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Inspired by Haile Gerima's Bush Mama (1976), Ousmane Sembene's Black Girl (1966), and Andy Warhol's Screen Tests (1960s), I shot a short vignette (an exercise of sorts) of my mother and an African mask to the poem "Si Souvent," written and recited by Leon Damas, and the song "Slow Hot Wind" by Penny Goodwin.

[Archive] African + African American Influences On Black Artistic and Cultural Production: Reading George Shepperson and Kathy Ogren

In his essay, “Notes on Negro American Influences on the Emergence of African Nationalism” (1960), George Shepperson notes the ways in which African- Americans and people of African descent have contributed to and influenced the shaping of African nationalism and Pan-African ideology. He cites figures such as Marcus Garvey (Jamaican) and WEB Du Bois (African-American) as individuals who have had a hand in influencing African consciousness on the continent. Shepperson speaks of Marcus Garvey’s influence on Kwame Nkrumah’s vision of independent Ghana, and notes that Garvey’s pride and admiration for his own skin, and blackness at large, inspired African nationalism and fueled a sense of African pride. Particularly during WWI was when Pan-Africanism among African-Americans became quite strong and vocal, and it was during this time that WEB Du Bois published a seminal piece titled “The African Roots of War.” Post WWI was also when Du Bois held the Fifth Pan-African Congress. Shepperson claims that writings from Du Bois and from figures such as James Weldon Johnson heavily inspired Africans because these texts dealt with ideas of self-determination, advancement and the claiming of one’s rights. Arguably Du Bois’ ideologies were guiding principles that then became fundamental, founding principles of African nationalist movements on the continent during independence. Though Shepperson makes clear the influence of African-Americans on African nationalism and thought, he fails to recognize the exchange of influence by not touching upon the ways in which Africans have contributed to African-American cultural/artistic production.

Kathy Ogren’s piece, “What Is Africa To Me?: African Strategies in the Harlem Renaissance” (1994), seems to provide what Shepperson could not/did not. She offers a re-consideration and re-evaluation of the ways in which Black artistic, literary and intellectual expression came to be in the United States. Ogren makes clear that there was a mutual exchange of ideas and contributions between Africans and people of African descent. She argues Africans and Africa were essential in African-American artistic and literary production during the early 20th century (when the Harlem Renaissance was birthed). She strongly highlights this point by opening her essay with a poem on Africa by Countee Cullen, a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Ogren notes that African themes/motifs serve as influential devices for “Negro” expression in art, music, and literature, and this is a key point that Shepperson does not venture to mention. Alaine Locke’s anthology “The New Negro,” for Ogren, exemplified the heavy influence of African consciousness on the fashioning of the Black Arts movement. The anthology includes essays that hinge upon Pan-African ideologies and ruminations on or about Africa, and Ogren argues the book served as a way to establish a connection between prominent African-American thought leaders and Africa. For Ogren, the “New Negro" of the 20th century, equipped with cultural, social and artistic agency, is therefore fashioned and conditioned by influences from Africa and an African consciousness.  

*This was originally written in 2015  

In The Age of Trump, A Time to Revive + Return to the Radical Imagination

Since the woeful night Trump was elected, I have been in search of a lexicon through which I could express and channel the anger that burns; the palpable feeling of living in a state of emergency and mass hysteria.  I know I am but one participant in the collective mulling over of what next and how. In what ways do we channel this smog of emotions in a manner that revitalizes, and does not demoralize those of us suffering from the grave injustices this society is built and has thrived upon? How do we keep our heads high in a society that assaults our selfhood? One that repudiates our existence? One that staunchly holds onto binaries and refuses to acknowledge and respect multiplicity? I often wonder how those before us have navigated difficult terrain, and wondered how they found the strength and coherence to articulate the intangible, emotional byproducts of struggle. I find myself calling upon the griots who bore witness to societal and moral disquiet. I find myself recalling those who radically imagined freedom and refuted any idea that this freedom was quixotic or abstract. I find myself revisiting those who were not afraid to engage in discourse of dissent, and who used their word, pen, lens, brush as swords. It is these figures I turn to – rather, return to -- for solace and guidance. I return to Aimé Cesaire. I return to James Baldwin, I return to Amiri Baraka, to Edouard Glissant, to Sonia Sanchez, to Ousmane Sembene, to Toni Cade Bambara, to Gloria E. Anzaldúa, to Audre Lorde, to Lorraine Hansberry, to Edward Said, to bell hooks, to Stuart Hall. All of whom — and countless others— have expressed raw truths through thought and artistic expression; creating a poetics of struggle through which society is forced to look at and confront itself. A poetics of struggle canonical for those of us finding ourselves intellectually and creatively fighting through the political and socioeconomic quicksand of today; the muck of right now.

Personally, of the myriad of frightening things that have come out of this post-election melee, what is particularly disheartening is a grave sense that for many young people, the spark and motivation to act, to fight and to dream will be atrophied due to this notion that the marginalized always have been, and always will be marginalized. A history-repeats-itself, this-ain't-nothing-new, defeatist attitude engenders a dangerous culture of passivity and powerlessness among young people who deserve to participate in, and should, contribute to the legacy of the collective radical imagination. To give into the thought that nothing will change, and that one does not have the power to participate in changemaking, is reflective of a false consciousness. Young artists, writers, thinkers are called on just as the artists and thinkers before us were, as the burden of responsibility is on our shoulders whether we choose to carry it or not. However, to see this responsibility as a burden is in fact a fallacy, for it is a great -- albeit daunting -- privilege. There is no better time for a revival of this imagination than now, through whatever means are available to us, and with whatever energy we have left in our reserves. Collectively we can, as Aimé Cesaire states in his essay Poetry and Knowledge, seek “salvation elsewhere in the fullness of here and now” through our respective conduits and modes of expression.

Undoubtedly the moment is very, very ripe for action and organizing, and perhaps it is time to evoke the spirits of the unapologetically radical like that of the fearless socialist-feminist, Lucy Parsons. But, what we cannot do is diminish the nuance of activism. Nor can we undermine the spark power of writing and art. The ability writing has to galvanize, mobilize and move us into action is incalculable. The power artists have to, as Nina Simone says “reflect the times” is immeasurable. Activism takes on a very different meaning depending on the person moved or called upon to respond to the cause. The question is not what can we do instead of protesting in the streets, but what can we do in addition to? Furthermore, individually we have to ask ourselves where do I start? In a great, dynamic conversation between two activist powerhouses, the late Yori Kochiyama and Angela Davis, there is a simple, yet profound statement Davis makes. When asked by Kochiyama where does it begin, Davis replies, "Well, I think it begins wherever you are, right?"[1] Right. It begins wherever we are, emotionally, mentally, geographically, and with what we have. It begins with checking in with ourselves and individually taking stock of our resources, talents and our strengths in order to build a strong coalition that rejects institutionalized oppression and bolsters counter-hegemonic culture. It also requires asking perhaps the more difficult question: What am I prepared to sacrifice? In an address to Northwestern University, the late avant-garde composer, musician, and vocalist Julius Eastman, who negotiated multiple strata of marginalization being both gay and black, defended and explained some of the controversial titles of his written compositions. In his explanation in choosing “Gay Guerilla” as a title, he reflects on the word guerilla stating

A guerilla is someone who is in any case sacrificing his life for a point of view…  If there is a cause -- and if it is a great cause-- those who belong to that cause will sacrifice their blood; because without blood, there is no cause. So therefore that is the reason that I use Gay Guerilla, in hopes that I might be one, if called upon to be one.

While being a guerilla perhaps in a Fanonian sense, as Eastman might have chosen to be, may not be how everyone chooses to respond in times of upheaval, we should all consider ourselves as guerillas. Guerilla thinkers, artists, writers, organizers who are willing and prepared to sacrifice. In order to participate in this collective radical imagination and churn it into reality, in order to continue the work of those who have come before and did not live to see complete, sacrifices must be made. Time, energy, work are required in this fight against white supremacy and cultural hegemony. We cannot be tepid with neither our action nor our imagination. The griots and luminaries before us did not just bear witness, they got up and got out with rigor and conviction, in their own ways of truth-telling.

What emboldens my faith and spirit despite the fact that we – the marginalized, the Other – have always historically existed within an oppressive milieu, is that we have a history of survival and triumph. These next four years will not prove any differently if we collectively rally, fight and continue to radically imagine. We cannot and must not shrink. We can be on the frontlines in many ways. All shades of activism are valid. Words are valid. Art is valid. For these modes are political interventions and acts of resistance. Expression is an important part of the human condition and is a legitimate weapon in our arsenal in the continued fight for self-determination. To refer to Yuri Kochiyama once more: “The most powerful weapon is truth. Go out and tell truth everywhere.”

 

 

 

[1] Conversation between Davis and Kochiyama is part of the documentary “Mountains That Take Wing by C.A. Griffith & H.L.T. Quan