I’m pretty interested in the contest of narratives that I imagine has/is taking place in Black intellectual life. Upper or lower case ‘B’? Fight or flight the white gaze? Structural racism or personal responsibility? (A, B, A, in case you’re wondering…)
The more I look at the texts I source for insights into my own life, my own experience, the more I realize that historically and now, a great many people care deeply about what it means to be a People, as Ta-Nehisi put it, how we survive, organize, thrive.
Simultaneously and with a sense of dread, I’ve realized how little intimate contact I have with ‘my people’ since I left South Florida. More than any other place I’ve lived, I’m siloed from people with whom I share origin, history, culture, and experience. And the ‘diversity’ of my experience here only sharpens my awareness of how social class determines what and who you know, what you do and where you do it.
And more than anything, I wish there was someone around who reflected me back to me. Not for narcissism, but for reassurance that I’m here, that I am who I think I am, that I have a place in the world. I need a like-minded ally.
One day I’ll be able to describe why this article is, to me, one of the most important things Ta-Nehisi has written for The Atlantic, but right now I’m taking comfort, solace in knowing that there is someone out there articulating perfectly my understanding of ‘the situation on the ground’ (and I know for a fact, and not an article of faith, that we share the same understanding because we both went to Howard):
Barack Obama was not prophecy. Whatever had been laid before him, it takes gifted hands to operate, repeatedly, on a country scarred by white supremacy. The significance of the moment comes across, not simply in policy, by in the power of symbolism. I don’t expect, in my lifetime, to again see a black family with the sheer beauty of Obama’s on such a prominent stage. (In the private spaces of black America, I see them all the time.) I don’t expect to see a black woman exuding the kind of humanity you see here on such a prominent stage ever again. (In the private spaces of black homes, I see it all the time.) And no matter how many times I’ve seen it in my private life, at Howard, in my home, among my close friends, I don’t ever expect to see a black man of such agile intelligence as the current president put before the American public ever again.
This symbolism has real meaning. What your country tells you it thinks of you has real meaning. If you see people around you acquiring college degrees and rising only to work as Pullman porters or in the Post Office, while in other communities men become rich, you take a certain message from this. If you see your father being ripped off in the sharecropping fields of Mississippi, you take a certain message about your own prospects. If the preponderance of men in your life are under the supervision of the state, you take some sense of how your country regards you. And if you see someone who is black like you, and was fatherless like you, and endures the barbs of American racism like you, and triumphs like no one you’ve ever known, that too sends a message.
My mother’s admonishings had their place. God forbid I ever embarrass her. God forbid I be like my grandfather, like the fathers of my friends and girlfriends and wife. God forbid I ever stand in front of these white folks and embarrass my ancestors, my people, my dead. And God forbid I ever confuse that creed, which I took from my mother, which I pass on to my son, with a wise and intelligent analysis of my community. My religion can never be science. This is the difference between navigating the world and explaining it.
Catharsis is not policy. Catharsis is not leadership. And shame is not wisdom. And applause can never make a man right. And there are many kinds of personal responsibility. The young black man, coming out of storied Morehouse, should be personally responsible for the foiling of this new wave of poll taxing. He should be personally responsible for ensuring that the Medicaid expansion comes to Mississippi. He should be personally responsible for the end of this era of mass incarceration. He should be personally responsible for the destruction of the great enemy of his people—white supremacy. It is so very hard to say this, to urge people on in a long war. We keep asking the same question, but the answer has not changed.
Are you Black?
Do you make art?
Are you interested in, oh, I don’t know, not the status quo?
Are you not about pimping Blackness to the white art world?
Are you not cool?
But are you cool?
When was the last time you questioned how you look at the world?
What I mean is, when was the last time you were like, ‘Hold on, wait a minute; that’s some crazy white shit I’m doing/coming out of my mouth…’
Do you enjoy long walks on the beach?
Seriously, because back home, some of my best thinking takes place during long walks on the beach.
Or, rather, long runs on the beach.
How do you feel about cross-generational relationships?
Not, romantic, silly, like do you know and count among your closest associations people of all generations?
Are you responsible to youth?
Do you vigorously maintain connections to elders?
Do you posture? You know, with the clothes and the lingo… are you hip?
(I fucking hope not)
Are you, like, not purposefully anti-hip, though? Like, have you moved past style as a lifestyle?
(I bloody-well hope so)
Have you noticed that there’s a lot of being intellectual for the sake of being intellectual and not for the solving of critical community problems? Like, does that un-nerve you? Like, do you wonder what Baldwin would say? Do you wonder what Hansberry would say? Do you wonder what Lawrence would say? Do you wonder what Catlett would say? Would they look at us askew? Would they wrinkle their brow and be like, ‘FTW’ or ‘SMH’. And, I don’t mean to suggest that they did anything more that wrestle with this life, but
do you struggle?
Describe your relationship with the ancestors and the gods.
Describe your relationship with nature.
Describe your relationship with community.
Tell me about your mother.
I gave my public thesis presentation on Friday. Thinking back to what I actually said, my remarks were a little presumptuous, a bit pretentious (to wit: “I don’t trust that our objectives as a group are in harmony with my objectives as a community member; but art is a proposition, right?”)
I did, however, get the chance to talk about library-like spaces in the Q & A period following my formal discussion of my work and thesis. Reading rooms like the American Swedish Institute Library and visible storage facilities like the Luce Centers at both the Brooklyn Museum and the National Portrait Gallery are great spaces to reference when considering ‘homes’ for art that requires quiet contemplation and/or draws on the creative/expressive voice of specific communities.
I also mentioned the American Library Associations Bill of Rights. Highlights from that document include:
III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
V. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.
VI. Libraries that make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.
Thesis. That’s the next thing. All of a sudden, I’m ‘clearer’ than I was a week ago… Nice!
I’m working on an installation at Pillsbury House and Theatre in response to their production of Johnna Adams’ play Gidion’s Knot. The installation includes collaboration with two Pillsbury House youth groups. I love that my experience with Pillsbury House exemplifies the above values. I do wonder about ‘we believe in meeting people where they are, without judgement’. My experience has been that when all involved parties are expected to ‘move’ (as is suggested by ‘meeting people where they are’), any interaction is more fruitful. To me, ‘we’ll meet you where you are’ implies that ‘you’ don’t have to do anything, and that might create an odd if well-meaning power dynamic.
Also on my mind are questions of accessibility in the virtual world and in the art world… I have no answers, though, only questions: Why don’t we configure things for who’s actually here? Why don’t we have protocols for adjusting when new people are added to ‘the mix’? And while in nature it makes sense to adjust ourselves to new landscapes, that doesn’t seem the ‘right’ expectation to hold of newcomers in human communities where a plurality of experiences/perspectives seems useful.
For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam. Before the end of the war we were meeting eighty percent of the French war costs. Even before the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they began to despair of their reckless action, but we did not. We encouraged them with our huge financial and military supplies to continue the war even after they had lost the will. Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this tragic attempt at recolonization.
After the French were defeated, it looked as if independence and land reform would come again through the Geneva Agreement. But instead there came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators, our chosen man, Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly rooted out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords, and refused even to discuss reunification with the North. The peasants watched as all this was presided over by United States’ influence and then by increasing numbers of United States troops who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem’s methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictators seemed to offer no real change, especially in terms of their need for land and peace.
The only change came from America, as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received the regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs.
So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.
What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?
We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing — in the crushing of the nation’s only non-Communist revolutionary political force, the unified Buddhist Church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham…
We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth… The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.