Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Artistic Adventures of an Ardent Amateur: Artistic Activism

I remember clearly the first time I had an “epiphany” with regards to racism. I was in second grade, and we were learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. I was wearing my blue jean jacket – the heaviest of my Floridian outer apparel – meaning it was likely January or February, and thus our lesson plans were no doubt inspired by either MLK Day or Black History Month. I remember looking at the year referenced on our handout. 1968. 1968? Little more than 20 years ago? My mother was alive at the same time as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This realization was so astonishing to me I wrote about it in my journal. “My mom lived at the same time as MLK!” To me, the Civil Rights Movement had always seemed like ancient history. And at least partially due to the fact that African American history is taught in one tiny chunk as an afterthought in U.S. classrooms, my childish brain had assumed that Dr. King came along immediately after President Lincoln: slavery ended, civil rights were won, and everything’s been hunky dory for at least as long as living memory. This new revelation had blown a hole in my world view.

When I got home from school I confronted my mother. “Mom, were you alive at the same time as Martin Luther King, Jr.?” “Yes.” That’s all I remember of that conversation. Probably because that’s all there was to that conversation. My mom did not take the opportunity to share her experience of the Civil Rights Movement, to ask me why I had only just realized how recently it had happened, and she certainly didn’t talk about the fact that the bullet which assassinated MLK did not also slay racism. I still believed racial intolerance to be a thing of the past, even if I now thought it to be a thing of the recent past.

This is not meant to be an indictment of my parents. They are good people who succeeded in instilling a sense of morality in their children, but they unfortunately bought into the white liberal view that if we don’t talk about race with our children, then they will magically grow up to be non-racists. My parents didn’t lack for opportunities to discuss race, either. Later in my second grade year my aunt (mother’s sister) married a Black man from Jamaica, Uncle S. We all liked Uncle S and thought he was funny and cool. And while my older brother and I had picked up enough social cues to know not to mention anything about Uncle S’s race, Buddy was only 5 or 6 years old and had not yet internalized this cultural taboo. So, one Sunday, when Buddy was being passed from one frustrated adult to another in the church pew (he was a squirmy child) he looked up from his position splayed across Uncle S’s lap and declared, “Uncle S, your lips are black!” Everyone laughed. It was cute. He was innocent. And no one thought to ask him why he’d just made this discovery, what he thought of it, or whether it meant anything.* Another time we were walking through the city as a family when Buddy pointed to a Black person and cried out, “There’s another Uncle S!” This was certainly more problematic, and indicative of the absence of race discussions in our rearing, but again, everyone laughed. No one talked.

This is not to say that my parents’ children grew up to be Racists (with a capital “R”). But we didn’t emerge from childhood fighting racism, either. Instead, we continued to “not see” the hatred that was all around us, the way we’d been taught not to see it. We “didn’t notice” that we were privileged because we’d never encountered the phrase “white privilege” or been told that it exists. We quietly, easily, lazily took part in a system that oppressed the Other and privileged us.

Now that we’ve all entered adulthood the onus is on us to educate ourselves and fight the unjust system that we have profited from. Luckily, resources abound. For those of us fortunate enough to have access to the internet, there are myriad thoughtful, brilliant, passionate, artistic blogs committed to combating racism.

So now, perhaps you’re thinking to yourself, “Thanks for sharing, Val, but aren’t you supposed to be writing about an artistic adventure? And also, isn’t this a design blog? What’s up with this post?” Ok, fair enough. Yes, I am supposed to write about an artistic adventure. But in this case, the writing is the adventure. My culture is one that prefers not to acknowledge the existence of racism, and in eschewing that rigid social tradition I am opening myself up for attack and criticism. However, the possibility of rejection by people unwilling to unpack their own privilege does not really concern me. What I worry about is that I will inadvertently put my lily white foot in my big gaping mouth (where that particular appendage so often likes to live) and say something racist, offending or hurting a person of color. This is why I’ve been reading antiracist blogs for a year and have hardly posted any comments. But I’m not changing any minds by remaining silent. The time for limiting my antiracist actions to my own tiny personal sphere is over. So what tools do I have to use in the fight against racism? The best and most powerful weapons in my arsenal are my arts: theatre and writing. As an actor I have limited control over the projects I am involved in – I can always choose what not to audition for, but I have ultimately minimal say in what works I do get cast in. So while I would LOVE to do social justice theatre and hope to have the opportunity some day soon, right now the art most readily available to me for the purpose of activism is writing.

To answer your second and third [presumed] questions, Dot & Line is undergoing a bit of an identity overhaul at the moment. You may have noticed that Kate and I have been added as contributors. There are additional changes in the works, and one of those is expanding the scope of the content we discuss. All three of us have passions which lie outside the range of what is traditionally considered “artistic” but which we feel are intrinsically connected to our creativity. And now we’re giving ourselves permission to explore those intersections on this blog. It’s a change we are excited about, as we feel strongly that it will result in more passionate, compelling posts, and more fulfilling writing.

So, yes, it’s a design blog. An antiracist, feminist, mommy, crafty, culinary, theatrical, practical, musical design blog. And so much more.

For those of you still yearning for a little more art in this post, I give you this: I Can Fix It – Volume 1: Racism; A Now Art Project by damali ayo. From her website: "damali ayo names her particular approach to art "Now Art." She describes Now Art as being immediate, participatory, and engaging social issues. Ayo believes that 'art should make you think and feel.' She eschews art that is primarily for decoration. She believes that artists and comedians have a special task to push our culture to understand itself in order to change itself."

While I firmly believe that decorative art has an important function in our lives (I assert that it has the potential to calm the mind and soothe the soul, thus facilitating the healing of wounds incurred in our daily struggles and enabling us to soldier on) I agree that artists are charged with a particular duty to effect change in society. And now I am stepping up to the plate.

*I want to make it perfectly clear that it was not Uncle S’s responsibility to educate my baby brother. That duty lay with my parents and, to a lesser extent, my aunt. As it was, Uncle S gently demonstrated the foolishness of Buddy’s query by replying that his lips were black because his “mother left [him] in the oven too long.”

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