The Risk of Hopelessness
Introduction: Georgia Men
“Black people did not come back from Georgia.”
“A man or woman that had learned that they might be taken south might do anything.”
“A man who had to see his son stand naked before buyers might do anything.”
These words are taken from The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptiste. This book works to establish a direct connection between the violent history of chattel slavery in the United States and the rise of global capitalism and American supremacy.
In the 1780’s “Georgia Men” traveled up from the Deep South to Maryland — the middle ground between slavery and freedom — to purchase enslaved African people to work southern land. Georgia Men would walk their purchased people down in “coffles,” or chained slave caravans on Indian trails to South Carolina and Georgia, land recently occupied by the Catawba and Coushatta People. In these coffles, thirty-three enslaved men and more than two-dozen women walked together, the men carried more than one thousand pounds of iron chains. To make this march, the men, lined two-by-two, had to work as one single unit against their own self-interest and preservation. They could walk together, but not run. They couldn’t hide, nor fight back. Resistance was in the mind of every one of the enslaved, but as their hope faded so did their ability to take risks. Too much risk, not enough reward.
Landowners and businessmen had permission from the state, from the society, from the newly established American culture, to treat a Black man or woman as less than human. Georgia Men had no relationships to these enslaved humans, which meant they had no emotional ties to their bondage and sub-human treatment.
You sit, at this moment, in Atlanta, GA. Can you can feel the rhythm of the feet of those men as they walked, mile after dry mile? At the time of those Georgia Men, the state of Georgia lay claim to 65 million acres that would eventually become Alabama and Mississippi, what was referred to then as the Yazoo territory, and home to the Chickasaw and Choctaw People. Southern slavers, in order to make more profit from this land that was not living up to its full “gold-bearing” potential, joined with northern slavers to create a national marketplace for land speculation. These schemes acquired financial backing from northern interests — who were publicly against slavery — to support the American expansion south and westward through the development of underdeveloped land. This expansion offered a financial reward tied to the potential revenues of the export of commodities, specifically cotton. The embryonic colonies — north and south — needed the sustenance of enslaved labor in order to grow into adolescence with a sense of financial security.
So with the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 came the three-fifths compromise, which rendered the bodies of Black men, women, and children as less than human, cementing a cultural practice into national policy. This compromise created a disproportionate amount of political power in the hands of Southern white enslavers ensuring that the south would dominate the presidency for more than seventy years. Our Constitution, then, lay the foundation for the expansion of slavery by uniting the states behind a quest for unity, prosperity, and dominance through westward expansion. And although the African Trade was banned in 1807, the internal trade and transport of enslaved African descendants continued legally until 1865. This is how American democracy was born. And this is why it would be 178 years, from 1807 to 1965, before Southern Blacks would be allowed to cast their own vote in the south.
Look around the room. We know there are differences between every human on the planet, but the idea of different races is a cruel and callous human mythology designed to maintain power through creating a fictitious system of whiteness as normalcy, as universal. And everything else then is abnormal. Categorization and separation is a long-standing tactic of those in power. It produces a very real and tangible system that promotes vast inequity and inflicts deep psychological damage on all of us. Both public and private institutions operate within these systems — systems that push difference to the margins in the quest to create a false sense of regular or normal. These systems are bigger than us, and yet they can’t run without our complicity. When we become complicit within them we not only marginalize the other, but we render our own uniqueness invisible.
I’ve opened today with the Georgia Men because I think it is important to bring our conversations about racial equity in the arts out of the abstract and place them in a social, political, and historical context. We must connect what has happened historically and what is happening today in the streets of Ferguson, North Charleston, Baltimore, New York City, the Bay Area, and Waco to what is happening on stages, black boxes, rehearsal studios, and performance spaces across the nation. They are symbiotic in their relationship to each other.
We can’t talk about contemporary performance and not talk about both the 24-hour network news cycle and social media as purveyors of cultural practice. Our nightly news is filled with politics. The politics of governance, of money, the economy, criminal justice, and education. And what is politics but a form of theater? All the elements are there, producers, directors, actors, stage managers, designers, press and promotions. Their faux journalism and curatorial algorithms reinforce historic stereotypes creating powerful works of fiction that fixate the public on the precarious edge of fear and safety. It is scripted with intention, with through lines and narrative, building on classic archetypes. It is performance propaganda put forth by the perversely rich and political elite — spectacle on the grandest of scales.
By putting these makers outside of the framework of artists we give ourselves very little space to critique their discipline and their practice.
So let’s connect this idea of the ‘great play,’ if you will, to Baptiste’s book and the streets of Baltimore. Because it is absolutely essential to understand that then, in the 1700s, as today, the lives of poor, too often Black and Brown, young men and women are still expendable. That is fact. Yet when this history is addressed in the media, it shows up as fodder for fear, as food for a culture addicted to violence. Why? Because the premise behind the three-fifths compromise of 1788 cemented the idea of second-class citizenship so deeply in our cultural psyche and institutional policies that we can no longer see it, or feel it. And thus we deny it’s very presence.
The uprisings in Baltimore and Ferguson are people demanding that they be seen, be heard, clearly saying we are human! Their performance is a contagious renegotiation of public space as a compounded response to generations of systemic oppression.
This response should inform the way we push for change in the institutions of philanthropy. Our responses have to be systemic — intentional programming informed by strategic policy-making.
In this moment, in order for us to be able to talk about equity in the arts, inclusion, and diversity we must first frame where we are as a country and as a society and our national state of political unrest. We are at a critical point of opportunity and risk as a society.
A man or woman threatened with bondage might do anything. A man or woman who had to see their son or daughter’s life snuffed out at the hands of police, an agent of the state — state sponsored violence once again — just might do anything.
King as an Artist
We are in the home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a true twentieth century artist.
No one was more adept in his understanding of the Southern oral traditions. He was masterful in his use of theater and the elements of production to create dynamic responsive spaces for demonstration in the form of public spectacle.
In the movie Selma, King talks to the young brothers in SNCC, basically saying: what we have to do is work on the systemic policy shifts to make a difference in this country, but it’s gonna take drama on the world stage to develop the empathy needed to move the people to action and risk their privilege. And the way that he was able to do that was by creating spectacle. King and his comrades designed street theater for a hungry media infrastructure that was just coming into the age of live, on-the-spot reporting. This confluence of tactics and technology played heavily into his ability to move and shift the consciousness of the country.
Who gets a chance to perform on stage, whose stories get a chance to be told in public space, and who gets to tell the story, all impact public perception. And public perception ultimately impacts public policy.
King recognized the opportunity of this emerging media machine and took the risk to place his life and the lives of the hopeful on the line in this “theater” that would show up in the living rooms of millions of households around the country.
So what is the role of the arts today? What is its opportunity? And what are we risking if we continue on our current path?
The heart of King’s artistry is that he worked to humanize all people. He felt that if you’re born from a human womb, then you are born with these inalienable rights. It is important to recognize King as an artist because when we place limitations on what we think art is and who we deem worthy of wearing the label of artist we place restrictions on ourselves and confine our understanding of the impervious nature of cultural traditions. We limit our ability to recognize the potential power art has to shape ideology and perception.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 21st Century
I think that #blacklivesmatter is the Civil and Human Rights Movement of the 21st century. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott, Tanishia Anderson — the list of names that have sparked national interest is much too long. The way that social media has made these iterations of state sponsored violence visible is the equivalent of Emmett Till’s bloated and deformed body being on the cover of Jet magazine in 1955.
Today we see massive public demonstrations and uprisings that are in response not just to the particular incidents and events, but to the systemic and long-term abuse of power. Today, an incident happens overnight, by the afternoon it has been viewed, shared, and tweeted to millions, by nightfall there are tens of thousands of people gathered in the streets. And not just in the streets of the community where it happened, but in the streets of communities across the country, and across the world.
The gestational period of movement building has shifted. Ideas can go from formulation to realization in a matter of minutes. Think about the Civil Rights Movement and the grassroots strategy that had to be employed to ensure that the people who were most affected by injustice informed the nation’s education on the issues and had access to the avenues through which they could respond. Everything was hand-to-hand, mouth-to-ear. From Emmett Till’s murder in 1955 to 1963, 1964, 1965 when the Birmingham Church was bombed, when Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were murdered, when protestors were brutalized in Selma marching across the Edmund Pettis Bridge — these public displays of the rancidness of white supremacy and how it terrorized Black communities in the Deep South gave the country an opportunity to bear witness, respond and react. And it took years of organizing for justice and equality to garner this type of diverse movement moment that was undeniable.
That’s what has shifted: the sheer volume of stories of the oppressed that we are able to witness on a broad scale, and the speed at which we are able to access them is unprecedented. We are able to see in a very different way than we were in the 50s and 60s, what’s really going on in the community and how the community is responding in real time.
Philanthropy has a history of activism. Jane Adams created Hull House in Chicago and settlement houses sprung up around the country. In New York City the Henry Street Settlement is almost as well known as an arts center as it is for its historic work on the Lower East Side. Margaret Sanger fought and was jailed to bring the idea of birth control and family planning out of the realm of religion and into public consciousness. In rural communities philanthropy was about collecting and distributing food, or holding classes on front porches to teach people to read. Charitable work wasn’t done from desks and offices but by feet on the ground, knocking on doors, and connecting strategic policy-making to the needs of the people.
Today philanthropy is well organized, professional, and highly transactional. It is an industry with much of its infrastructure cut off from its activist roots. So its view of society’s challenges and issues is seen at a remove, in the abstract. But the opportunity for philanthropy to once again “get in the mix” is here. The issues and challenges are clear, present, and so unavoidable. The question is: how much privilege is philanthropy willing to risk to collectively organize for systemic change?
Systemic Oppression Requires Systemic Solutions
So much of the way that philanthropy responds to systemic issues of inequity is with programs that are intended to help the individual ALANNA artist to overcome whatever individual barriers have been placed in front of them. And in many cases the individual can be lifted above the system long enough to help them see the path through the maze so that they can begin the process of escape. But the barriers remain because they’re not individual systems. It’s an ecosystem of oppression. Many people of color exist in what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls, in “The Case for Reparations,” “ecologically distinct” communities. The idea is that there is an entirely different ecology — in terms of economy, education, health and legal systems — for people of color than there is for white people. What you have is a system that references itself in terms of oppression and compounds that oppression: redlining, higher interest rates, transportation systems, lower pay for people of color, tax-based funding for public education — all of these things reinforce inequity that is systemic, deeply entrenched, and longstanding. The systemic issues of poverty, poor health, sharecropper education, and high unemployment and incarceration rates are not the work of a failed individual or community. But that’s how it’s often framed, and that’s what programs that set out to support ALANNA individuals and communities are often geared toward.
Part of my practice in giving these talks is to start the conversation by stretching the imagination about where our work and concern should begin and end. Racial equity is not just a philanthropic problem, it’s a societal problem. So if you’re starting at the very beginning thinking this is something that needs to be fixed within philanthropy without acknowledging the historic roots of the issues then you will only create solutions to cover up the symptoms, not cure the sickness. Philanthropy can help work to shift the perception and work towards identifying core strategies to improve our collective conditions. We must shift from a practice of dissecting and fragmenting our work into spaces of education, healthcare, human rights, or arts and culture. We must recognize that all of these issues are intrinsically connected and tied to one another.
So our role is to understand where is it that we can apply pressure to develop and strengthen existing systems of change. And not just within GIA, but change within our larger societal structure. Yes it’s big and audacious to think about the cultural transformation that has to come about to achieve true equity, but now is the time to take the risks. What would it look like if we relegated the next five generations to working together to challenging systemic oppression, developing new systems and cultural practices?
What Can We Do?
The first thing we must do is validate action at every level and recognize that our work is interconnected in an ecosystem of change. The work that you do on the individual person-to-person level in community is no more or no less valuable than the work that you do when you’re talking to your legislators in DC. All of those pieces are important and integral to building a movement, so you work where you can, but you have to make a decision to work. You have to make a decision to work towards justice.
By coming to this forum you have made a decision to engage in conversations around cultural equity with your peers. But the conversation doesn’t stop when you leave this room. It is on you, on us, to continue to grow together and develop strategies. This is not a feel good exercise or an opportunity to check the diversity training box for your own professional development and gain community credibility. We are here to manifest systemic change.
But we must have hope. We must build on our own work and the work of others.
As such, it is important for me to acknowledge the work of Grantmakers in the Arts and their demonstrated commitment in placing cultural equity high on their institutional agenda. It is important to reference the work of the Arts Culture and Social Justice Network, a network that started out as an affinity group of GIA. As such, they pushed ideas of cultural equity and social justice programming within GIA both on the board level as well as inside the conference.
This is a huge deal. We’re sitting in this space, having a conversation about racial equity and grantmaking under the banner of GIA. It’s because of these collective organizing efforts that we are here today. This is an example of systemic change that has come about because people have validated the work of artists as being integral to change and have stayed committed to advancing a social justice agenda.
It is hopeful people that are willing to take risks. What’s dangerous is when people succumb to hopelessness. When you have nothing to lose you are more willing to take risks, but if you lose hope your propensity for risk is diminished.
What risks are being taken in the philanthropic sector to support ALANNA communities? Who among us are championing traditional cultural practices and the innovations of fringe communities as industry standards? Now is the time to take risks and work together to manifest a different tomorrow.
Our work will only become successful when we stop seeing the communities that are struggling to maintain hope as others and begin to see them as extensions of ourselves.