For nearly 20 years, writer Natalie Hopkinson has penned blistering critiques about gentrification in the District. Now, Hopkinson, who teaches media and culture at Howard University, has turned her critical eye to Guyana, where her parents were born.
It was there that the former Washington Post reporter found inspiration in the stories of dissident artists — six of whom are profiled in her soon-to-be-published book, “A Mouth Is Always Muzzled.” The title comes from a poem by Martin Carter about how the need for food, among other essentials, will keep people from speaking out if it means risking liberty or livelihood.
In Guyana, one of the poorest countries in South America, Hopkinson met activists who were willing to take those risks. One of them is a writer and poet named Ruel Johnson, who has taken up the mantle of Walter Rodney, a brilliant Guyanese historian and Black Power activist who wrote “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.”
Rodney was killed by a car bomb in Georgetown, the nation’s capital, in 1980. And yet, as Hopkinson notes in her book, the 37-year-old Johnson presses on with scathing commentary on social media and lectures to younger activists about official corruption and incompetence “in a country with a tragic history of activists being killed for pushing things too far.”
Protesting in the United States does not hold the same danger as protesting in Guyana, but that does not mean the road here is risk-free.
Since President Trump came to office, state legislators have passed or tried to pass dozens of bills that would stifle public protests and protect motorists whose vehicles strike demonstrators who try to block traffic. In March, a report from the United Nations warned that 16 such bills, if passed, would violate international human rights law and silence “the voices of the most marginalized, who often find the right to assemble the only alternative to express their opinions.”
Where the comparison can be made is the nature of the struggle, the roots of which are shared by Afro-Guyanese, African Americans and people of color throughout the African diaspora.
“We are all dealing with the same issues of economic disinvestment and the legacy of slavery,” Hopkinson said. “But in Guyana, they are doing it with less space to navigate and far fewer resources than we have.”
Black Lives Matter, when faced with operating under a Trump administration, changed strategies. Its protests of police officers who use unnecessary deadly force against black men and women have moved out of the streets and, to some extent, off Facebook. The movement’s focus now is on legislative change.
Such a pivot would be a luxury for Guyanese activists. They have neither the resources nor the level of support that BLM enjoys. But what they lack in technological advancement and sympathetic black elected officials, they make up for with sheer courage and a vision of a better life — for their grandchildren if not for themselves.
“I think in this country we take for granted that elected officials aren’t brazenly raiding the treasury and using their positions to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary citizens,” Hopkinson said. “I was inspired by the ability of activists in Guyana to not be discouraged by the governmental dysfunction and ethical rot. They say, ‘We may not know how to get rid of this corrupt and stupid government, but we will fight, fight, fight.’ ”
There are some similarities in the obstacles to reform, greed and intimidation being two of the most significant. Hopkinson worries that the bills that have been proposed to essentially criminalize protesting might cause some African Americans to pull back at the moment when they need to push on.
“The muzzling can be very subtle,” Hopkinson said. “Nobody is saying be silent when police kill someone. But when you’re trying to get something or trying not to lose what you have, you start thinking, ‘Maybe I need to pull that punch to keep the check coming.’ Or, ‘I don’t want to alienate that potential ally who can help me get more.’ ”
But she found encouragement in Guyana, especially in those artists who have been so important in the resistance movement. They are the keepers of the culture, the music, paintings and poetry that can be a powerful source of healing from the generational trauma inflicted by slavery and racism. The same is true in this country. Or at least it should be.
Hopkinson, at 40, is newly refreshed and ready to reenter the fray. She concedes that fighting for justice and equality is not only difficult but probably impossible for many. Putting food on the table will always take precedence over taking to the streets.
But if her time in Guyana has taught her anything, it is that she and many others must not be muzzled.
“What’s happening in this country is not normal, and we have to stop acting like it is,” she said. “We have to hold politicians’ feet to the fire.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.