Kehinde Wiley & Ta-Nehisi Coates

In this Black History Month of 2017, I wonder if anyone has thought about inviting artist Kehinde Wiley and journalist/author Ta-Nehisi Coates to appear together on the same stage. I think this would be an exciting and provocative conversation between literature and art.

In Between the World and Me, Coates is writing to his son. He wants to prepare him for navigating through this world as a Black man. There are some practical things his son needs to know. What struck me as a reader was the corporeal reality of the African American experience that he describes.

He writes, “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”

Again and again, he reminds us that Black bodies are being defiled, plundered, controlled, taken, broken, shattered. The violence is historic and continues today. He believes that “The larger culture’s erasure of black beauty was intimately connected to the destruction of black bodies.” As a father, he understands that his son is his own individual, but he wants his son to understand the history and context of the ongoing devastation appearing in the news: Black lives being destroyed by our police forces, being incarcerated in high percentages, being demoralized, disempowered, and experiencing little justice.

Coates wants to educate his son about the reality of being Black. The dangers. The assumptions. The judgments. The “justifications” for violence. The anguish of this father should give pause to all thoughtful Americans.

Coates’s feelings and observations are valid. American history confirms his thoughts and feelings about the racism in our country. At the same time, Kehinde Wiley is changing the narrative of Black American lives with his paintings by bringing attention to the bodies of Black people, by reclaiming them in works of art, in elegance and beauty.

Wiley says, “The history of painting by and large has pictured very few black and brown people, and in particular very few black men. My interest is in countering that absence.”

I saw his work for the first time in a stunning exhibit “A New Republic” at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) about a year ago. Wiley is a Black American living and working in Brooklyn and Beijing. His use of large canvases displays the remarkable faces and bodies of African Americans—people whom the artist has often pulled off the streets of America. These people are not only immortalized in his paintings, they perhaps are given the chance to see themselves differently, important and larger than life. Empowered instead of disempowered.

When I saw these paintings, I recognized some of the postures and accoutrement as the same ones featured in other portraits of European nobility, warriors, other men of power living in earlier centuries. Many of his paintings are huge, impressive. The viewer cannot help being impressed by a painting that fills a wall; artists in earlier centuries and their subjects understood that sheer size does convey messages of wealth and power. However, instead of White Europeans, Wiley depicts contemporary Black men of varying ages and hues striking these poses of power often against a background of elegant wallpaper or vibrant flora.

Wiley is committing an act of revolution to subvert how people might see Black Americans and what they hear about crimes involving Black Americans. It’s an act of empowerment. Unexpected and unforgettable.

While culture and politics have appropriated Black bodies to the needs of the dominant White culture, Wiley has appropriated portraiture elements of Western art to make a statement about Black lives. He is reclaiming and reminding us of the beauty of the bodies and faces that some would judge and condemn.

Wiley’s art is a quiet revolution. It won’t change the hearts and minds of racists. It won’t stop the violence against Blacks. But it reminds people that Black people are diverse. They are strong. They have dignity and grace. The SAM brochure describes Wiley’s work: “Elevating people of color, giving them a sense of presence and visibility in countries or cultures where they were long absent from representations of power, is at the heart of this endeavor.”

Coates and Wiley are two Black American men expressing themselves eloquently. Their messages are similar, yet different. One uses the power of words, while the other, the power of visual art. We need both to completely understand the Black American experience.

Black History Month is really for all Americans. It is an opportunity to be informed and hopefully recognize that all of our histories are connected in One America.

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Performance!

I am a writer, not a performer. However, I have done public readings, which is a form of performance when done well. Recently, I read with eleven other Seattle writers in a program called “Listen To Your Mother” (LYTM). Feeling the energy in the room from the audience and from each other, we were all transformed. We had rehearsed before the event, but everyone stepped up and gave more of themselves during the program, a performance anthology of stories about mothers and motherhood.

It was magical! See for yourself. Here’s the link to my performance. You can also watch the other fabulous writers; I still laugh and cry when I see/hear them.

 

After this performance, I began thinking about what happens during a live performance. What makes live performances so exciting? When I go to a theater or concert hall, why do I feel a little nervous, this low hum of electricity in my body that makes me breathless?

From a performer’s perspective, I want to do my best. I want to convey my story, let the words flow through my body in an expressive way that the audience can relate to. I had practiced how to use my voice for emphasis, dramatic pauses, and to include a variety of intonations. I had practiced using my body to communicate a shift in the story, to look and connect with the audience.

On the day of the performance, we lined up to get ready to go on stage. We all felt some combination of excitement and butterflies. We got the signal and began walking to our chairs. When the audience started clapping during our entry, I teared up. I thought, “They want to be here! They want to hear us!!”

We sat on the stage and gave our attention to each writer as she took the podium. We all loved each other’s stories and had quickly bonded during our few meetings. We gave each other our attention, love, and support, and we could also feel this from the audience, mostly family and friends of the writers. But they were sending positive energy to everyone, not just the one writer they knew.

When I took the podium, I was still teary from the initial welcoming and the wave of support I felt from the audience.

It’s not easy to take the stage. When artists, whether musicians, singers, dancers, actors, or writers, perform live, we are communicating our art to connect with an audience. We strive for perfection, but mistakes can happen. But so can brilliance. Anything can happen when art is being created. In the moment. Right here.

Honestly, I am more comfortable being in the audience rather than on the stage. I find it magical to watch another human making art, to let the words or the music wash over me, to feel the rhythms and sounds, to experience the story come alive with the staging, lights, sets, and costumes all working together with the performers—the various elements coming together and coalescing into something whole and unique and hitting all my sensory receptors. Even in a public setting, this experience can feel intimate, like sharing a secret.

Any time people are performing, the audience becomes an integral part of that performance. The audience is not passive. There’s social interaction with those who accompany you and perhaps with other audience members. The fact is, when someone chooses to leave the comfort of their homes to be present in a particular location, they are making a decision to interact. With other people and with the performers. It’s an unconscious contract. It’s an energy exchange, this flow from the stage to the seats in the auditorium, concert hall, or even the park; whether it’s laughing or crying, holding our breath, feeling shock, applauding or booing, the performers can feel the audience and its moods, and they respond accordingly. The audience offers both silent collaboration and dynamic, spontaneous responses.

I am so, so grateful for having had such a wonderful, supportive audience at the LTYM event. Their energy contributed to our success. They were moved. We were too. Dare I say, together we were brilliant!

The Sounds of Jack Straw Writers

Sound is the focus for the Jack Straw Writers Program. For writers that would be our voices. We participated in voice and microphone coaching and had a performance workshop.

We learned:

  • how to use our voices optimally when reading our words
  • vocal exercises to warm up our voices before a performance, just as musicians warm up their instruments
  • thoughtful phrasing and pauses to allow the audience to hear and savor the words instead of running the words together like water from an open faucet
  • the importance of practicing and keeping to the allotted time for our readings in order to respect both the audience and other writers on the program.

The program offered us many opportunities to perform. The sounds of our voices and words in both poetry and prose found appreciative audiences all over Seattle and even in Portland.

Practicing excerpts from my memoir gave me another revision tool. I paid more attention to each word when I practiced aloud.  I could hear the wordiness, or when a stronger or more precise word was needed, or when shorter sentences would be more effective. While poets work with the sounds of words, this prose writer is still learning this important craft element: learning to listen to the sounds and rhythms of words.

For our final reading in November 2014, each of us was paired with a musician from The Bushwick Book Club, who had read the pieces in the 2014 Jack Straw Writers Anthology and then composed some music to represent the writing. We had no rehearsal and did not hear the music until the night of the performance. Each writer read a very brief excerpt before the musicians took the stage at Hugo House.

It was mind-blowing! Somehow the musicians had managed to capture the essence of each writer’s work. They were truly amazing! They do this year-round, interpreting published work, mostly well-known books and classics, into music.

I had never expected my words to inspire someone to write music. It was an honor to be a part of this creative endeavor–an honor and a thrill. The musician assigned to me happened to play the ukulele; Jon Yoon composed “Local Life” after reading my essay “Being Local.” I loved it!

Support local artists! Go to performances of writers, musicians, dancers, and actors.

As a writer, artist, and lover of performing arts, I will also continue to listen.

February is Black History Month

In the space of one week, I attended an art exhibit at the Northwest African American Museum here in Seattle “The Fabric of Our lives: Tales of Dirty Laundry, White Sheets & Bodies–In Parts,” saw the movie Selma, and read Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped.

I had not intentionally planned to immerse myself into African American history during this last week of January, but the confluence of images and stories was a great reminder of the ongoing struggles of African Americans that unfortunately we are still witnessing.

I am interested in this history as an American because we Americans need to be aware of all our history, especially those pieces we are not proud of, because they impact our present. I also have a vested interest in this history as a woman of color; this history of racism and prejudice is similar to my Chinese ancestors’ history in America, and therefore, the strength and courage of African Americans to survive and fight for their rights have paved the way for me and other Americans, who have been and are disadvantaged, different, and non-white.

Artist Anastacia Tolbert has created artwork influenced by her slave ancestry. The exhibit runs through March 22. It is provocative and uncomfortable. If you get a chance to see it, and I highly recommend it, take a break between viewings. Although it’s not a big exhibit, there’s a lot to take in and process. The paintings and other elements in the exhibit may appear benign at first glance, but the violence of white people against their slaves is the real story here and inescapable.

Selma. This is a great movie with fine actors. If you don’t know the history of the struggle for Civil Rights, then you should see this movie. If you don’t remember this history, then you need to be reminded. Again, this will be uncomfortable to watch, but necessarily so. The violence and injustice against Black Americans has continued into the twentieth century from the time of slavery.

Men We Reaped puts faces on the tragedy of racism. Here we are in the twenty-first century, and we Americans are still struggling with this issue. Ward’s casual tone belies the urgency and fatalism of the characters. Despite the darkness of despair that she reveals in her poor Black community in Mississippi, her writing shines a light of love and compassion on her family, community, and the lives of the young men lost.

Ward writes:

Racism, poverty, and violence are the primary factors that encourage depression in Black men, and I’d guess that this is true for Black women as well. Seven percent of African American men develop depression during their lifetime, and according to experts, this is probably an underestimate due to lack of screening and treatment services. They will not get care for their mental disorders….Not treating these mental disorders costs Black men and women dearly, because when mental disorders aren’t treated, Black men are more vulnerable to incarceration, homelessness, substance abuse, homicide, and suicide, and all of these, of course, affect not just the Black men who suffer from them but their families and the glue that holds the community together as well.

I gained a deeper appreciation for Black parents who justifiably fear for the safety and well-being of their children. This fear is profound. This goes back centuries to broken families, whether from abductions in Africa or the selling of slave children away from their parents or random killings of Black people. Black parents carry generations of grief, fear, and Injustice. And it’s a heavy weight.

Kudos to these artists for their courage in sharing and reminding us about their pain, which truly affects all of us. Until someone writes the whole history of how greed and oppression built our country, we would do well to review and understand African American history, the legacies of our slave culture, and also the many, many contributions of the Black men and women in our communities throughout America.