Top image from Anina Bennett’s “Boilerplate.”
Solidarity with our dreams will not make us feel less alone, as long as it is not translated into concrete acts of legitimate support for all the peoples that assume the illusion of having a life of their own in the distribution of the world.
Latin America neither wants, nor has any reason, to be a pawn without a will of its own; nor is it merely wishful thinking that its quest for independence and originality should become a Western aspiration. However, the navigational advances that have narrowed such distances between our Americas and Europe seem, conversely, to have accentuated our cultural remoteness. Why is the originality so readily granted us in literature so mistrustfully denied us in our difficult attempts at social change? Why think that the social justice sought by progressive Europeans for their own countries cannot also be a goal for Latin America, with different methods for dissimilar conditions? No: the immeasurable violence and pain of our history are the result of age-old inequities and untold bitterness, and not a conspiracy plotted three thousand leagues from our home. But many European leaders and thinkers have thought so, with the childishness of old-timers who have forgotten the fruitful excess of their youth as if it were impossible to find another destiny than to live at the mercy of the two great masters of the world. This, my friends, is the very scale of our solitude.
– Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Dec. 8, 1982
By Kendra James
On Thursday night WNYC presented A Raisin In The Sun: Inside Look at The Greene Space in New York City. Joining moderator Elliot Forrest for an hour long discussion on the new Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s play were director Kenny Leon with cast members, Anika Noni Rose, Sean Patrick Thomas, and Stephen McKinley Henderson.
Our readers are encouraged to watch the video in full (it’s an hour long, but a good Friday afternoon lunch time distraction). The discussion and the subsequent Q&A has that rare perfect mix of a great moderator, intelligent and thoughtful panellists, and an engaged audience that proceeded to ask insightful questions. Some of the discussion highlights included:
- Kenny Leon has done A Raisin In The Sun several times in various productions, including the production with Sean Combs that premièred on Broadway ten years ago. When planning for this production he wanted the audience to ask, “What does it mean to do this play ten years later?” The panel pointed out that African-American plays often lack reinventing for new generations, but that a show like Raisin should be affected by events like the election of a Black president and the two Stand Your Ground trials in Florida.
- Also in that vein, Leon wanted this audience to see Travis (the Younger’s son) not just as a boy, but as the man that he’d become. It was important to him that people actively engage and think about what his life would be like in America ten years from the moments presented on stage.
- Stephen McKinley Henderson gave a cold reading of Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem which provided Raisin its name.
- Broadway always seems a bit starved for original content when the new season rolls around. As mentioned this is the second revival of Raisin in 10 years, and it joins shows like Aladdin, Rocky, The Bridges of Madison County, Cabaret, Les Miserables, and many other revivals or adaptations coming this spring and fall. So it was appreciated when a blogger from Arts In Color got up to ask if the cast had any favourite young POC playwrights producing original material fit for the stage. Answers included Danai Gurira, Robert O’Hara, Dominique Morisseau, Marcus Gardley, Lydia Diamond, and Katori Hall.
A Raisin In The Sun also stars Denzel Washington (Walter Lee Younger) and Sophie Okonedo (Ruth Younger) and begins previews at the Barrymore Theatre (home of the original production in 1959) on March 8. Thanks to WNYC for having us, and to Anika Noni Rose for not laughing when I told her about the time I auditioned to be Tiana for Disney On Ice.
By Arturo R. García
This year, we expanded our coverage at San Diego Comic-Con to bring you more panels, more interviews, and more images from pop culture’s weekend-long prom. Kicking us off: a roundup of all but one of the panels I attended, in Storified form. I’ll have a recap of Rep. John Lewis’ (D-GA) appearance on Wednesday, along with some extra material.
Also, to clarify one item from the Black Panel recap, there really was a “Black Spider-Man” there who was not cosplaying Miles Morales. He was ahead of me in the line to ask questions of the panel:
Community activists Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha wrote in asking us to share their social justice themed science-fiction anthology project being funded via Indiegogo. With 44 days to go they’re approximately an eighth of the way there. From their funding page:
Greetings! We are Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha, two community organizers, educators, writers and self-proclaimed nerds. We have individually and collectively been working to bridge the visionary qualities of science/speculative fiction with radical community organizing practice.
We thought there was no better way to do this than with our current book project: Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. It’s an anthology of radical science and speculative fiction written by organizers and activists.
We need to raise $8,277 to cover the cost of designing and printing the anthology (with a release date of summer 2014), as well as to fund a national tour where we will not only do readings of the anthology, but writing workshops and organizing strategy sessions where we can support communities turning their visionary ideas into concrete action!
We have received overwhelming support from everyone we tell about Octavia’s Brood. Because we believe in the principles of communities organizing and supporting themselves, we are turning to our strongest supporters and allies, our visionary community, to birth Octavia’s Brood into the world.
In a week where we’ve seen just how wrong crowdsource funding can go, I once again invite our readers to send us Indiego, Kickstarter, and other crowdsourced funded projects that might be of interest. Let’s help see some worthwhile artists get a seat at the table.
Publisher Pro Se Productions, dedicated to the “classic fiction of pulp magazines and adventure tales” and “push[ing] the boundaries of modern genre fiction,” has a new offering: Black Pulp. The new book features black characters in leading roles–a departure from the literary genre, popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Glossy pulp magazines, noted for shocking tales of adventure, mystery, crime, horror and mayhem, rarely featured African American characters or other characters of color, and certainly not in heroic positions. In fact, in a review of the book, Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines, Andrew Loman notes the conservative ideology of classic pulp, as well as the genre’s “obvious misogyny, homophobia and racism.”
Novelist Gary Philips, who originated the concept for Black Pulp, says, “While revisionism is not history, as Django Unchained signifies, nonetheless historical matters find their way into popular fiction. This is certainly the case with new pulp as it handles such issues as race with a modern take, even though stories can be set in a retro context. Black Pulp then offers exciting tales of derring-do and clear-eyed heroes and heroines of darker hues appealing to all.”
Black Pulp features an essay on “the nature of pulp” literature by award-winning author, Walter Mosley.
I’ve got this waiting on my Kindle and I can’t wait to dig in!
By Guest Contributor Sikivu Hutchinson
The two young men of color walk through the gallery transfixed. There is so much to see and so little time to see it in; no docents handy to provide a frame, no earphones to squawk on about context and artist’s intent. The trip from their South L.A. school to the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA) in the Miracle Mile section of Wilshire Boulevard is, figuratively, a world away. As the first car-euphoric corridor in Los Angeles, Miracle Mile still retains its sheen. The museum’s multi-million dollar exhibits and au courant architecture showcase the pinnacle of Western culture—from classic to modern to contemporary avant-garde. The wing that the students walk through is the brain child of billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, an ethereally lit sanctuary that brings them face-to-face with artist Glenn Ligon’s anatomy of black otherness. Ligon’s exhibit beckons with written evaluations from his elementary-school teachers. Their comments range from praise to quizzical disappointment. One implies that he is squandering his potential. Another pronounces that he has insufficient “black consciousness.” As records of one student’s arc, they are unremarkable, inviting a voyeurism that only piques interest in the context of the artist’s success. However, as grade-school primers of the genealogy of Ligon’s marked body and, implicitly, that of all black students, they are deeply moving.
In the art gallery, time is suspended. It is crafted as a hermetic space, a rebuke to the outside world where quiet contemplation is a rare commodity, fast becoming the province of the super rich. At this particular exhibit, guards of color stand silently at the ready. There is a black presence stationed in every room, a reminder of the invisibility of people of color in the high-flying corporate art scene. With their stiff uniforms and stoic expressions, the guards both comment on and perform the authority of the museum. They are there and not there, breaking from the tedium of their posts to remind students to put away their cell phones and refrain from taking pictures. They protect the secular sanctity of the gallery space through the veneer of enforcement, adding another layer of seeing and surveillance.
What do the students see in a culture in which they are trained to view art and aesthetics as the province of white geniuses? How do they navigate seeing in a culture in which the vision of white geniuses defines universal standards of beauty, value, goodness, and human worth? How do they learn, as Carter G. Woodson says, to breathe, swallow, and regurgitate the template of white universal subject-hood as sacred creed and covenant? How do they learn—how did they learn—to become blind to themselves, to see themselves as the Other?
The politics of seeing are part of what drives God lust. God provides a blank canvas for all fears, anxieties, hopes, ambitions, and dreams. He/she/it becomes the tabula rasa for the dreamer, the universal fail-safe for the fucked-up, the crushed, the abject, and the abandoned. In an intensely capitalistic, racially segregated culture, God-dreaming is a kind of art-making. God is closely tied to self-making and invention. It’s a realm that offers both the illusion of agency or control and the conceit of subjection.
Ligon’s show includes a re-examination of the infamous Robert Mapplethorpe Black Book exhibit from the 1990s. Photo after photo of naked black men sprawl next to quotes from commentators, critical theorists, and art mavens. The quotes weigh in on the public blasphemy of eroticized black male bodies, musing about whether Mapplethorpe’s images were exploitative. The comments run the gamut from appreciation to outrage, many of them conceding the ambiguity of representation and desire. Interspersed with the provocative poses of the mostly taut, virile young men, Ligon’s arrangement of the quotes underscores the ways in which the black body has always existed as contested space, as politicized. In an era in which mass incarceration and criminalization have become the predominant media for black embodiment, Mapplethorpe’s photographs are even more difficult to view within the lens of aesthetic pleasure. Mapplethorpe’s identity as a prominent white gay male photographer cannot be separated from the photos’ reception. Nor can his identity, power, and privilege be distanced from the tragic downward spiral of his black gay subjects, many of whom died of AIDS. It’s nearly impossible to imagine a black gay photographer gaining intimate access to the lives of white men for a similar photo essay. Heady pronouncements of colorblind equality are even more farcical in the context of the segregated art world, where artists of color are routinely ghettoized into “ethnic” shows. But art-making has an especially critical relationship to knowledge construction and human value. Who has the authority to make art, whose art will be considered as “great,” canonical, or universal is deeply connected to the standards of what is worth being seen.
In the twelve-plus years since Ligon’s original Mapplethorpe exhibit, and fifteen-plus since the book’s publication, the art world template for the white genius as all-seeing and all-powerful has not changed. What has changed during this period is that HIV/AIDS has become a leading cause of death for young African Americans and mass incarceration has been deemed the “New Jim Crow.” Against this backdrop, God-lust amongst African Americans has morphed into a more fevered, strategically public practice. It’s not uncommon for young blacks to retort that some wayward person should get “right with God.” It’s rare to go to a black public event that isn’t kicked-off or concluded with a prayer from a local pastor. On TV shows like CNN’s Black in America: Silicon Valley, scenes of black folk bowing their heads and joining hands in prayer before a stressful event are pro forma. Black NFL players like Kurt Warner and coaches like Tony Dungee routinely attribute their success on the field and in life to God’s co-piloting. Over the past several years some Black churches have even declared Halloween a new “Satanic” ritual, offering their own kid-friendly, fall-themed festivals as suitably God-fearing alternatives. T-shirts and paraphernalia with Scripture and religious references flood the streets in predominantly black communities, where disposable income is an oxymoron for most.
Embracing, invoking, and bowing down to God have become shorthand for achieving upward mobility. In Essence magazine, Tasha Smith, a popular actress and fixture in Tyler Perry films, reflects on her journey to success. This particular actress is habitually cast as the kind of ball-busting Sapphire alpha men love to hate and white women love to fetishize. Smith’s specialty is channeling the hand-on-hip, tell-it-like-it-is, keepin’-it-real “bitch” who is never afraid to slice and dice her man in a high-octane public throwdown. Consequently, the reader is “shocked” to learn that she was once an atheist—frustrated, adrift, and emotionally scarred by a traumatic childhood. It’s implied that her lack of faith was a kind of spiritual albatross. As told to Essence, her subsequent transition to a God-fearing woman of faith hastens her rise to fame, wealth, love, and redemption via that rarefied cultural vehicle—the Tyler Perry film. The profile on the actress assures us that giving one’s life/fate over to God is an authentic rite of passage, a naked reclamation of self in the midst of a cold spiritual wilderness. God enables vision, and, ultimately, upward mobility. Godlessness signifies rudderlessness and absence of self-control, a potentially fatal flaw for a black woman trying to bootstrap to a moral life. Being a “good black woman” is defined by masochism. It is only through the crucible of self-sacrifice, by extending one’s faith until it hurts, that redemption can be achieved.
Witness: an acquaintance experiencing extreme economic hardship pledges to lay her life down to God after an email solicitation yields a gift of $50. The “ask and ye shall receive” regime of the prosperity gospel has become the cult of true blackness. On the surface it’s a rebuke to black invisibility, a bird flip to a dominant culture that revels in the myth of black downward mobility driven by lazy blacks shuffling from government handout to government handout.
If God is Black America’s co-pilot, then what does that say about the landscape of 21st century United States, where black wealth is virtually nonexistent? What does it betray about a country where residential segregation of African Americans and Latinos has become more prevalent now than during the 1980s? It’s tempting for some religious skeptics of color to dismiss these displays as indicative of backward thinking from uneducated black folk. But, as the faith-based pandering of President Obama and other politicians demonstrate, education and religiosity are not mutually exclusive. Just as there is no shortage of storefront churches in poor black communities, there is no shortage of mid-sized to megachurches in middle-to-upper-middle-class black neighborhoods. Faith and religiosity don’t exist in a political, social, or economic vacuum. Nor are they static. One female interviewee from the 2010 gospel documentary Rejoice and Shout acknowledged that Christianity was originally the “white man’s religion” but dismissed the claim that blacks were brainwashed or indoctrinated. The gender pageantry of the Black Church is on vivid display in the grainy archival footage from this fascinating documentary (and document) of black life in the early 20th century. Black women getting the Holy Ghost crowd the church aisles, writhing, gesticulating, and testifying to the Lord’s transfixion. Every now and then the camera captures a swooning male congregant, but, for the most part, the men sit upright and respectable in the pews as the reverends hold sway in the pulpit. It’s implied that performance and possession—the raw abandon of getting the Holy Ghost—are a woman’s medium, a manifestation of their natural sexual otherness, their closer relationship with the body, and, thus, their irrationality. Here, religious performance, the collision between sacred and secular, becomes a kind of artistry. Ecstatic religious expression is portrayed as a powerful device in a social context that does not afford poor black women agency, creativity, or visibility.
Sikivu Hutchison’s book, “Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels” is now available.
In addition to race and class dynamics, other issues from our real-world culture persist in Palmares Três. Even in a city run by women, teen motherhood continues to be stigmatized. One character in the book is the son of a woman who had him when she was 16. Although eighteen years have passed, both the son and mother, who has become a talented and sought-after designer, still face prejudice from those around them. In fact, in a city where people live to age 250, anyone under age 30 are treated with condescension, if not disdain. Enki’s popularity among both young and old people threatens the smooth and unchallenged reign of the Aunties and the Queen. And, with Enki as Summer King, June (and the rest of the city) start to realize that deceit bubbles beneath the beauty of Palmares Três.
So poverty and inequality are not eliminated under matriarchal rule. But Johnson’s matriarchy changes some of the ways people regard sexuality. People love and lust after for whomever they want, regardless of gender. June’s mother was first married to a man. Less than a year after his death, she marries a woman. No one bats an eye except June, who is furious at her mother’s rapid remarriage. At his first public appearance as Summer King, Enki and June’s best friend Gil meet and are immediately smitten. Their romance becomes constant fodder for the gossip feeds, but again no one questions their pairing.
The Summer Prince doesn’t push readers to think about real-world injustices like Tankborn, Partials orTruancy do. Instead, it was only when I emerged from Johnson’s beautifully written pages that I began to reflect on some of the similarities (and differences) between her world and this one. I can see YA readers, particularly YA girl readers, enjoying The Summer Prince, but it might take some prodding to connect the world and underlying injustices of Palmares Três to real-world issues of race, class, stigma and power.
– “Can a Society Run by Women Still Be a Dystopia?” by Victoria Law via Bitch Magazine
June, our heroine, is likably complex. She’s headstrong and confident, frequently referring to herself as “the best artist in Palmares Tres,” but she’s also believable as a slightly naive kid who hasn’t had to look outside the bubble of her privileged life as the stepdaughter of a government official. That life, of squabbling with her mother, working on cheeky performance-art stunts and hanging around with her best friend, Gil, changes dramatically when Gil falls in love with the newly elected Summer King Enki, a young man from the algae-farming slums.
It’s an unexpected twist in a novel full of them. Yes, this is a YA-dystopia-love-triangle story, but how unusual to see the heroine become the third wheel to a sensitively depicted gay relationship. And how deliciously unusual to read a YA dystopia that’s comfortable with ambiguity and nuance. This is a book that doesn’t condescend. Gil, June and Enki find themselves having to tread carefully as they work out their own answers to a host of questions about love, art, technology, tradition — even sex. Slightly bratty teenager June matures noticeably over the course of the narrative, becoming much more understanding of the adults in her life and what drives them. And even though one of the central conflicts in the book is a standard faceoff between the youth of Palmares Tres and the somewhat ossified ruling class, even the villains come off as understandable in the end.
– “Samba, Spiderbots And ‘Summer’ Love In Far-Future Brazil,” by Petra Mayer of NPR