Over the past month, in celebration of Black History month I posted one blog entry per day on a black artist, writer or speaker that has inspired me and changed the way I think about art and the world.
I wanted to take a moment at the end to reflect on the writing, why I did it and what I found out.
First, the people I wrote about are diverse. They don’t represent a homogenized concept of art or of race. Some of the artists have been overtly political in his or her career while others have not. bell hooks comes to mind. Her work in a way is working from the theoretical to the mundane. Theorizing for her is described in her work as a way to cope with and make sense of an unjust world with rigid gender, ethnic, religious and racial boundaries. Amiri Baraka also comes to mind, whose poetry, plays and musical historiography is like the point of a spear, used to fight for intellectual and personal space in a white, white world. When white people think of “Black History” we often run it all together into one thing, because many of the injustices around slavery are clear and immediate, and because many of the first responses to racism in the 20th century have been collective. The truth is more complex, and the ideas and ways to respond to the history of slavery are as varied as the people who have suffered under its weight.
Second, who wants to listen to a white dude write about black people every day for a month? Well, some people do. I was getting consistent hits on the site without a lot of promotion. If I wrote about a person or topic interesting to a person I know, I let them know if I had their email. I posted an announcement to Facebook. On my own side, I wasn’t sure what I would say.
The inspiration came from a conversation on a friend’s site. My friend is the dean of a college in the Midwest. He had written a post in January asking people to post examples of the different types of black music, explain what is different about it, and to give an example. I jumped in with several examples from punk and blues. Another friend came in and said to the original poster of the thread, “Gettin’ a head start on Black History month, professor?” which I took as a double sided joke – Black History month was coming up, and there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the month. It is insufficient to tell 400 years of western domination and subjugation of Africa and the continent’s diaspora in what is usually 28 days.
I decided I wanted to personalize the month – rather than posting memes and clips from history sites I would write what I know and what has impacted me. Dance History. Art History. These are the areas I’ve studied, and where I studied it, at the University of Iowa, black history was built in. When we studied Dada and the Weimar Republic we also studied Josephine Baker, reading the essentializing French and German reviews that praised Baker as something “new” but also limited her to some kind of tribal Freudian id, grinding in her banana skirt half way between the Congo and Harlem.
The short essays are of course influenced by my own white mostly Midwestern culture. I was born in New York to a mother from Birmingham, Alabama and a Father from California, and grew up in a dominantly white neoliberal college town. In terms of reception I’m going to believe Michael Jackson is more likely of guilt in the charges of sexual abuse, and I’m going to see his music as exciting and new rather than something that is a natural progression of a cultural heritage from my community. This reality leads to my third insight:
Third, reception is a sonofabitch. Most of the artists I wrote about were pre-screened by layers and layers of white culture reception. Cara Walker could be making paper cutouts with kindergartner’s and I would have never known her name if she hadn’t gained representation in galleries, hadn’t been lauded in Artforum, if she had applied to different colleges, or had not been accepted where she studied, or had chosen art education instead of a studio track. I’m no leader in this area, just a follower at the tail end of an industry we call the art world, trying to understand some things from what I look at and read.
There are those with fewer layers: Michael Jackson came out of Motown, the black owned hit machine started by Berry Gordy, Erica Huggins and Amiri Baraka came out of the Black Power movement. Their words historically picked up by white journalists, assessed, rehashed, put in textbooks. It is this year that a black filmmaking team including Stanley Nelson, Laurens Grant and Aljernon Tunsil produced a film allowing the participants to speak so we could feel their emotions, not just hear their words. The participants speak as people, who have hopes for the future and regrets about elements of the past rather than as party line representatives in a pure fight against oppression. Their words invite in white people and youth of all backgrounds who didn’t experience any of it rather than hold us at arms length.
I’m left wondering “what is blackness” and must conclude there is no inherent existence separate from cultural constructs. There is black history but not black-ness. There is identity and culture, and tradition, but no further difference between a black American and a white American than there is between a black American and a Chinese American or a white American and a Chinese American.
Ta-Neheisi Coates says it best in Between the World and Me “I went into this investigation (of black history) imagining history to be a unified narrative, free of debate, which, once uncovered would simply verify everything I had always suspected. And the villains who manipulated the streets would be unmasked… I had come looking for a parade, for a military review of champions marching in ranks. Instead I was left with a brawl of ancestors, a herd of dissenters, sometimes marching together but just as often marching away from each other.” (p 47-48)
In this regard, black art and history is like all art and history. Black artists and writers are their own people, with their own views, not relegated and bound by tradition, but free to express the diversity of black views. It is one reason the artists should be integrated into the body of art survey books rather than relegated to a “black folk at this time…” breakout window or “the black chapter.” The work is coherent. It is about its time, it uses the same media as other artists, and it needs consideration within and not separate to all history.
At the same time, because race has been culturally defined for the purpose of historical separation, that reality must not be overlooked. Like I said at the beginning of this section, reception is a sonofabitch.
In having written the month (and I still have a few days toward the end I must revise because I was sick and unable to write full posts) I feel like the writing was a success a success in that I really wrote what I really experienced from each artist’s work. It highlights both positives and negatives in terms of white reception of black culture. It demonstrates there is far more work to do to not just balance scales, but to make reparation for past harms. For example, on the anniversary of Dr. King’s March on Washington Time magazine reported that financial equality has not been met:
“Since the mid 1970’s, the unemployment rate for blacks has consistently been roughly double the unemployment rate for whites. Even the concept of wealth is relative when assessed in black or white terms. The median wealth of black families in which the head of household graduated from college is less than the median wealth for whites whose head of household dropped out of high school.” Michelle Norris Time Magazine August 26/September 2, 2013 p 93.
Norris continues, stating that to make up the disparity the families would need to save 100% of their income for three years. So, in a way, my writing about black artists can’t measure up to the real metrics of what success should look like. For black artists to break through, get beyond the already reduced access to resources to get noticed is a huge burden. In that regard, my writing may be nothing but tokenism, upholding a myth about grit and overcoming.
I’m going to end with a video clip of Buddy Guy interviewed at Guitar Center, because I think he is really honest about his situation. At one point he was pumping gas at a gas station and he was offered a job playing guitar in a club for the same pay. It might seem like he was lucky. That there were no real barriers to him becoming an artist. It might seem like he had total freedom. But the truth is the opposite. Because he was blocked from almost every path to success due to the color of his skin the choice was open, and in a lot of ways that’s not choice at all.
Buddy Guy does amazing things with a guitar, and in some ways it has been racialized ideas that pushed him to the fore. In listening to his music we can celebrate him and recognize the tragedy that has been racial injustice in America, and hopefully it spurs us to be better.
Black History Month is not enough.