If you’re in London in the next week, and you’ve not yet visited the Soul of a Nation exhibition at the Tate Modern, let this be encouragement to see it before it closes on the 22nd. If that’s not you, let this be a way to enjoy some excellent art. Content warning: some of these images are violent. Super important and well done, but potentially disturbing. Copyright note: I believe this falls within the Tate’s photography requirements of “personal use.”
The Soul of a Nation at the Tate Modern is one of the most challenging, upsetting, and thrilling art exhibitions I’ve been to in years. Before you even enter the exhibition space, you can watch snippets of speeches from five leaders of civil rights, Black Power, and liberation movements (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, and Angela Davis). You see Stokely responding to MLK and Malcolm X, James Baldwin teaching Europeans about American racism, Angela Davis taking a broad and pragmatic view of how the struggle fits in her life and she in it. This introduction to the exhibition is small but important. It situates us firmly within the black community in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s. We’re not hearing what white people thought about the issues or what approach white people thought black people should take; we’re hearing how black people had this discussion amongst themselves, and the myriad approaches they took to dismantling systemic racism and building a better world.
Once you enter the exhibition space, with the voices of cultural and political leaders still ringing in your ears, you immediately meet the artistic leaders. Let no one tell you that art and politics don’t interact: the Spiral artistic group was formed in direct reaction to the March on Washington in 1963, so members could discuss how to represent black folks in their art, and how to fight political battles in their art.
My favorite thing about these two paintings by Norman Lewis is how they talk to one another. “America the Beautiful” on the left is a collection of white figures on a black background, which as you look more closely you see is a KKK rally, taking over the canvas and popping up almost randomly, like you never know where they’re lurking, intending harm. “Processional” on the right is a collection of white figures on a black background, which as you look more closely you see is an energetic crowd of people marching forward. It’s the Selma march, and as the museum placard suggested, the gradually widening scope of the view of figures is like a flashlight leading through the darkness. Two similarly simple approaches, two radically different results.
The next room cleverly combined art of the Black Panther group (mostly from their paper but also from posters they mass-produced to reach more people) and murals painted in black neighborhoods in cities across the United States — this room was “art on the streets,” art that was made to inspire and fire up. Some of the murals have fallen into disrepair, but I know I’ve seen some — or some like them — on the south side of Chicago, although I can’t recall if I’ve seen the Wall of Respect, one of the first murals to go up during this time.
Some of the stories behind the pieces I was familiar with, and others were new to me. I did not know about Fred Hampton — Black Panther activist shot to death in a raid by Cook County cops after being drugged by an FBI informant. I did not know that during his trial for conspiracy and inciting a riot as part of the Chicago Eight, Bobby Seale was ordered bound and gagged in the courtroom by the judge because the judge didn’t like his outbursts. (Also Seale’s later prison sentence was not for the original charges but for contempt charges the judge applied during that trial.) Archibald Motley, who painted “The First One Hundred Years” over a ten-year period, never painted again after he completed this work.
Other groups and collectives formed, including the Weusi collective, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, AfriCOBRA, Smokehouse Associates, and many others. A few of the rooms in this exhibition feature work from just one or two groups, so you can get a good sense of the general approach and what they focused on.
A room full of collage, sculpture, and found object art had some truly chilling pieces. Betye Saar’s work is deeply affecting — titles that seem carefree like “Sambo’s Banjo” and “I Got Rhythm” are attached to mixed-media punches to the gut. Each tiny item in each piece adds layers of meaning — the little crucifix at the bottom of a lynched man in “I Got Rhythm,” the toy gun nestled in the top of the banjo case so Sambo might have a chance of resisting and surviving in “Sambo’s Banjo.”
Walking into the AfriCOBRA room midway through the exhibition was like walking into an air-conditioned building after walking for miles in summer heat, a relief. The AfriCOBRA manifesto was explicitly hopeful: they wanted an aesthetic of “rhythm,” “shine,” and “color that is free of rules and regulations.” They made works to lift people up, and they reprinted them for wide distribution, so that black people all over the country could be inspired by positive images of black folks. Which is not to say that this isn’t itself a challenge, because it certainly challenges the white supremacist myth that black people are inferior and not worth celebrating. And in fact most of the art was explicitly political as well, like the work by Gerald Williams reminding people “don’t be jivin” or Wadsworth Jarrell’s portrait of Angela Davis, made up of words from her speeches radiating from the center of the painting. Make no mistake, representation on your own terms is a powerful form of resistance.
One of the debates within the black artistic community at the time was whether abstract art could be considered part of the movement as a whole. Abstract artists argued that because the art was theirs, and they were black, it was therefore part of the political black art movement. It’s like improve in jazz, William T. Williams said, and then he painted Trane, named for John Coltrane, which I think is an excellent way to win an argument.
There was a room on photography and how different ways of developing film brought out different skin tones in the black subjects; there were connections to the wider Black Arts Movement and samples from poets who collaborated with visual artists; there were many reminders that one of the constant themes in black liberation movements of 50 years ago was an end to police brutality — for all those who want to talk about “how far we’ve come”; there was a Spotify playlist you could listen to on your headphones during your walk around the exhibition and which I listened to after, getting pumped up to Gil Scott Heron as I strode along the Thames. There was so much to see, read, and absorb. Much gratitude to the artists who fought the good fight and explored their own creativity during the 1963-1983 period explored here, and beyond.
Organize. Educate. Resist.
We have one month left before we’re in 2017, and although it’s tempting to just curl up into a ball until it’s over, we know that we need to prepare to live in a Trump world. (For the many people who see how this year has just pulled back the mask on what wasn’t all that well hidden to begin with – I hear you. I’m sorry it’s taking some of us so long to figure it out.) Okay, so let’s live in this world, let’s make it as good as we possibly can, and let’s do it together.
I used to be a weekly churchgoer, and the rhythms of the church year still echo in my life. The season leading up to Christmas is called Advent. Advent is a time of preparation, during which Christians prepare for the coming of the savior of the world. They prepare for the end of the world as we know it and the arrival of a better world we can barely imagine. This year, we are preparing for what certainly feels like the end of the world, and it’s hard to see anything beyond it. Trump is the opposite of a savior, no matter how he brands himself in his populist speeches. So this year we need to prepare ourselves to be our own saviors, to save ourselves from what we’ve allowed to happen. (I’m speaking mostly to my fellow straight white cis folks here – people of color and queer folk have been doing the heavy lifting since forever.)
This election seems to have served as a wake-up call for many of us. It’s not right that it took a loss that will devastate so many lives and alter the fabric of our democracy to serve as such, but here we are. So now what? is the question I see most frequently on Facebook, Twitter, in the news. There are a lot of good answers out there, from better thinkers than I. Read them, discuss them with friends and family, take action.
But for what it’s worth, here is my “what now?” response. Advent is a time of preparation, so let’s prepare. For each day of December, I’m going to take concrete action that makes me more prepared to resist the Trump presidency, or that offers some resistance now, or that contributes something good and kind to the world. Some of these actions can be done anywhere in the world, and some are US-specific.
I also think it’s important to do a mix of overtly political and more community-building or “good deeds” type things. Especially if you haven’t been politically active before, you may find this a little intimidating, but what we’ve seen from the way Trump’s campaign was run, and now after the election, is that white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia play a prominent role in people’s political decisions and everyday lives. Coaching Little League builds community, yes, please keep doing that — but also see how you can assist your local Black Lives Matter chapter, to build community in that way as well. And artists — keep creating, always. Artists are vital.
Will you join me for this month? Especially for people who wouldn’t normally consider themselves political, or who don’t have much experience with activism, I tried to make this an accessible collection of things to do that will show how easy it is to fit these things into our busy lives, and how it’s not that scary to do.
If you have suggestions, please comment. Share this with anyone you like. The key is to take action, and to do it together. So call your mom, talk to your coworker, make a new friend, and go all in. As Angela Davis recently said, “How do we begin to recover from this shock? By experiencing and building and rebuilding and consolidating community. Community is the answer.”
Here is where I was going to put the calendar, but I can’t get it to embed. So please click through to the Advent Calendar for Social Justice. Be sure to click on each day to see notes and useful links with further info for each action item.
This calendar is intended as a helpful tool for people who want to do something, but aren’t sure where to start. I hope it will help you sample different ways of taking action, so that in the new year, you’ll be better prepared to really dig in to volunteering, donating, and organizing roles. I’d love your feedback. I consider it a live document and will adjust it as necessary.
Shout-out to Liz and Emmett for providing excellent advice and action items.
Resources for Educating Yourself and Taking Action:
Accomplices Not Allies
A List of Pro-Women, Pro-Immigrant, Pro-Earth, Anti-Bigotry Organizations That Need Your Support
Oh Crap! What Now? A Survival Guide
Opportunities for White People in the Fight for Racial Justice
“We’re His Problem Now” Calling Sheet
What Educators Can Do to Support Undocumented Students
What to Do Instead of Calling the Police
Organizations Fighting the Good Fight:
American Civil Liberties Union
Black Lives Matter
Council on American-Islamic Relations
National Center for Transgender Equality
National Coalition for the Homeless
National Disability Rights Network
National Women’s Law Center
Showing Up for Racial Justice
Southern Poverty Law Center
Sylvia Rivera Law Project
The True Colors Fund
I got a rush on Saturday that I hadn’t felt in years, the kind I get when I’m in a large action with other people, all of us united for a common cause. I’ve been traveling around for the last three years, so I haven’t been in the kind of protests I joined in Chicago or my hometown. It felt good to join in with tens of thousands of people (estimates range from 70,000 to 250,000) and raise our voices on behalf of the many. And the many were saying–forget austerity, embrace true prosperity for all.
Austerity in Britain has had the usual effect of making the poor poorer and the rich richer, and the new cuts to social programs being proposed and implemented now will drastically change the fabric of British society, in a way that we Americans have a hard time understanding, because the Brits started with more than we’ve ever won for ourselves. To lose these social programs is truly devastating.
I marched with friends in the National Union of Teachers block, which had the benefit of putting me in a group that I’m entirely comfortable with and fully supportive of (pretty much everyone I know is a teacher), and putting me right near the start of the march. By the time we walked the 2.5 miles from Bank in the City of London to Parliament Square in the City of Westminster, some people at the back had barely made it past the starting point.
We stood pretty near the stage in Parliament Square and listened to an impressive succession of short speeches. The organizers kept the people talking to a maximum of three minutes each, and everyone was on-message about how these cuts would hurt the most needy of society, and how the Conservatives won the election but they hardly have a mandate for austerity, and how we all need to keep up the pressure to change these harmful policies before they get any farther. (Not to mention they want to ax the Human Rights Act and re-fund the nuclear weapons program, which is so impossibly backwards it must be the premise to a dystopian sci-fi novel.)
Over and over, they reminded us that it wasn’t the nurses and teachers who created the financial crisis, it was the bankers. It’s not the millionaires who need these programs, it’s the disabled, the domestic violence victims, the hungry. And it’s not the UK that’s going to thrive in austerity, it’s the bankers and millionaires.
I live tweeted some of the speeches, so most of these I don’t have proper attribution–I wasn’t familiar with all the speakers so I don’t remember all their names.
‘We’re the 6th richest nation on the planet, don’t tell me we can’t afford the NHS’
‘If you make our lives unbearable, we will make this society ungovernable’
‘If they thought they won the war with austerity on May the 8th, they need to think again’
‘They were worried about that building crumbling [pointing to the Houses of Parliament]. I’m more worried about democracy crumbling.’ Caroline Lucas
‘It looks to me like socialism is far from an anachronism. It’s back in fashion. Keep fighting, this is just the beginning’
‘David Cameron, you are wrong. This is what I call an opposition!’
‘Our victory will be your victory’ message from Greece
‘If you think the rich should pay their taxes, shout as loud as you can’
‘I’m proud to be British because of our national health service, our welfare system, and David Bowie’ Charlotte Church
‘Austerity is about divide and rule. It’s about destroying the things that give us our humanity so the powerful can stay in power’ Francesca Martinez
We left during Jeremy Corbyn’s speech (he’s the only candidate for Labour leader who’s anti-austerity–vote accordingly!), because you know, after several hours marching and rallying, nature does call. (Apparently I missed Owen Jones and Russell Brand, both of whom I wouldn’t mind seeing sometime.)
So the final speech I heard in full was from Francesca Martinez, a comedian I’m not familiar with but definitely want to hear more of. Her speech was my favorite. She celebrated the social programs of Britain as examples of humanity at its best, and she decried the actual evil of those who want to cut them down to nothing as part of a program to fix an economy that those same people in power broke in the first place with their banking schemes. We must fight for these programs in a fight for our better selves and a better humanity. She said, ‘Every one of us has a duty to each other to protect what is beautiful about being human.’ I can’t think of a better way to phrase why I went on the demo on Saturday–and why I’ll go to more.
I voted in the UK for the first time yesterday (my mom is British so I have citizenship, fortunate me). Everyone told me how easy it was, and that was not a lie.
First, I went online to register. I entered my National Insurance number (which is basically proof of ability to work based on my citizenship; the number is used on tax forms and things). If you don’t have such a number, they have other questions but you may still be able to vote. Then you enter your address so they can determine your constituency–and here’s the big difference from voting in the US.
Back in the US, a lot of states are making it more difficult to vote, by insisting on photo ID, stripping prisoners of the right to vote, insisting students only register in one district, not permitting temporary addresses, etc. In the UK, the registration site explains how to use the right address if you’re in a hospital or prison, if you’re a student, and even if you’re homeless. If you can’t provide an address at all, you can contact your election office and you may still be able to vote. This is great! This is removing barriers to voting rather than creating them. That’s what we should be doing.
For the actual voting, I went to my polling station, which was literally around the corner from my house, stood in line for 7 minutes, gave my name to an election officer who checked it off a list, took my paper to a booth, and put an X next to the candidate of my choice. Dead simple.
The election may not have gone as I’d hoped, but the process of registering and voting gave me hope for how we might help enfranchise people back in the States.
Watching the murderers of Mike Brown and Eric Garner walk away unpunished in any way has been infuriating and heartbreaking. These two cases (and there are more cases coming to light every day, such as that of Tamir Rice) highlight the extreme racism and injustice at the root of American law and culture. Following people on Twitter and reading blog posts and articles linked from Facebook has helped me learn more and direct my energies and monies to movements that are responding on the ground (since I’m in London and can’t be there in person to march).
I’ve compiled some pieces here for Learning and Taking Action. This is mostly for my fellow white people, since a lot of this is explanatory in a way that people of color don’t need to hear because they’re living it. There are a range of pieces, from beginner to advanced stage anti-racism, so don’t be scared if you’re new to listening and talking about race in an informed way. Certainly I’m not any kind of expert, but a lot of the writers here are, so please take a look. I can especially recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates, Melissa Harris-Perry, Jay Smooth, Janet Mock, and Latoya Peterson as people to follow, read, and learn from.
Let’s not look away. Let’s look this straight in the face and tell it where to go.
Please go to the comments to share any other links you’ve found helpful.
If you’re only going to read one link from this post, read this one by the excellent Luvvie. It’s smart and comprehensive but succinct, and she uses funny GIFs.
White and not really understanding why people are so upset about Ferguson and Eric Garner? It’s probably because you’re mostly talking to other white people–that’s the norm in the US, as this article explains. Time to broaden what you read and who you talk to.
Here’s an even more accessible article on how acknowledging white privilege and working against racism doesn’t mean you have to hate white people, just the terrible racist system that white people put into place and now perpetuate.
The devastating new rules for being black in the United States. My friends have a baby not yet two months old, and knowing he’ll learn these rules makes me furious.
Eric Garner’s widow, Esaw, is not accepting the apology of her husband’s killer. She’s furious, she’s grieving, and she’s not letting Pantaleo make himself feel better by getting her to forgive him.
Bevin’s great collection of resources and reflections over at Queer Fat Femme highlighted this article, which reveals that #BlackLivesMatter is a specific movement founded by queer black women. It’s good to be aware of the origins of this widely-used hashtag.
Ta-Nehisi Coates continues to be one of the foremost writers on a lot of things, but especially race. Here he talks about Obama’s reaction to Ferguson, and what the system is set up to do and not do.
One piece of laminated plastic means this Vassar College professor experiences humiliating, dangerous situations rather than life-threatening situations –and he’s never allowed to forget it.
Don’t repeat the ignorant ‘but what about black-on-black crime?’ question. Coates has you covered.
We like to think that the non-indictments in the Eric Garner and Michael Brown case (and the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin) are evidence of flaws in the American justice system, but this straightforward piece argues that they’re just links in the chain of a justice system doing what it’s designed to do–oppress people of color for the benefit of white people in this country.
Steps to take as a white person if the Ferguson case is just shaking you awake to the trenchant racism alive and well in the United States. Self-educate and get involved! (I especially like the intro, in which the author Janee Woods wonders why so few reactions to the case appeared on her Facebook wall–something I wondered about when looking at my wall, too.)
You want facts to convince you of the unfairness of what happened? You want convincing that protests are worthwhile? Check out this post on how to talk about Ferguson and the aftermath.
Support people taking anti-racist action in the aftermath of Ferguson by making a gift to various organizations. ‘Tis the season, right?
Do you interact with kids as a teacher, parent, guardian, relative, friend? Here’s a great resource on how to talk with them about what’s been going on.
If you already consider yourself an active ally, take a look at this piece that challenges us to be accomplices rather than allies.
Don’t contribute to #CrimingWhileWhite–keep the focus on #AliveWhileBlack.
AND SOME HOPE
Look, redirect your money for militarizing police forces to these trainings instead, and eliminate police killings of citizens in under a decade! It truly is a culture we can change, not a given we must resign ourselves to.
Happy Labor Day, fellow Americans! I hope you’re all enjoying barbecue with loved ones. For my friends outside the US who may not know, Labor Day is the American version of May Day; it used to hold a lot more power as a holiday recognizing workers’ rights, but now it’s generally seen as the the last party of the summer. Let’s take a moment to remember why we get to have the party.
Especially this year, when we’re remembering the March on Washington 50 years ago, I think it’s important to be grateful on Labor Day for the protections and opportunities we have, while we fight for the ones we’ve lost or haven’t gained yet. The nationwide attack on teachers–especially nasty in Chicago–in the guise of helping students. The “right-to-work” laws passed in 24 states (an amazing semantic victory for the right). The gender wage gap. Crippling student loan debt–and the recent doubling of interest rates on those debts. Blocked immigration reform. An unlivable minimum wage. Minimal support for new families, especially mothers in the workforce. Legal discrimination against LGBT folks. There’s a lot about employment in the US that needs fixing. (Click on those links to see groups that are taking action; you can join them.)
Obama’s speech this past Wednesday was pretty good, but the line that adapted MLK’s famous one is great: “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.” He then urges everyone to continue fighting the good fight, a point he makes in a lot of speeches but far too frequently contradicts in his actions as president. Still, he’s not wrong. The reason we have the workers’ rights we have is because people fought for them, and not just the union leaders and lobbyists paid to fight for them. People who were tired after a long day at work then went out and rallied in the streets, wrote to members of Congress, went on strike, made changes to local laws, talked to their friends and neighbors about what was going on, elected leaders who promised to fight the fight with them. You don’t have to come home from work tired and angry with workplace injustices and your lot in life. You can come home from work tired and happy with the work you do and the conditions you work in. You can come home from work fired up to make work a place you want to return to.
So raise a toast to the unions and workers of yesterday and make a pledge to join with the ones who are fighting for a better life today. Because Labor Day means a lot more than the last day of the season to wear white.
July 13, 2013 has been a date I’ve looked forward to for months now, as the date I’d be back in East Lansing, seeing my family and friends. It was a great day for me, but as I learned from the paper the next day, it was a terrible day for justice in this country. George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin, and the Stand Your Ground law of Florida is now firmly established as a law that does just the opposite of its supposed intention: it is now legal to intimidate and chase down an unarmed teenager, then shoot them dead after 911 tells you to back off–and you can do it all while claiming you’re the one being victimized. I heard someone say they weren’t surprised by the verdict, but I say you don’t have to be surprised to be outraged.
One of the major differences between the United States and other Western countries is that we are the only country that not only sees gun violence as a sad but inevitable part of normal life, but that fiercely defends those who want to keep it that way. Literally everyone I’ve met from another country can’t comprehend the American approach to guns. We actually have a hard time discussing the issue, even, because the idea that civilians can be so casually and heavily armed is utterly foreign to them.
A lot of people want to know if I feel safe traveling in cities around the world, and I tell them I lived in Chicago for five years, which has one of the highest gun homicide rates in the country. I’m no safer at home than I am abroad, and in many ways I’m less safe, in the most mundane of locations: movie theaters, elementary schools, even the fat ladies store I shop at–all of them have been fatal sites of gun violence. Someone had easy access to a deadly weapon, and they used that weapon in a public place, injuring, killing, and terrorizing people trying to live their daily lives. This happens far too often here. I am happy to be back in the States for many reasons, but I’m certainly not feeling safe here.
And I’m not black, or poor, or in an abusive relationship, or any of the other factors that make it far more likely that you’re going to be attacked by someone with a gun. It’s a scary thought for me, but it’s a terrifying reality for millions of people across the country. The racism evident in the shooting, the arrest, the trial, and the verdict is abhorrent, and an integral part of the problem of gun violence in the US. How is this a situation we’ve come to accept as a nation? How is this a country we want to live in? Surely we all want better, safer lives. Sign the petitions, call your representatives, and don’t let up until the gun lobby is defeated and we have strong gun laws in place. It’s the least we can do in memory of Trayvon and the others killed by armed Americans, and the least we can do for our own future.