Black women cast as Cassandra, cursed to see the future and have no one believe the warnings
Maybe now. Maybe this time. After we have been proved right once again, maybe our voices will be more valued.
by Leslie Mac
The Greek Mythological figure Cassandra is a woman cursed to know the future, but have no one believe her.
As the story goes, the Greek God Apollo fell in love with the beautiful Cassandra, and as a gift to prove his love, gave her the gift of prophecy. Well, Cassandra wasn’t feeling homeboy Apollo and when she let him know that fact, he cursed her so that no one would ever believe her prophecies.
She was condemned to know the horrible things to come, but would never be able to change it. Forever screaming into a void where her cries would never be heard.
It sounds very familiar. I have been thinking a lot about Cassandra lately, and about how much the real-life experiences of Black Women mimic her mythological plight.
I have watched as phrases like #TrustBlackWomen #BelieveBlackWomen are used on social media, in online discussion, and in worldly conversation. But it seems that these words are only lifted up after people have failed to hear us, yet again.
For a while, when these things happened, I would have hope. Maybe now. Maybe this time. After we have been proved right once again, maybe our voices will be more valued, taken more seriously, and actually included in the critical discussions of the day.
I’m sure Cassandra had these same hopes, at least for a little while.
Recently, as news spread of allegations of sexual assault and abuse levied against The Nerdist founder, Chris Hardwick, I sat staring at the screen feeling just like Cassandra. It has been years since an incident on Twitter showed me the kind of person Hardwick was and illustrated by his open disdain for Black women on his many platforms.
I didn’t need any other evidence to make it clear he was persona non-grata to me. Other Black women I know felt the same. We had all seen his callousness before, and had called it out.
But when we spoke up about it, we were told we were being too sensitive. We were scolded, and reassured that Hardwick was “one of the good guys.” We were told to pipe down because our “feelings” about him weren’t enough evidence to make them believe something was amiss, especially about a “cool dude” like Hardwick.
I commiserated, once again, with my Black women friends, all of us feeling very much as I imagine Cassandra must have. Our thoughts in alignment, we sighed.
“If only people had listened to us.”
“I’m tired of never being listened to, only to be proven right.”
“It’s exhausting to be ignored and never even get the validation we deserve after the fact.”
I have heard and expressed these sentiments many times during my forty plus years on earth:
When I lived in Chicago and R. Kelly would troll the Rock N’ Roll McDonald’s openly for young girls, Black Women spoke up about their experiences and observations. No one listened.
During the 2016 election cycle, when we consistently predicted a Trump win, the prognosticators laughed and called us “fatalistic.” When we spoke up about how little faith we had in the portion of the populace the election to fall to, white women, we were shut down as haters and charged with the impossible to be true, “reverse racism.”
As #MeToo gained momentum, we watched as its pioneer, Tarana Burke, was initially erased from her own work and as she worked to recenter what she had already created. Her movement has been distorted to center on Hollywood and white women speaking up about their experiences, but Tarana created “Me Too” to center the voices of the most marginalized because only when these voices are heard and believed can true cultural change occur.
Shit. Let’s go back further and read the words of Octavia Butler, the prolific science fiction writer whose seminole novel was Parable of the Sower. She began writing it in the late eighties, detailing what she was a very possible future should the world continue on its trajectory of her time.
Among the things she predicted were news delivered in small snippets, empathy positions as a weakness, and, yes, even a zealot leader who aims to — and I quote her directly — “make America great again.”
One of the ways Butler’s work was dismissed during her life was because she chose to write science fiction centered on Black, Brown, and indigenous people and women, and she did so in a way that did not construct their marginalized identities as being their sole reason for being present in her stories.
Here, too, she was prescient, in a mid 20-aughts that has seen a true renaissance of Black creativity from Lemonade and Black Panther to Queen Sugar and Insecure. We are witnessing Butler’s vision of Blackness in writing as character composition, but not sole plot purpose.
We recently heard Representative Maxine Waters make this very simple declaration: “If you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. You push back on them. Tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere!”
Representative Waters, as so many Black Women who came before her and those of us that stand beside her in gratitude, is once again cast as Cassandra. She tells of a future destined to repeat the past. It is a future that brings up civility in a discussion about fascists. It is one that will position internment camps for children as equally virulent to denying an enemy of the people a fancy meal.
This is a future — and present — writer Ijeoma Oluo speaks of when she says, “Imagine what it will feel like to one day tell your grandchildren, ‘I’m the one who told the freedom fighter to be polite.’”
In the Greek myth, Cassandra was taken as a concubine of a powerful man, who of course did not believe her prophecies. She later died at the hands of this man’s wife, and I wonder if she saw her own fate as clearly as she saw the future of others.
I wonder if she, like so many Black women, sat and waited to die in ways she knew lay ahead. The way Black women die in the throws of sexual assault, poverty, domestic violence, and at the hands of the state.
I wonder how long it took her to just stop telling people about her visions, and I wonder how long Black Women will continue to speak truth to power, knowing it will continually fall on deaf ears.
Leslie Mac is a Brooklyn-born Black Woman who founded the Ferguson Response Network to connect nationwide efforts supporting the Movement for Black Lives. She is the Co-Creator of the recently shuttered Safety Pin Box, a subscription service for white people striving to be allies in the fight for Black Liberation, and a Founding Lead Organizer with Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism. For more information visit her website.