Editor’s note: During Black History Month, the focus is usually on historical figures who loomed larger than life, paving the way for the progress we experience today. But black history isn’t just about telling stories of our past. History is being made every day and has been made throughout our lives; it’s not just in books. It walks among us. So this month The Root is asking a group of writers to tell us about the personal and pivotal events from their own lifetimes in a series we call My Black History. Maiysha Kai is a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, fashion model, devoted auntie and Brooklyn, N.Y.-based, single black bombshell who recently strutted into her 40s.
“Frankly, I don’t give a shit about artists,” he said. “Artists have nothing to do with strategy. We need real, specific strategy to effectively combat this administration.”
It was a gray, early-December afternoon in a beautifully appointed Brooklyn, N.Y., home hosting a small but diverse group of liberal, politically active intellectuals (read: “coastal elites”). We’d been invited to brainstorm about resistance tactics in the aftermath of the anti-president’s election. Of the seven in attendance, six of us were professional creatives, which made his comment more than a bit insulting. It was also ironic, since the person commenting was both a scientist and an acclaimed artist himself.
“Is he serious?” I thought, bristling at the dismissal. To suggest that we—fellow citizens and taxpayers, in addition to being artists and creatives—have no place or investment in strategic political resistance not only is preposterous but (even more ironically) also endorses the anti-intellectualist leanings of this new administration—which, among other things, is plotting to dismantle the National Endowment for the Arts (currently occupying a minuscule, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the United States’ annual federal spending).
Of course, this is after the administration already started waging an outright assault on the American press—and facts in general. And this is no coincidence, as the inimitable Toni Morrison reminded us in The Nation:
Dictators and tyrants routinely begin their reigns and sustain their power with the deliberate and calculated destruction of art: the censorship and book-burning of unpoliced prose, the harassment and detention of painters, journalists, poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists. This is the first step of a despot whose instinctive acts of malevolence are not simply mindless or evil; they are also perceptive. Such despots know very well that their strategy of repression will allow the real tools of oppressive power to flourish.
No, this is not a coincidence, because we—the artists and creatives; the journalists, poets, painters, musicians, etc.—are historically among the most subversive tools of any revolution. We are the shape-shifters, capable of entering the homes, hearts and minds of even an isolated and otherwise insular populace. Art is exposure, and exposure can shift consciousness, challenging “alternative facts” with universal truths. As Morrison further admonished us:
This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. … Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.
And much to her point: Historically, moments like the one in which we currently find ourselves are those in which black art, in particular, thrives in America. Not discounting the incalculable artistry that emerged prior to and during slavery—or, more accurately, in spite of it—it’s indisputable that the rise of black art in America has almost always been directly correlative to the adversities facing the black American.
For instance: The Reconstruction-era emergence of Jim Crow laws can be credited with both the birth of blues music and the Great Migration, from which the heralded Harlem Renaissance was born. Decades later, we’d watch the emergence of the Stax and Motown record labels alongside that of the nation’s largest civil rights movement to date, paradoxically placing black brilliance among the stars while the fight for equality raged heavily on the ground (sound familiar?).
The Black Arts Movement that followed was a direct response to the loss of our most prominent leaders of the 1960s, as well as our subsequent rejection of the desire to assimilate into any American culture invested in our marginalization. Even hip-hop has origins in the response of black and brown youths to a society that simultaneously disenfranchised and criminalized them en masse, the tenor of which would come to a head in the turbulent rise of “gangsta rap” in the 1990s.
As Bryan Mason, one-half of interior-design duo AphroChic, noted, “Black art has always been political … everything has been a troublesome moment for us.“
His partner and wife, Jeanine Hays, perceives a more specific shift as of late. The vitriolic backlash sparked by Barack Obama’s presidency not only ushered in his absurdly unfit successor but also effectively ended any residual delusions of the “post-racial” or “post-black” narratives so many attempted to cling to in recent years.
“It’s interesting,” she told The Root. “Now you’re seeing people embracing that Blackness … saying, ‘I am a black artist, and I do have something unique to say, and that’s … that’s not bad. … That’s a good thing; that we’re able to talk about our perspective and our point of view as African-American artists, and hopefully, move these social movements forward. … We have to embrace who we are, and talk about our perspective.”
And since not only perspective but humanity is what has always been at stake for black Americans, it’s essential that we recognize that art is and has always been not only an expression of resistance but also a visible and visceral expression of the human experience.
James Baldwin spoke these words in 1963:
There are days—this is one of them—when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. How, precisely, are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here, and how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here? … These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human.
Heard again—over a half-century later—in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, they are hauntingly prescient of this current era of supremacist vengeance. Because this is the nature of the pervasive whiteness that has historically characterized mainstream American consciousness: It is relentless in its ability to both delude the perpetrator and gaslight those who most need its empathy.
So no, this is no time to allow our artists to be silenced, dismissed or pushed to the fringes of any political conversation. Now—when our humanity exhaustibly remains in question—is the time to assault America with our humanity: our narrative, our stories, our brilliance and our unparalleled ingenuity.
To be fair, this work has already begun. The most recent and widest-reaching calls—to get in “Formation” and create shit “FUBU,” and assurances that we will somehow be “Alright”—may not have prevented the ascendancy of the anti-president, but they reflect a revised pop-cultural blueprint of the much-needed intersection of artistry and activism in America. In fact, photographer Clifton Henri considers it a moral imperative, telling us:
With the other side becoming more and more vocal, it’s up to me to stay the course and match that effort … not necessarily in tone or audible level, but in conviction. It’s my job now to be more consciously deliberate in my messaging and my work … to promote my story and messaging because it’s becoming increasingly important.
Actually, my perspective gains more relevance in these times. The work becomes more important because of the times in which it was created. It makes my narrative stronger. I guess it does make artists like me freedom fighters of sorts; on whatever level that may be.
Similarly, painter Shawn Michael Warren posted this on Instagram:
The possibility that we could become the last line of defense in terms of being a voice for the people, questioning the status quo, challenging systems of oppression, cultivating opinions and being a gateway to knowledge of true history, different cultures, and world systems is now very real. The Arts must now be supported more than ever, because the war against censorship is coming. It can no longer be treated as something that’s expendable.
The fact is, despite all threats and hopes to the contrary, most of us will choose not to abandon America in the next four years. In spite of it all, our roots are too painfully entwined with this wretched earth, and we will not abandon her to her wayward sons. And yet—as always—expression may be our escape. This is no time to be silent, or “post-black”; this is a time to be uncomfortably, unequivocally honest in our myriad iterations of blackness. This is a time to, as Mason put it, “operate without apology”:
It’s like Baldwin said: “I am not your Negro.” I am not what you think I am; I am this totally different thing. Now, I’m willing to introduce myself to you, but who I am is no longer negotiable.