On Creative Activism

Paul Robeson High School is in Englewood, one of Chicago's most dangerous neighborhoods. The area is also one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, with a median income of $18,955.  In Chicago Public Schools, only around half the freshmen who enter high school will earn their diploma.

Photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz, caption courtesy of The New York Times. Paul Robeson High School is in Englewood, one of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods. The area is also one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, with a median income of $18,955. In Chicago Public Schools, only around half the freshmen who enter high school will earn their diploma.

In April of 2008, at approximately 11:00 pm, a family of three was found slain in a house in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, across the street from a school where I had just spoken to middle schoolers about my writing career and the best paths to college. I discovered this misfortune upon exiting the building. Officials informed me I could not leave the area because of yellow tape which snaked around the entire block. It enclosed the car of  another speaker who offered me a ride home after I had arrived in a cab. Police first arrived near 11 a.m., when the students finally filed into the school’s auditorium for an assembled panel’s address to them, at about the moment the winds of change prompted concerned relatives to order a police wellness check for the family they had not seen in days. As the scene began to escalate around noon, many were told it would be 3-4 hours before a vehicle’s exit could possibly disrupt the crime scene on the block. Whispers began that parents could storm the school for their children.

The principal prudently lowered the blinds around the building, so that panic would not erupt inside the school due to awareness of what is going on outside. I finally called a yellow taxicab, navigated through the thick of witnesses at the crime scene and met the cab two streets over to take me to an appointment for which I was late. By the time the children were dismissed around 3 p.m., I had been gone from the scene for almost two hours; I cannot speak to what these children’s after-school was like. This year, I passed that block. I instantly recalled that day. I became upset and depressed. The house appeared to stay standing. The kids running on the block, past it, looked happy and carefree and average. People often wonder if the Black creative, who is conscious of active nation building, has the responsibility to reinforce that the circumstances around which too many Black Americans must exist do not constitute many options and are, in fact, dangerous to our humanity.

Any prominent Black person with a public or community persona has the power to spread the message that it is possible to enjoy lucrative and rewarding options in life. Yet, when do we speak out and when do we shut-up: “It’s not me [anymore],” or “I made it, so can they,” or “I’m not getting involved” or “I just don’t have time now”? The truth is many young people in that school auditorium, at least one who raised his or her hand to confess to a love of writing, will quite possibly go on to write a book to bear his or her name one day. This possibility is stronger than murders on a city block. Who would not want to fight perceptions of its impossibility? Yet, many creatives I know mostly want to be inspired and work and produce: outside of a dictated responsibility, beyond a message, without racism as a muse, just like everybody else. Right?

One advantage of disadvantage is contradiction, and contradiction invites correction precisely because it confuses and temporarily shakes. The contradiction in the upward mobility of any nationally-disadvantaged group or individual is that the demand to constantly validate their existence and reinforce credibility will follow like a haunting, no matter what form the group’s or individual’s cultural expressions take. So, in that respect, I was a published author who was no different from the children I addressed in one of Chicago’s most economically-troubled and resourceless areas. In any audience of youth I speak to, of course there are doubters and skeptics to my advice and interest in them—at such young ages, sadly. They are correct to mistrust the idea people could see them for who they are and really want the best for them. Somehow, creative people move past that in order to produce art and entertainment no matter what most people might think. Often, it is our exposures of the most raw emotions and unseen spectacles of life which make our work strongest.

However, any group will admit the yearning and pangs to create become strongest during terms spent in less-than ideal environments or situations. Writers write and singers sing of heartbreak. Film directors are often spurred on by tragic circumstances. Groups of artists collect for projects based upon protesting a current injustice. What makes this natural tendency so complicated for Blacks is our heartbreaks, tragedies and injustices never seem to end. We could stay stuck simply watching the local television news, poring over headlines and walking in your average majority-Black geographic area to remain creating from problems, violence, sadness, misfortune and stress. After while, this takes a toll.

Of course, I was sparked to pull out my notebook and computer on that day in April, as I walked away from those babies in that school, a storm in my mind and spirit about what these children and I were inadvertently involved in on an average day. I chose not to write a word about it, and to put it away until obviously now. It was my birthday month. I had a trip to Madrid, Spain, to look forward to. I was involved in graduate school classes on books and subjects I really enjoyed. I just could not “go there” right then. A vast divide and range of experiences must occur before an evolving person may internalize that the unfortunate circumstances such as the one experienced by these Englewood children are rhythmic traumas alone. They do pass. They do not have to become the final clue the possibilities of life have died as well. Strong, successful voices—scholars, artists, professionals, enlightened, what have you—who know this secret have the tools and means to inform the masses. Who else will share it is possible to go to school one day and come out to find three dead bodies, who must somehow be honorably removed from the house in which they once lived across the street from your school?

The people who would tell those stories best and most sincerely are the people who have lived through them, who know them well or who have intimate relations with people who faced such lives. What happens when Black creatives become healthy and prosperous at living out a counter-narrative, away from drama, and they just want to go on with their lives? Now, we live in the age of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Hadiya Pendleton, Michael Brown, too many more not as well-known. It appears there is more pressure than ever for talented and creative people of color to weigh in on these tragedies, to subdue natural inspiration and topics organic to our souls for the sake of “conscious” creation, to depart from the enjoyable song and dance of the rewarding successful artist life in order to “speak out.”

At a time when our nation has our First Black Family ever, our creative works and expressions come forth in the quilt of a neo-Black Power movement of outrage, which was last most necessary in the 1960’s: when our people were hosed down and denied voting rights and segregated. Mass commercial appeal and monstrous corporate endorsements aside, the celebrity couple Jay-Z and Beyonce tucked themselves in a distant corner of a Trayvon Martin rally last summer, to join the rest of us in grief after George Zimmerman was acquitted. Jamie Foxx is largely responsible for making the haunting image of a whitewashed Trayvon in his hoodie popular in a t-shirt. Rapper and entrepreneur Nelly, a St. Louis, Missouri, native, stayed on the frontlines of the frantic and unprecedented eruption of Civil Rights era-level protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over Michael Brown’s murder. Thousands more influential creative people and Black artists exploded over these more famous sadnesses and more—and continue to cry out about the state of our people in our nation—via Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr.

This form of creative activism has been criticized, coined ‘slacktivism’ for its enactors’ virtual absences from the day-to-day lives of those who need most help. It saddens me this view exists. I see it as a powerful indication of Black Americans’ primal solidarity. Blacks have always harbored village mentalities: no child starves in Black neighborhoods, the elders stay at home and out of nursing homes, the homeless receive shelter within a night, the churches operate as community centers, people prefer not to go to the police but to confront criminal misbehaviors head-on. The expectations of protest and community activism for Black creative, scholars, artists, entertainers, etc… are too high and seemingly insatiable. This greater expectation put upon us along with complaints of what we do–large or small–are just evolved forms of oppression, degradation, discrimination and the same racism which insists: “You will never be good enough.”

Because of the complicated and conflicted spaces Black Americans occupy in this country—at once trust fund babies to the “American Dream” just like everybody else, but inextricably connected to the largest group of people oppressed by color in this entire world—it is impossible to run away. The most we can do, in every education and economic and professional industry bracket, from the average teacher or business professional holding down a gentrified block to the rare Black celebrity who enjoys unimaginable wealth to the authors and artists with blogs, is to approach our “responsibility” and ability to create a “message” on a case-by-case basis. It must depend on what responsibilities we have in our own lives and the severity of what demands our participation; otherwise none of us will be strong and we will lose all of our collective community resources. No matter what, it is impossible not to see, to stay silent, to fall asleep oblivious, to do absolutely nothing. This is a reality shared by all of us, whether we are creative people or not.

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