Race-work, Race-love

Radical Thinkers: Hopeful Artists

In Uncategorized on November 9, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Artists. Some people write, paint, sing, cook, talk, dance for a living. Those who do it well are often deemed artists. These people perform their art to activate, inspire, motivate, create. They don’t keep it to themselves. They share, teach, preach, and love what they do – despite cynics around them.

There are poets like Sor Juana Ines de La Cruz. She is known as the first feminist of the Americas. A seventeenth century nun living in Mexico (New Spain at the time) her desire was to study and learn. Stuck between being a hooker or a wife (adult options for women at the time), she chose to be a nun. She didn’t want to be a nun. In fact, she questioned religion all the time. She fought to be a nun because the other alternatives would not have allowed her to learn. So what happens to women living in the seventeenth century who question men and their society around them? They get accused of being cynical, inappropriate, sinful. Eventually the powers that be burned her library down and made her promise to stop writing about secular issues. Despite all this, she left behind valuable and inspiring work.

When I think about the limitations imposed on women of color, in particular those in the ivory tower, the academy, I think of Sor Juana.

There are artists like Frida Kahlo. She digs in her gut and puts on display the gut-wrenching moments in her life that women understand but have a difficult time sharing. Often called harsh, difficult, tortured – Kahlo still inspires others to do the same. Go in your gut. Explore what is in there. Share with others. Encourage others to do the same. Put it on display.

When I think about race-work, I think of the painful gut-wrenching moments in our society that people want to continue to sweep under the rug, call it the past and say it is not worth exploration, say things like I don’t see color so move it along, and call those who do see disparities depressing. I think of Frida, who wasn’t afraid to show her gut and make people face that gut. Her work helps us explore that “funk” – as Dr. Cornel West would put it.

There are artists like the Black Panthers and The Young Lords. They took protest and power to the people to a whole other level. Not only did they fight for a better more just society for Black and Brown people, they also worked to provide school breakfast and lunches for low-income children, tutoring to young people, and distributed information to the community about what their current rights were and what their potential rights could be.

When I think about taking writing, talking, and educating to another level, I think of them. When I think about how our history books, government, and people tarnish if not obliterate this part of history because they misunderstood these two groups, I think of them. They weren’t afraid to serve their communities armed with information and at the same time arming themselves from a government all too willing to help us self-destruct – economically, socially, academically. I think about the power of groups – the people – when I think of the Black Panthers and The Young Lords.

Back in the day, it was unlikely and difficult to keep up with these artists. Unless you knew them personally, your connection to them was through their works of art. Today, in the age of the internet and Facebook, you can follow these artists. And you learn in more detail why they work on their art. Tim Wise, for example, teaches me about White Allies, people who show their racial-gut and share their work to help others along an anti-racist agenda. Others like Miriam Jimenez Roman continue to teach Latin@s and everyone else about the Afro-Latin@ community. Another one is Roberto Lovato, journalist, writer, activist whose personal background (being from El Salvador) has made him a champion for the education of Central American issues and the ways in which the US has contributed to the country’s painful deterioration. Out of the rubble comes out a writer whose work brings out the gut of the US’s shameful hand in the economic and social destruction of Latin America.

Indeed, his work is sometimes hard to read. He has coined the term Juan Crow to help us understand the current state of undocumented immigrants in the US. His stance on the Obama administration is also a rather difficult one to digest. Pointing out how destructive the administration’s policies are on certain groups is radical information to me. Until a conversation I had with him recently, I didn’t understand why he would be so against another personal hero of mine. Too radical perhaps for me, I was probably accusing him of the same things that people have accused me of – too depressing, too sad, to cynical.

Radical. Revolution. Report. Respect. React. Race. Work. Love.

Lovato provided me with a little bit of what his opinion was on the Obama administration, why he points out the ills of the administration, why we are blind as a people to information that might help us rethink our opinions.

Radical right? God forbid we should have more information to better inform our opinions.

I often hear that radical thinkers are often cynical, negative, doomed. Instead, what I learned in this conversation was that while some people have hope in one man, he has hope in the people. Given the right information, people might possibly even react, revolutionize, demand. He firmly believes that if more people understood what exactly was happening (which probably be more apparent in a McCain administration) then perhaps the people would finally revolt, take charge and change things. Bring us “back into balance” as he writes in his latest article.

So in the end who was the more cynical one? Me, who has little hope that THE PEOPLE would change, demand, react and placed so much hope in ONE MAN. Perhaps because the people have disappointed me. Perhaps because picking up on some of the work would be time consuming. Or maybe because I still believe that this one man can do it all.

This thought – a hope placed in a community of well-informed people — gave me hope in a different way. I realized that “radical” thinkers are not so fatalistic as we are often taught to believe. In fact, this is the total opposite: they have more faith than we give them credit for. They are the ones that truly understand that one man cannot do it all – and that by putting our faith in one person – we are relieved as a people to do less work. We put the blinders on — we want to believe that this individual can create miracles , heroify him, put him on a pedestal, bring him down when he makes mistakes, and wipe our hands clean of the mess left behind.

Lovato, like the other artists mentioned, help us identify ways we heroify individuals at the expense of our own created fantasies of how we would like things to be rather than face how things actually are. They help us put our gut on display. They distribute. They talk. They write.

They recognize the dangers of heroification. And at some level, we “the people” know this too. We do this in many areas in our lives. Love-relationships, mentorship, even putting these artists themselves on pedestals – call them heroes too.

In essence, the work of the artist, then, is of vast importance. Understanding the limits and questioning society and one’s own profession (as Sor Juana did), do some gut-wrenching work, some down and dirty funk created by our society (allowed by us) and putting it on display (like Frida Kahlo did) putting all this information and spreading it like wild fire (like the Black Panthers and The Young Lords did). And then creating the space and dialogue between individuals who wish to continue this work – one who knows more to one who desires to know more and start all over again.

Creating new knowledge is the work of artists. Passing along that information is also part of the work. Acknowledging what is today, is the precursor to our imagination to what could be and allows us to move forward in Racial Truth. To recreate our Racial Divine.

But that is my hope. My race-love. My race-work.


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