I have much to tell you. I kind of want to start with an apology... An apology that the inaugural piece in my this series, My Black Joy, is titled 1: Black and ugly as eva (or #1.) "Black and ugly as eva," is a line from One More Chance by The Notorius B.I.G. According to my brain, it is one of the most important lines in my own history and relationship with music.
I had intended on calling the piece, My Black Joy, but the piece was unimpressed. She is heavy. She intends to take up space... physically and in te imagination... I say OK. I say Nikki Giovanni has a "Thug Life" tattoo...
And through the line "Black and ugly as eva," I feel ny place...always Black. Always navigating the world in this glorious skin, into sometimes problematic spaces. Able to find deep love and recognition of my worth in a space that don't always want me...but will take what I bring...
And as I am tangled with my own thoughts, I am meeting you here. Opening this space to review, remember, wrestle, respect, and deeply engage with Black ways with and uses of words, interpreted visually, conveyed on wood panels. Preserved.
To me, art is my vocation...but to find a whole love is my work. As Dr. Tricia Rose, noted in her talk, Black Feminism, popular culture, and respectability politics, black culture is often pathologized. She cites jazz as an example and I remember the implementation of the parent advisory stickers...when black music was so dangerous that there were stirrings...always stirrings.
Until the music that was dangerous became useful to sell pop, and swimwear, and back to school...
And if you are black, it wasn't just music...it was clothing, hairstyles, words and tone...so many pieces to hold together...to be seen as proper...to maybe save your life.... And as we learned to reject/denounce these pieces, they were picked up commercially....our invetions and inventiveness was and is loveable and profitable. I am wrestling with this...
This work is a work of love. Self-love. Black love. It is political. It is place-making. It is space-taking.
I have much to tell you.
I don't want to hold you too long.
#1 is available.
I will soon tell you all about the process...
They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word. And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else... W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903
I'm thinking about being a problem and being safe. I truly believe that the cases of Leslie Jones, Colin Kaepernick, and Odell Beckham, Jr. are interesting... important...worrisome on their own, and taken together, they are so illuminating that you may need shades. You may...
Dig if you will the picture (RIP Prince): I don't know if Leslie, Colin, or OBJ had anything in common before this summer, when they each became a problem. Each one a problem. And in such disparate ways that it boggles the mind. Except it doesn't. It hasn't since 1903...and before then and apparently since then. And we need to understand how they got there because publicly, being a problem results in harrassment and awful threats, but the ones doing digital harm exist in the private world where they raise kids, hire employees, refuse to provide security at specific venues, sign off on loans..and so we can't just dismiss them as trolls...
And that brings us back to our celebrity problems. Our celebrities represent what I'm calling: the contiuum of black behavior (CBB.) It's made up and yet a real thing. I made it up because among the favorite defenses/pieces of advice from people who'd rather not deal is:
*If you weren't so angry...extended yourself in kindness, warmth... people would be more open.
*If you just be quiet things would get better.
*If you protest peacfully people would listen and hear you.
Y'all...this is a continuum of advised behavior and a bunch of hot air! Be pleasant/funny/palatable...be as invisible as possible....be miffed but peacefully. I teach kids. This is textbook playground politics and it only ever works for the person making the rules and the few who benefit as long as they comply with that one kid. The real message is "bend to my whim," but I digress...
In the CBB, you could replace black with "woman," "Latinx," "Native American," "LGBTQI..," "Asian.." "disabled," plug in the right people and you'll see that it's real, accurate and has real implications on an individual through systemic level.
On this partcular CBB, you have Leslie, who has played the role...sometimes stereotypical black woman roles to many laughs... which seemed fine until she brought her fully embodied self into a space where we all found out she wasn't welcome: Ghost Busters of all places. The whole cast was lambasted for disrupting what turned out to be a space claimed by white males. Leslie caught it worse, because she did so in a black body that she owns and moves in big, loud, and unapologetic ways. She was harrassed, doxxed (her personal information put on blast,) and viciously digitally attacked. She became a problem and even moreso because she fought back. Because how dare she defend her right to exist in her body and claim space. How dare she.
On the other end of the continuum is Colin. He's taken a stand by taking a knee (I feel clever, just give me this noment...) He occupies the dissenter end of the spectrum and he is doing so peacefully and articulately. Peaceful, though he is, he too has been subject to name calling and threats. Some feel like he should be grateful for his cash and stick to throwing a ball. (Was that in the contract?) Name calling (n-word included) and threats for occupying a space that is reserved for all American citizens: the right to peaceful protest. I wonder if he knew that he was a knee away from beloved to being a problem. You don't have to agree with him, but can you see the threat-worthy problem?
And then there was OBJ...a public guy at an exclusive function and he literally did nothing. He occupies the neutral space on the continuum of black behavior and yet he found himself a problem. He was a problem for Lena Dunham, who felt entitled to publicly project her thoughts about his thoughts as if they were his actual thoughts. She apologized, but what she Did (capital on purpose) is bigger than what she did: she demonstrated that showing up...even when you are invited...you're still a problem if you show up in black body or a black, woman body or a you-make-me-uncomfortable body... Or at least you can be, because at any time, if anyone, typically white, hetersexual, male or white heterosexual male...decides that they own the space, they can make you a problem. That's not ok. That's not just. That's not safe.
And though I imagine that this might sting for some... I don't write to sting or divide or villianize. I write to illuminate and make the world safer for people to exist in their body and right now it isn't totally safe. That feels lofty, but it's all I got.
I'll be back to write more between painting...on home and language, I think...we'll see.
We need to talk about love, more love, light, darkness and all the other ethereals that are being invoked to explain and treat the absolute crap storm that is playing on repeat in the US.
I want you to know, that when spoken over the real experiences and absolute terror that they inspire, to throw out a broad brush of love and light against this equally vague darkness feels like a violence. It is a quieting of voices that need to be heard. It is a bright and scorching deflection from real issues onto something undefined and unknown. Well-intended, though I am sure it is, it is a violence, and I need to tell you why...
What happened this time?
Two black men were killed by police officers. Both were caught on camera. If you've been paying attention, you know that any criminal record that could be found would be unearthed and put on full display before the first tears dried on the faces of their grieving family.
As it happens, Alton Sterling did have a criminal record and if you read the right (or wrong) pieces about, him, you'd get the idea that maybe he should have been shot. Except having prior convictions is not a crime and certainly not crime punishable by storefront execution.
Philando Castile was shot soon after, in Minnesota. He doesn't have a record, but ask me how I know that he has had a bunch of traffic violations...Still not a crime. Still not a crime punishable by execution in front of your family. Neither is a "wide nose..." the actual reason he and his girlfriend, who was driving, were pulled over.
During a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, TX, 5 officers were shot and killed. Another 7 were injured, and two civilians were also injured. They were attacked by a lone wolf sniper, who was apparently motivated by his frustration with police killing black men. He was killed.
I'm sickened over it all. I feel physically ill. I feel compelled to explain that while love and light are beautiful and valuable - while some sort of darkness may be a piece of the driving force - the problem with waving the "more love" wand, is that love didn't create the problem. Racism did...actually...the racism that was woven into the fabric of our society through the enslavement of African people and laws to support that institution, and then other awful but equally harmful laws, policies, and ways of being that were designed (this wasn't happenstance) to oppress black people. All that work to withhold rights while maximizing profit and pleasure from black bodies gave birth to the racism we know and live...and racism isn't just a capital R, one and done thing.
There are two levels of racism with two parts each. On the Individual level there is internalized and interpersonal racism. On the Systemic level, there is institutional racism, and structural racism. This is a piece of the "'darkness" but that darkness has a name. It is called racism and it needs to be called by name every time. That's the light...calling it out. That's that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. light that can only drive out darkness. And it's the love too. Kelly Diels just published a wonderfully clear piece on this very thing: That Martin Luther King, Jr. & Ghandi kind of love.
I am certain the men who orchestrated the formal founding of our country, which intentionally excluded their slaves and women, loved and more loved something or someone in their life. Maybe many somebodies, but they did some awful, real things and those awful, real things need to be undone by good, real work.... Real conversations, real action, real dismantling of a racist system that has crippled us to the point that black men and boys are being shot and killed within seconds, without weapons, or with as is their 2nd amendment right.
Can you imagine a life where your nose is now grounds for being pulled over and as you comply with orders, you take your last breath?
What you can do
You can do what you want to. I'm not the boss of you.
But if you really want to be the change and actually see change, you listen. You believe that there is a real problem. (If you don't believe it ask yourself why that is a problem for you, not people of color. We will talk about that later.)
You can love and light against the darkness all you want, but don't tell people that that is the solution -- that isn't listening and it certainly isn't hearing, because no one is saying LOVE MATTERS or LIGHT MATTERS. They do, but what is on the line right now is black lives...black lives playing with toy guns, black lives crossing the street, black lives selling CDs, black lives with wide noses (whatever that means) and their family in the car...a four year-old in the back seat didn't even matter.
If you feel afraid of that word "racism" ask yourself why, but don't tell others not to use it...which is effectively what you are doing when you say to love more in a generic way. It makes or suggests that speaking out in a concrete way wrong or negative... and that is concerning.
Something additional to consider: Victims of racism don't actually have a love or light problem. We have a born-into-a-messed-up-system problem. And what we all need is a fixed-up-and-fair-system solution. See?
Next week, I want to talk about your goodness in a bad system. It might smart a bit.