We are exhausted. America bleeds daily, and leaves us to pick up the remains of our brothers and sisters. Every couple of hours there is a new name of a black man or woman that has been shot for being too “loud”, too “suspicious”, too “aggressive”…too black. We are tired of mourning, grieving, having to piece ourselves together every morning. Ritualistically we grieve, and we move forward. Because we have to, we must protect those yet to come. We must fight for them. We have found ways to restore the air into our lungs: supporting the Black Lives Matter Movement. On July 10, 2016 the activist group released their ten point plan that would stop racial profiling titled Campaign Zero. Black Lives Matter continues to fight on the front lines, impacting policy, and holding police accountable. However, in such dark times what duty do we as artists and creatives have?
I have heard many fellow artists talk about their inability to create. Consumed by grief, they are muted. Unable and willing to create. But this is the time for us to create. This is our role in this world, “the rent that we owe” in inhabiting this world. Toni Morrison writes that there is no room for self pity, for silence. Shortly after the second reelection of George W. Bush, she found herself muted by grief. No longer able to create, it was her colleague who reminded her of her purpose.
“No! 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.”
It is our duty to create new narratives. It is our job as artists to document our times. We must write ourselves into existence. Art saves lives; as creatives it is the only thing we know for certain. Our role of artists is to rewrite prevailing narratives that strip us of our humanity. To create a universe in which we not only live humane lives, but one in which we are thriving. One in which we seize to be super predators, where our children are allowed to be kids. Rewriting a world in which black children are not gunned down. If we do not write our stories, they will write them for us. They will tell us that we never existed. They will tell us that we misunderstood. That we deserved it.
In 2014 New York Times Journalist Jazmine Hughes writes about the talk that she will give her child, there are no birds or bees, only survival. Hughes mentions that every black male she has ever encountered has had the talk: what to do if police stops you. The necessity to code switch into “servant talk” to shrink ourselves as to not appear too frightening:
“ You answer their questions if they ask you with ‘yes sir’ and ‘no ma’am’ unless it is incriminating, then you exercise your right to be silent. Don’t talk back, don’t even slouch, pull up your pants. Be polite, no sudden movements. Don’t give him a reason because these cops will shoot you and not think twice about it.”
Just like Hughes we have all written the steps on how to stay alive. During the time of Black Lives Matter it has escaped the folds of our mind onto our newsfeeds. There are constantly new articles on surviving America. We have, taking Ta-Nehisi Coates as an example, created memoirs and gifted them to our sons detailing within them our twisted love affair with the US. Explaining that this is not new, it is a battle that has been fought since the time of slavery and trickles down. We have questioned whether our ancestors would walk with us in our civil rights movement, Nikki Giovanni assuring us that Nina Simone would have done her duty as an artist.
“An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times…That to me is my duty. And at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved.”
We have crafted poems that are now used to teach police brutality in our schools, such as Willie Perdomo’s 41 Bullets Off Broadway written about Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African man shot 19 times by the police in the Bronx in a hail of 41 bullets. We have written so many poems, as lighthouses guiding us home. Writing in the times of Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, we must write whether with courage, or fear but, we must write. We must make sure that we remember these times, that we honor those fallen. That we help create the world in which our children will live. A world in which we can breathe, where we are the heroes. A world in which we exist, on our terms.
“The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.” James Baldwin
Header image courtesy of 5chw4r7z