EJS has been fortunate to work with Tanene Allison on the past, especially when she worked for the National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights. The topic of dissent and the role of artists in helping us more towards a new and improved American democracy is something that resonates with our work. This was originally published Apr. 1 on The Huffington Post.
“Why am I compelled to write?… Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it.” – Gloria Anzaldua
I have been thinking a lot about the role of artists and writers in this new era of our American democracy. As we emerge from an eight year period where any form of dissent was inherently labeled “un-American,” you can feel our country struggle to regain its footing around how best to move forward. Newspapers are shutting down at a rate previously unseen and everything about how we think and get our information is shifting in ways that requires creative thinking and a visionary ability to see things that have never yet be.
O, let America be America again — The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be — the land where every man is free.
– Langston Hughes
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for after all, or so we have chanted and been told. I remember the night Obama first uttered that line — in his speech on Super Tuesday, as our nation realized that the Democratic primaries would draw on for some time. As soon as he said it, the historian friend I was with turned to me and we both shouted at the same time: June Jordan!
The late great June Jordan is still one of the most published African American authors you’ve likely never heard of, and she originally wrote that line at the close of one of her poems about the role of women in the unrest of an Apartheid controlled South Africa.
And who will join this standing up
and the ones who stood without sweet company
will sing and sing
back into the mountains and
even under the sea:
we are the ones we have been waiting for.
It was a poet who gave our nation, and new President, the words that led to our visioning of how this time of potential and possibility could become real. Back when few thought a black man named Barack Hussein Obama would become President, we needed some visionaries out in cold Iowa, door knocking and caucusing, to remind us of what was potential. June’s words later came in to give us a way to speak about what we were doing.
As we deal with a financial crisis, the level of which we have not seen since the Great Depression, and as we emerge from a time of secrecy and torture, the role of artists is becoming more prominent as the nation re-envisions itself.
Elizabeth Alexander became the fourth poet in the history of this nation to read at an Inauguration when she read her Praise Song at Obama’s historic Inauguration. Obama believed a poet was needed in this time.
As an active Obama supporter and poet, I had cause to think about Elizabeth Alexander when Obama chose the anti-gay Rev. Warren to give the invocation at the Inauguration. I, like many of my LGBT peers, was displeased, to say the least. After years of too little sleep and campaigning in all sorts of states in all sorts of weather, always as an out lesbian, I felt betrayed by the decision.
The LGBT community — as is too often the case — was in many ways the first case study of how a community responds when they feel as if a President they supported let them down. Some decided to boycott the Inauguration. Others brushed off the decision and said that it would politically be a poor idea to express any discontent.
I was not happy with either of those options, particularly as I had spent so long convincing my community to actively support Obama, because I believe he would actively support us. And I got my fair share of angry or hurt emails and voicemails from friends and supporters. As a poet, and one trained by the late June Jordan that poetry is often urgent and the most necessary form of protest, I wrote a poem expressing how I felt, and then proceeded to post it everywhere online and send it to everyone I knew. In fact, I also sent it to a few folks I didn’t know, including Elizabeth Alexander, whom I had read also was a poet mentored by June. Elizabeth read my poem and wrote in response in minutes.
Dissent is a tricky art. As is the visualizing of a nation that is better than the one in financial ruin that we have inherited. Taking Obama’s suggestion, I say we call in the artists.
Justin Bond, formerly of the Tony-nominated Kiki and Herb, has been traveling the country, singing original songs about the state of our economic crisis and using his songstress ways to, as he puts it, “cast spells,” for a better America. In between cabaret songs, he banters about how he hopes some of the bailout money serves to get him health coverage, and bemoans some of what he sees as Obama’s missteps, before declaring to his audience that Obama is not some “Post-Modern slave sent to do all the work to save us from our own crisis.” And then he sings Marat/Sade. That’s one way of viewing it.
Or there are the words of punk musician and poet, Patti Smith, posted on her blog on Inauguration Day:
“We pray he will be a good man and we a good people.”
In every community and everywhere you look, artists are leading the way in visualizing how we can emerge from this time and actively engage in pushing a government so many of us support, so that it can be a government we are also proud of. There is the “Change You Want to See” Gallery in Brooklyn, offering a space for this thinking. And the gloriously beautiful and insightful blog meets artwork series In The Pursuit of Happiness, penned by Maira Kalman in the New York Times. All over this country, writers and musicians are pausing in their lives of trying to survive, like we all are, in this harsh economic crisis, to pen ideas of how we can be a better collective people than we’ve most recently been.
There is no simple policy answer for how we get from this point to a better place. There is also no simple answer for how a country relearns to be democratically healthy and engaged in the continual crafting of a government, particularly during the times between elections. But, for what it’s worth, I would suggest we take time to head the words of the artists around us. As the writer Rachel Syme put it as we entered into 2009, “This year is one where we need beauty and innovation and smart people and new ideas more than ever.” Here’s the valuing those things, wherever we are lucky enough to find them.