipovic. Callan shot back: “American democracy is a fragile flower which has blossomed with a reverence for free speech and the incorporation of all of the world’s ethnic groups and races into the melting pot of a collective American culture. The result has been the world’s most successful run at a workable democracy. Keeping it alive should be the joint work of both generations … OK?”
Intergenerational conflict was also the subtext of the 2019 words of the year, noted Samantha Allen. Dictionary.com went with “existential,” Oxford with “climate emergency” and Merriam-Webster with the non-binary pronoun “they.” Taken together, said Allen, these words reflect more than the trends in lookups cited by the dictionaries. These words tell us that “it’s Generation Z’s world now — and if it’s not already, then it should be soon … words and phrases that grabbed our attention this year came out of the cultural collision between a younger generation that is calling things what they are — and older generations who are Googling to try to keep up.”
The year in history: 1619 in 2019
Four hundred years have passed since enslaved Africans were first brought to mainland English North America. Peniel Joseph reflected on this anniversary against the backdrop of black history: “That history, at its best, is less invested in the single heroic achievements of ‘Great Black Women and Men’ and more concerned with the lived reality of black everyday lives, the ordinary black folk whose courage, resilience and intelligence guided the transformation from slavery to freedom and in the process helped to reimagine American democracy.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones and the New York Times’$2 1619 Project sought to take the work of re-imagination to the next level “placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
In her flagship essay for the project, Hannah-Jones wrote: “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.”
That reckoning isn’t confined to 1619. “Black people fought alongside white people during the American Revolution — and were still enslaved afterwards. Black people fought alongside white people during the Civil War — and then had to endure a century of lynchings. Black soldiers fought alongside white people during WWII, helping to save the world from Adolph Hitler, only to be treated atrociously when they returned to American soil,” wrote Issac Bailey in a trenchant critique of how white Americans hailed Brandt Jean’s forgiveness, as a black man, of Amber Guyger, the white then-police officer who shot and killed his brother Botham in his own apartment.
“Never mind that black people have been forgiving white people their trespass since before the founding of the United States,” Bailey observed.
In the wake of the El Paso massacre in August, Violeta Esquivel, 13, of Los Angeles, Zachary Suri, 14, of Austin, and Daniel Blokh, 18, of Birmingham shared poems as children raised to know the run-hide-fight of active shooter drills.
Wrote Suri, whose verses became part of an installation by artist Jenny Holzer at Rockefeller Center in October: “I have watched so many cities become synonymous with tragedy/and I have learnt my geography from mass shootings.”
Blokh also wrote in observance of Poetry Month in April about his experiences doing poetry workshops in the wake of the 2018 Tree of Life massacre: “I have come to realize that in a community struggling with so many heavy emotions, poetry is a perfect platform to speak those complex feelings into the world so they are heard and known, to build a foundation of empathy in which we can feel understood and safe.”
We got this
The message the US Women’s National Soccer team sent the world in their run to victory in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup was: “We got this.” Along with chants from fans of “equal pay,” which members of the team have long taken as their cause, it was a message that millions were ready to hear — though not everyone. President Trump, for one, took to Twitter to lambast team co-captain Megan Rapinoe for her criticism of him and for not staying silent about her opinions about inequality.
As Amy Bass assessed in June, “Megan Rapinoe is on fire. And nothing gets under Donald Trump’s skin like a woman on fire.” It wasn’t just Trump’s buttons Rapinoe and her teammates pushed. Rachel Vorona Cote explained for LitHub that the “apoplectic backlash to Megan Rapinoe’s celebrity — and more specifically, to her activism — lays bare not merely intolerance to dissent and protest, but also a percolating fear” among many Americans of “noisy women who take issue with this country’s rusted, prejudiced-warped mechanisms.”
Ella Donald observed a similar pattern in the Federation Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG)’s treatment of Simone Biles and her “double double” off the beam. Biles became the most decorated gymnast ever at the World Championships in 2019, and FIG “issued a ruling on the difficulty of Biles’ eponymous skills that paternalistically undercut elite athletes’ agency over their own bodies and turned a willfully blind eye to the changes in the sport that a new generation of gymnasts, led by Biles, has ushered in when it comes to what women can do.”
Former rhythmic gymnast Liriel Higa agreed, condemning the governing body in the New York Times for its “hypocrisy” in claiming that the move was about safety and not about an effort to exert control.
LGBTQ milestones weren’t the end of the road
In 2019, millions commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York City, an inflection point in the movement for gay liberation.
In her observance of the occasion, Melisa Raney offered a personal narrative of LGBTQ experience, sharing the intimate details of what happened when she realized she was a lesbian at age 36, after building what she thought was the perfect life. Raney wrote, “I had already decided I was straight. How do you go back on that after being with guys for 20+ years? Where I fell on the sexuality spectrum would take me the better part of two years to figure out. A part of myself wasn’t living. And by not letting that part live, I was slowly dying.”
During a global Pride celebration, Clay Cane struck a note of caution: The fight for LGBTQ rights is far from over, he wrote, citing especially the ongoing epidemic of violence against and erosion of protections for trans Americans. “Remember, Stonewall was a riot, not a party. It is 2019 and the political climate has a new tenuousness: There is a need for us to get back to the roots of Pride.”
Samantha Allen found in the second season of the FX show, “Pose,” which features more trans actors than any scripted show in history, an authentic fusion of joy and vulnerability. The show’s “potent message” is that “LGBTQ people can’t wait for acceptance to live our lives, even in the face of death and discrimination.”
’We are still living when we are dying’
Taking stock of any year is inevitably a calculation of loss. Death doesn’t have to be consumed with sadness if caregivers and patients just keep talking, says palliative care doctor B.J. Miller, who outlined practical advice for facing the end of life in a way that eases suffering for everyone.
Poet Tess Taylor had reciprocal wisdom to offer about rebirth. While struggling with the aftermath of California wildfires and the apocalyptic threat of climate change, she read Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” — an account of a woman and her husband’s years spent renewing their wasted farmland by letting it grow wild — and it inspired in her radical hope for the future.
In a year filled with personal and collective difficulty for her and for America, she wrote: “I don’t have a 700-year-old farm, but I do feel aware of wanting to rewild myself a little. I’m making changes I know I can make and see how they might lead to more.”
Or as Jordan Stein put it in Avidly, after a year of devastating personal loss (and listening to Carly Rae Jepsen), joy can be its own revolution. Listening to Jepsen’s NPR Tiny Desk concert in December, he wrote, “I played it on repeat until I could tell myself in a voice steady enough to be believable that the work of being attached to life goes on regardless of the soundtrack.”
First person plural
These personal stories of how the news shapes real life and vice versa really stood out:
– Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, Rubella gave me a disability. This is my message to anti-vaxxers
– W. Kamau Bell, Getting a vasectomy is personal. That’s why I’m making mine public
– Vassar student Mari Robles, Why I called for Central Park Five prosecutor’s removal
– Laura Beers, I’ve lived the difference between US and UK health care
– Matt Villano, What I grabbed with the fire was coming for my home
– Rafia Zakaria, Keeping a bigoted professor sends a toxic message to students
A master class in journalism and women’s anger, past and present
On Capitol Hill and elsewhere, 2019 was a year of moments when women in the public eye modeled a steely calm that showed how fraught the gender politics of women’s anger still are.
Roxanne Jones identified one such moment: When Gayle King delivered a master class in de-escalation and dogged journalism in her interview with an unhinged R. Kelly about allegations of sexual abuse against him (allegations he denies). King “demonstrated the courage and code-shifting required of black women (indeed, of all women) every day, both professionally and personally. It was deeply uncomfortable and too familiar,” but “[i]n keeping her cool, King helped us understand this horrible story beyond the headlines.”
It’s “too familiar” because it dates to the 19th century, noted literary historian Lori Harrison-Kahan. She profiled two 19th century female journalists, Elizabeth Jordan and Miriam Michelson, who bravely wrote fiction — even as they kept working as journalists — to bring attention to sexual intimidation in the workplace, sparking difficult conversations about gender, justice, and inequality.
2019 on the air, the screen and the page: A holiday reading list
Whether you’re spending your holidays catching up on your reading, watching or listening – or revisiting old favorites — our cultural commentary can be your guide:
– Tara Murtha, The Highwomen are revolutionizing country music
– Jeff Yang, What Simon Cowell’s K-Pop ignorance signifies
– Lindsey Mantoan, Daenerys Targaryen’s momentous fate
– Breena Kerr, Why it matters what real-life strippers think of ‘Hustlers’
– Kate Maltby, What saves this season of ‘The Crown’
– Elliot Williams, Why ‘Star Wars’ is a family business
– Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, ’The Righteous Gemstones’ skewers pro-Trump evangelicals’ real-life hypocrisies
– Melissa Blake, Why ‘Seinfeld’ is superior to ‘Friends’
– Sarah Conley, The show flipping the script on ‘fat’ and ‘millennial’
– Rebecca Wanzo, With sequel, ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ saga turns on the light
– Jane Greenway Carr, Toni Morrison saw into the heart of America
Your year in culture: The stories you shared
In 2019, CNN Opinion began featuring the voices of our readers on issues and questions of social urgency. We learned so much from your experiences — facing pregnancy discrimination, braving political division, enduring a summer of unprecedented upheaval, even embracing Marie Kondo — in ways that broadened our understanding of culture and everyday life.
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Thank you for sharing another year with us.