Mosaics Make Beautiful Murals

In case you missed it, this is a repost from last year!

By J. McKinley

At times the Black community seems so disparate it’s a wonder to me that we identify ourselves as a community at all. We were separated from our origins (African ancestry) as a whole, and that brings its’ own loss. But, furthermore, our community was ravaged by the very systems that brought it into being. White supremacy was about subjugating one “group” of people (Black people) to placate and control another (poor white people). The construction of race as a social category was about power, money, and control.

It was never meant to allow us the space to build a collective identity. And yet, here we are, left to pick up the pieces and sew them all together to form one as yet unrecognizable patchwork quilt.

Race is a social construct, which means our community has no biological basis to tie it together. The history of the African-American community is young, and inevitably tied to marginalization. This means our community has very little positive historical basis of connectivity. We’ve had to build a culture from the ground up. It makes so much sense to me that in trying to do this we’ve neglected to acknowledge and celebrate the diversity of backgrounds and experiences that the Black American community encompasses.

We’ve forgotten how different we really are.

We’ve forgotten the beauty in that difference.

I understand survival, but I don’t think it’s healthy or productive to paint ourselves in broad strokes to seem more cohesive. Mosaics make beautiful murals.

So, you might ask now: what does recognizing and accepting difference entail? At the most basic level I believe it means being willing to listen, to see your own experience as just one of many valid experiences, to use inclusive language, to disregard generalizations, and to acknowledge your own privilege.

I myself have had to do some unpacking of my own identity to really parse out how I relate to the world, and how very individual my lens is.

I am:

  • Middle-class
  • cisgender
  • Able-bodied and nuerotypical
  • Born in America

And these are only a few ways that I embody privilege. Few people consider the circumstances of their birth to be a privilege, but these are things to consider when analyzing how my experience as a Black woman in America may not be the same as someone else’s.

Too often we hone in on race as the defining factor of our identity. Maybe it’s because it is a very visible marker of difference (both in an everyday sense, and in a wider societal sense, race has been so visible). There is so much more to people, though, and one aspect of identity does not disappear just because the group of people we’re with can only identify and identify with another.

There’s this  idea that only one identity can be important, recognized, or prioritized at any one moment. I think this happens naturally in in-groups. Intersectionality, as defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, addresses this misconception and unpacks it.

Intersectionality is a term coined by American civil rights advocate Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to describe overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. Intersectionality is the idea that multiple identities intersect to create a whole that is different from the component identities. These identities that can intersect include gender, race, social class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age, mental disability, physical disability, mental illness, and physical illness as well as other forms of identity.[1] These aspects of identity are not “unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but rather…reciprocally constructing phenomena.”

In simpler terms, we’re all complex beings. None of us are one dimensional, and there should be space made for the fullness of that. We don’t have to restrict ourselves to the narratives we’ve been told about who we are as Black people.

Black people are queer. Black people are Muslim. Black people are autistic. Black people are bipolar. Black people are trans*. Black people are deaf. Black people are of Puerto Rican, Haitian, and Caribbean descent.

The time has come to open ourselves up to the conceptualization of Black people, Black Americans, as relating to one another in all of these ways, because we cannot create safe spaces within our community if we disregard our whole selves.

Read more on Intersectionality: Article__Mapping_the_Margins_by_Kimblere_Crenshaw

 

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Art for Social Change

“Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”

When you hear this song or read these lyrics, you can’t help but feel the eeriness of seeing a body hanging from a tree. The music, the words, Billie Holiday’s voice paint an image so clearly that you are almost transported to that place. This is an example of art being used to promote social change. First recorded in 1939, it was written in 1937 as a poem to protest the lynchings of African-Americans. While the lynchings peaked at the turn of the century, they still continue to happen, even today. Art can be used to increase awareness of injustice and as a form of protest. Art can move you and help you to connect to others to develop empathy and to understand each other’s experiences. Art, such as poetry, songs and dramatic presentation can be used to examine social issues, promote social change, and enhance positive self-esteem. See, that’s the benefit of art! Artivism (Art used for activism) is so powerful! No matter who you are and what your experience, art can help you to see things from another point of view.

It can also help those who are oppressed to process what they are going through and to begin to heal. Similar to narrative counseling theories, the telling of your story in prose, poetry, song, or monologue helps one to deconstruct experiences and increases awareness of hidden elements (Sanders, 2011).

“Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh”

A few years ago, while going through a difficult time, a friend began to write her feelings and before long she had a book of poems/prose she created to express what she was feeling. She said, she didn’t know why but it made her feel better, stronger even, to get her thoughts on paper. The healing power of words in art form is known to most. Using poetry and art for expression or healing is common (Raab, 2013). It is even being used by medical practitioners and in medical schools (Coulehan & Clary, 2005; Holmes & Gregory, 1998).

“Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop”

I used this song from the 1930’s but artists continue to release protests songs, plays, poems and visual arts today. Because of the internet, they are reaching a broader audience. There are many artists who uses their medium to promote social justice. Here are a few:

  • Akosua Adoma Owusu, a Ghanian film maker who uses her medium to evoke conversations between Africa and America;
  • Justyne Fischer, whose artwork expresses the grief, anger and sorrow of the murders of unarmed Black men; and
  • Jeff Stetson, a writer whose play, “The Meeting”, imagines a conversation between Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcom X at the height of the Civil Rights Movement

I close with the lyrics from TI’s “We will not” in protest to the shooting of unarmed Black men and to ask the community to stand against injustices in Black communities:

“No we will not stand here in silence
While they take the lives of our brothers and sisters and partners.
We will not turn a blind eye to the murder with no repercussions.
No we will not
We will not live on our knees, we will die on our feet
This ain’t no lie that I speak”

No, We Will Not!

Do you have a story, song or poem in you that needs to be told for your healing or to inspire social justice? I encourage you to find your “artivist” voice and create!!

(Cover image and other work by Justyne Fischer can be found at http://www.justynefischer.com/home)