For the month of April I will be writing about whiteness, white people, and white life for #30DaysOfWhiteness. Check it out and conversate.
Comments I delivered for a panel on Amiri Baraka’s essays at the 2015 MLA Annual Convention in Vancouver. The panel was organized by the Divisions on Non-Fiction Prose Studies and Black American Literature and Culture. Margo Natalie Crawford, Jeremy M. Glick, William J. Harris, and Aldon Lynn Nielsen also spoke on the panel, Brian J. Norman and Dana A. Williams presiding.
When we talk about the Black Arts Movement—or, for that matter, most movements—how can we do so? By that I mean, how can we address not only the flux of movement, but also the diversity of thought and action shaped by regional conditions and philosophical differences? How can we take stock of the activity of movement broadly but also specifically—what it looked like on the ground? And in the case of the Black Arts Movement’s most emblematic figure, Amiri Baraka, whom we honor here, how shall we assess the volume and diversity of his movement work and his contributions to the development of art, culture, politics, and consciousness?
In order to think about these questions, I want to turn to the spring of 1967 and to a unique document of that moment, Baraka’s “Communications Project”, published in 1968 in the “Black Revolutionary Theatre” special issue of The Drama Review. Ed Bullins served as guest editor; the issue contains primarily plays, by Bullins, Sonia Sanchez, Marvin X, Jimmy Garrett, Baraka and others. Of the few critical pieces, Larry Neal’s seminal essay “The Black Arts Movement” is probably the issue’s most widely circulated piece, and alongside other essays by Neal, Addison Gayle, Carolyn Rodgers, Baraka, among others, it is certainly one of the most emblematic pieces of Black Arts criticism.
“In a nation that just can’t stand much more/ Like the forest buried beneath the highway/ Never had a chance to grow/ Never had a chance to grow/ And now it’s winter/ Winter in America/Yes, and all of the healers have been killed/ Or sent away, yeah/ But the people know, the people know/ It’s winter…/ Winter in America.”
-Gil Scott-Heron, “Winter in America” (174)
“There’s something goin on/ Something’s goin on [repeat]”
-The Roots, “Intro/There’s Something Goin’ On” from Do You Want More?!!!??! (1995)
In the last week of November 2014, Party People, UNIVERSES’s play about the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords, was finishing an extended run at the Berkeley Rep. At the same time, Campo Santo’s Superheroes, about the crack epidemic, had begun preview shows at the Cutting Ball Theater. During this one week overlap, the announcement came from Missouri that a grand jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. Hardly a week later in New York, Daniel Pantaleo was not indicted for the killing of Eric Garner.
Maybe this is coincidence–but something is happening now, here, in this place. The simmering a boil now.
Party People grapples with the history of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Party, black and Puerto Rican activists who confronted not only the very basic fact of racist police terror but discriminatory and exploitive governmental and corporate institutions. In that fight against racism and oppression, they also imagined a new world, posing new possibilities: they created food, health, educational, and safety programs to communities neglected and exploited; they formed coalitions and relationships across lines of race, nation, and class; they imagined a humanity.
In the wake of the 1960s and 1970s, with many organizations and activists thoroughly abused, dismantled, or destroyed by government subversion, sabotage, intervention, and outright killing, drugs and the drug trade occupied communities of color, suffering not only the absence of those activists and radical energy but also the methodical dismantling of the postwar welfare state. If the scourge of heroin in the late 1970s provided sufficient damage on its own, the introduction of crack cocaine in the 1980s was a neutron bomb. Superheroes looks back on that period by delving into the role the U.S. government played in bringing cocaine into this country and into poor communities of color in particular.
Both plays look back from the present. In Party People, two young men whose parents or relatives were activists organize an art show/performance that also acts as a reunion for party members. In Superheroes, a journalist–loosely based on Gary Webb–tries to piece together the narrative of how the CIA and other government agencies facilitated the drug trade as part of support for the Contras in Central America. Rather than presenting narrow stories, rigidly loyal to timelines and geographies, both plays draw broadly, providing us with the assemblage of scenes and memories that make history, and in particular that help the make the histories of movements and eras, which are messy, scattered, and diverse.
Party People and Superheroes take up post-Civil Rights black/American history (black history IS American history–in case that is a question for you), which holds them together, complements to each other. Too long the American mainstream has treated African American history as something that begins during slavery and ends in 1964 and 1965 with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Then, somehow, we skip to 2008 when Obama is elected, and the world is a different place, one in which laws, policies, language, and people are, somehow, color-blind. These plays follow recent historical scholarship that argues to the contrary. We live in a racialized, virulently racist, and highly unequal society. As Gil Scott-Heron told us 40 years ago in 1974, Winter had arrived in America. And it has been winter for a very long time, despite the passage of Civil Rights laws, the development of Ethnic Studies programs, the increased presence of people of color in our media. Party People and Superheroes are our Winter-in-America theater, remembering, reflecting, and trying to represent what has happened in America the last 40 years–and not just what has “happened” to black and brown people in American, but how it has happened, who has caused it, what the consequences have been, what legacies we live with–how race continues to shape the conditions and possibilities of our lives.
But Party People and Superheroes wrestle with history–they are not interested in theater as a series of dates and reenactments, and neither are they interested in narratives of pity and victimization, nor with blind exaltation. They struggle, fight, converse with that history. From the present moment they shake a fist at that history, yell at it, punch and kick it. From the present moment, they caress that history, offer healing touches and words. From the present moment, they raise these spirits and honor them in all their beautiful and ugly struggle. From the present moment they act as the sankofa, reaching, looking back while moving forward. They pull our past toward us, and us toward our past, not simply to see it but to feel, with body, heart, and mind, the pain, loss, hope, power.
Performing such work is not easy. It takes work. And perhaps one of the most defining aspects of both Party People and Superheroes is this work: movement, blood, sweat, and tears. All actors expend energy, but the amount of energy given in these two plays–to the other actors, to their subjects, to us, to the spirits they embodied–was extraordinary. There was movement in these plays. Dancing, running, stomping, yelling, singing. Sweat came, glistening, dripping.
But we should not be surprised. There’s movement in the air and on the streets in this country right now. And that movement takes work. Great theater or art or culture tells us where/when we are, and these plays show us and demand from us the sweat, the work that the movement in the air, in the streets, in the minds and hearts requires. They show us what #BlackLivesMatter means: that a hashtag is great cultural communication but not shit without the sweat of movement to give it the depth of meaning and power. They also tell us what we see and know right now: that people are moving, that the beads of sweat are forming. That we are ready to exhaust ourselves and that exhaustion will not make us tired, will not cause us to fall. There’s something goin on right now. That should be clear. It’s in the streets but it will be the art–that movement art, the plays, poems, songs, films, posters–that will nourish brains and hearts, allow those forests Gil Scott sang about to grow. There’s something goin on. D’Angelo released Black Messiah this week, and the other night, Kendrick Lamar performed a new song, “Untitled” for the Colbert Report’s last show. And with that same intensity of movement he told us what Party People and Superheroes also have:
“Tell em we don’t die/ Tell em we don’t die/ Tell em we don’t die/ We multiply.”
“Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/ Black bodies swingin’ in the
Southern [Western] breeze.”
-Billie Holiday (performer) and Abel Meeropol (writer), “Strange Fruit” (1939)
“It’s my brother, my sister./ At the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean there’s a railroad made of human bones./ Black ivory/ Black ivory”
-Amiri Baraka, from “Wise, Why’s, Y’z” (1995)
“7. We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.”
-Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, “Black Panther Party for Self-Defense Ten-Point Platform and Program” (1966)
Chinaka Hodge‘s recent work, Chasing Mehserle, first at the Intersection for the Arts (and then for another few performances at Z Space), ends at the beginning. Or at the ending. It ends in the ocean. With ancestors lost, found, never lost, never found. The ocean is for O–the ocean is for O-s-c-a-r: Oscar Grant.
Our guide, in charge of this chase, this hunt, is Watts Trustscott (played by Michael Wayne Turner III); he announces himself to be a cartographer: he introduces the Town–the town that you know is THE Town if you are in, from, of the Bay (the name of this blog and my hometown is/needs the “B”). He runs down neighborhood names while projected images of Oakland street maps swirl and float in the background. But Hodge is the real mapmaker here, a surveyor not only of space but time, drawing lines that connect, that show us the topography of Oakland after Oscar Grant–more accurately, the topography of Oakland after Johannes Mehserle. In this Town, Watts, unable to set foot off his front steps, watches as blond white girls whizz through West Oakland on bikes, heading… home?–heading to the buildings they now inhabit on blocks that Watts knows well, the cartographer he is, and yet is afraid to venture onto.
(Attended the first day of the culminating conference for the UCHRI initiative “The Humanities and Changing Conceptions of Work”. The day was addressed to graduate students, “Making the MA/PhD Work Post Graduation: A Career Workshop for Humanities Graduate Students”. A few thoughts…)
Graduate students in the humanities ARE the humanities.
During a panel that also featured the director of UC Press and the chief counsel for CA Department of Industrial Relations, the departing director of Cal Humanities Ralph Lewin shared the anecdote/joke/nightmare: in the process of looking for a new job, he spoke with a headhunter who said, “so on your resume you have all of this experience in the humanities… and I have no idea what that is.”
I have now been to two programs addressing the question of what to do with the humanities PhD post graduation besides teaching in higher ed (the tenure-track, the adjunct, the two-year school). In each I have heard a great deal about identifying and marketing our transferable skills (or fluencies or literacies, if you want) to those beyond the academy. In our current economy, a knowledge-based economy, the humanities PhD is well positioned, or so goes the argument. Our job prospects open up, the career possibilities multiply. All we have to do is reframe the resume, match up our skills with the keywords of job announcements: help employers see more clearly the work we can do, the tasks we can complete.
Despite the fact that ideas of “writing history” or even ideas of “history” itself are culturally specific practices and to some degree always questions about how human beings might depict the past, we (here in the present day U.S./West) still generally hold onto the notion that the most accurate representations of the past come to us through documentation of fact. Once, this meant primarily written non-fiction accounts of the past, based on archival research. Now, of course, this also includes film and TV documentaries, in which archival research is translated through talking heads and transformed into a variety of visuals: the reenactment, the evocative shot of landscapes, pans across still photographs of the relevant history, and, in the last few decades, also computer-generated-imagery of places, people, and events.
Historical fiction, in oral, then written, and now also filmic form, serve as evocative counterparts to the supposed reality of documentary, non-fiction histories. While they are often viewed as less faithful to the archive and thus less accurate, the drama, arced story lines, and image-centric nature of these works (no matter the form) are what shape understandings of the past for the the vast majority of us. These observations are by no means new, but they are worth repeating in order to stress the strange incompatibility of these two points: 1) “documentary”, “non-fiction” representations of histories are viewed as the more or most accurate take on the past, but 2) “dramatic”, “imaginative” or “imagined” “fictional” representations of the past are far more influential in popular conception of the past and past events.
Certainly writers, artists, and historians of all kinds have attempted to work with this complexity of “history”, mixing approaches and genres to varying degrees of effect and success. Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel (2010) is certainly a fictional novel and certainly a history; it does the work of documentation based on archival record and also the work of imaginative dramatization. But to my mind I Hotel achieves more than simply a well-research historical novel, and I suspect that it is a particularly compelling work because it takes up a movement. In attempting to portray the Asian American movement from 1968 to 1977, crucial years in the ethnic nationalist movements in the U.S. that grew out of the civil rights movement, Yamashita bites off far more than most can chew. Continue reading On Writing History: Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel
I know that I’m getting on this late, as it now appears to be “over.” But thanks to all the haters (anti-worker bias in the media, the lack of support and outright hostility from a lot of riders), with no contract, being “over” for now probably only means that BART management has won a little victory now and possibly bigger one later. But I just have to say something about this, considering how many negative comments I have seen about BART workers and the strike. So, for all you haters, it’s nothing personal 🙂 Continue reading For the BART Employee Haters