A cultureless revolution is a bullcrap tip. It means in the process of making revolution we lose our vision. We lose the soft, undulating side of ourselves – those unknown beauties lurking rhythmically below the level of material needs. In short, a revolution without culture would destroy the very thing that unites us; the very thing we are trying to save along with our lives – Larry Neal, “Any Day Now: Black Art and Black Liberation,” Ebony, 1969
On December 3rd, 2014, I returned to New York having spent a week abroad in Copenhagen and London. Tired, hungry but full of what I can only describe as a whimsical European sense of euphoria, I made my way through customs at JFK airport, past baggage claim and onto the Airtran platform. In typical New York transit fashion, the airtran wasn’t fully operational so I found myself in the middle of a crowd of angsty tourists unsure of how to reach their midtown hotel destinations.
Hello, New York.
As I fielded questions and made up answers, I noticed a TV in the station and casually re-routed myself to the side of the platform closest to the screen. CNN was broadcasting what appeared to be in my groggy post flight state some sort of night time concert. It was the first live television broadcast I had seen in seven days. As I made my way closer to the screen and focused, I realized the images I was seeing were images were actually those of protesters from my Brooklyn neighborhood. While I had been flying across the atlantic, a Staten Island Grand Jury had failed to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo for the murder of Eric Garner.
What I wanted to do: Turn around. Walk back into the airport. Purchase a one way ticket to Lima, Peru.
What I did: Hopped on the airtran shuttle bus. Called my boyfriend. Fought back my tears.
In the days following my return to the states, I went to one protest but mainly, I lingered in solitude. Here it was anothernon-indictment in less than two weeks. Compounded with the countless Black women and Trans women of color who have been brutalized at the hands of the police, I was emotionally exhausted and to be be quite honest, unsure of the ways I could participate in the mobilization that was happening all around me.
What is my role within this movement?
This is what I ask myself everyday and it has been difficult to wake up morning after morning, not knowing just how to answer this question. I do not go to every protest. I have not participated in a die-in. I’m overwhelmed by the hashtags. I do not consider myself an activist. I am an arts worker. I am committed to the complete liberation of Black people.
And so, given this reality, the question could also be framed this way: As an arts administrator, what is my role within this movement?
This question resides at the forefront of my mind in particular because I work at a Black arts organization. Undoubtedly, the history of Black arts activism in the U.S. is extensive. But in an era where so many of us are beholden to an outdated funding model – hobbling along on scarce financial resources and shifting initiatives while also seeking to maintain a regular schedule of programs, exhibitions, and performances- what will our institutional imprint be upon these mobilization efforts? I know firsthand the consequences of these limited capacities, the obligations to the “Market.” In my own experience, despite best intentions, it can be difficult, especially on an organizational level, to find the time, money, and other resources necessary for meaningful contributions.
And yet I’m still convinced that our institutional voices must actively be part of this national resistance dialogue somehow.
Black arts and cultural institutions are vital to this contemporary moment for we are the meeting point of ideology and aesthetics. Tracing the legacy of the Black Arts Movement and its connection to the Black Power Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s in their book New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement, Lisa Gail Collins and Margo Crawford write that “…during the movement, the inseparability of the ideological and the aesthetic was intuitive and self evident. The Black aesthetic of this period was a bold re-envisioning of life itself as a work of art dedicated to the advancement of Black people.” That is to say, the arts are a means through which we may see and envision the details of liberation.
If we understand the actions and visions of organizations such as #blacklivesmatter, The Dream Defenders, and The Black Youth Project, as well as the organizing of thousands of people around the country as an extension of the Black Power Movement, though unique in its manifestation, we can also understand the role of Black arts institutions in 2015 to be vital extensions of the Black Arts movements. We are participants in the aesthetic mapping of resistance.
Our organizations are a framework through which this movement will be styled and ultimately, archived. Who will create the records, share the records, remind the world of the records if not us? I am terrified to think of the ways mainstream society will characterize the activism to which we are all bearing witness twenty years from now. For this reason, our museums, galleries, and performing arts centers are not only sites of entertainment and pleasure. They become places through which we as a body of Black people inscribe ourselves into history of a country that desires our silence.
This piece begins with an epigraph from Larry Neal’s 1969 Ebony article Any Day Now: Black Art and Black Liberation. He is writing during the peak of the Black Arts Movement. He is proposing a new cultural world view that centers Black folk. He is aligning the struggle in America with the global struggle of Black and Brown people. He is taking no prisoners. Neal’s article is important for many reasons but it is his thought on the role of Black arts institutions that resonate most deeply with me. If Black artists are creating, Black institutions are holding, are protecting. “[B]lack institutions are not merely cultural in the narrow sense of that word. They are finally about the physical and spiritual survival of Black America.” That is to say, our institutions are the means through which we guard our myths.
That is to say, our institutions are our pyramids.
To that end, as an art administrator at a Black arts organization perhaps I am helping to make space – physical, digital and spiritual – for our realities. The specificities of that work will probably look differently from one moment to the next. One day it could mean allowing a group of activists to use office space at my home institution to meet and gather and strategize. The next day it could mean serving as a fiscal conduit for a young group of playwrights seeking to devise a script about Ferguson. The day after that it could mean hosting a community twitter chat on police brutality.
The details will change. The mission will not.
That is to say, there is work to be done. I cannot be afraid to do it.
Jessica Lynne is co-editor of ARTS.BLACK