Arkansas’ Legislators Deny MLK’s Legacy, Fear Crossing Racist, Christian Nationalist Constituents and Donors

We’re talking about Arkansas, the state that celebrated Robert E. Lee Day on the same day as Martin Luther King Day until just 2017. (Why? Not because Lee has anything to do with Arkansas or because he shares a birthday with King. Only because adding Lee’s  celebration of King’s birthday was a way to say “f*** you” to the federal government that mandated honoring the fallen Civil Rights hero.)

King was assassinated in Memphis, right at the Arkansas-Tennessee border. (Indeed, West Memphis is in Arkansas.) I say that as a reminder that King was murdered as he was trying to fight for racial and economic justice specifically for people living on the Tennessee-Arkansas border.

When given the opportunity to honor the legacy of King by voting in support of the Poor People’s campaign, a reinvigoration of the work that King was doing when he was murdered, Arkansas legislators chose not to. Representative Joyce Elliot, a black Democrat from Little Rock, sponsored the legislation, which passed a voice vote but not a more formal vote. Republican state legislators opposed it,  arguing that Martin Luther King’s vision didn’t address “systematic racism,” police brutality, or “Christian nationalism,” which are central concerns of the contemporary Poor People’s Campaign.

Image result for Arkansas state flag

Above, the Arkansas state flag. The diamond shape in the center alludes to the state’s status as the only diamond-producing state. The 25 stars represent its status as the 25th state. The three stars below the state name refer to France, Spain, and the US, which ruled over the area at different periods. The single star about the name references the Confederacy. And the whole use thing alludes to a deconstructed Confederate battle flag.

While I don’t want to give too much credit to Arkansas’ Republican legislators, I think that they do know that King stood against racism, militarism, and the exploitation of the poor. I think that they know that police brutality was a vital concern of people who found themselves facing attack dogs and firehoses. And I think they know that King was in Memphis in order to address the systematic racism and classism that kept low-paid workers poor. I bet that they know he was disgusted by white Christian America’s war in Viet Nam. I don’t think that they learned this in Arkansas’ schools, though. I think they learned it as part of the racist lessons they learned about why King was a too radical. That is, these facts about King, which most of us think as good things, they think as bad ones.

Everything about how these people legislate says that they don’t deny systemic racism or Christian nationalism but they love these things. Of course they won’t vote against them. Systemic racism and Christian nationalism are central to their platform. As Sen. Trent Garner complained about the bill, it’s “overtly political.” And, like other Arkansas Republican leaders, his politics rely upon racism and Christian nationalism.

Rebecca

 

Banning Guns Doesn’t Make Churches a Target. Working for Peace and Justice Does.

Last week, I wrote a bit about why it’s a bad idea to bring a gun to church. I wanted to address the specific concern about mass shootings in church.

Mass shootings in religious spaces are a real concern. Even though the chances of them happening are small, the consequences of when they do happen are huge. As regular readers of 606 know, I am very concerned about mass shootings, both personally and politically.

I also understand that some faith communities have more reason to fear than others. I am not presuming to give advice to Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, or African American congregations, all of which have been targets of mass violence.

Most mass shootings are not random acts of violence committed by a mentally ill person who “snaps” and kills without thought. They are typically committed by men who plan their attacks over a longish period of time, and they choose targets they see as symbolizing some injustice that they have suffered. They harbor a deep sense of aggrieved entitlement–a belief that the world (symbolized by their target) owes them something. In this way, they are tied deeply to toxic masculinity, which sees men as superior and thus deserving of advantages; when those advantages are not granted, toxic masculinity demands them or seeks revenge for their loss. Likewise, white supremacy demands the oppression of people of color to compensate for perceived “injustices” (“white genocide”) against white people. These two factors alone–toxic masculinity and white supremacy–are powerful explanations for many of our mass shootings, even those that have occurred in churches.

For example, Mother Emmanuel was chosen as the target of a white supremacist church shooting not merely because the congregation was comprised of people of color but because the church, the site of the planning of a slave revolt, was symbolically a threat to white supremacy.  When a gunman opened fire in First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas in 2017, he was angry about a domestic dispute with his mother-in-law. Though she was not in church that Sunday, he killed his grandmother-in-law.

Image result for no guns sign on church

Mass shooters, in other words, do not choose their targets because they see a “no guns” sign on a church door and take that to mean that their victims will be easy targets. They choose their targets because they think of those targets as being worthy of death because of some perceived injury that they have unfairly suffered: their white supremacy has been challenged or their right to women’s bodies has been threatened.

The most dangerous thing that white Christian churches can do isn’t to ban guns on the premise. It’s to welcome women fleeing domestic violence and to fight against white supremacy. When they do that, then they have a reason to start worrying.

Rebecca

 

Should you bring your gun to church?

Most states permit worshippers to bring guns into churches and others houses of worship. Some require permits for conceal and carry; others do not. Some permit open carry; others do not. Some require pastoral permission; others do not. But the majority of Americans go to church in places where guns are allowed to come to communion.

The State of Concealed and Open Carry in ChurchesThis is as offensive to the sanctuary of the church as was Sarah Palin’s comparison of water boarding torture to baptism.

But, for today, I want to share some good reasons why it’s a bad idea, practically, to bring a gun to church.

  1. Unintentional discharges are far more common than the use of lethal force to repel an attacker.
  2. Police miss their targets nearly 90% of the time in high-stress situations. The likelihood that a “good guy with a gun” will hit his target is unlikely.
  3. Bullets pass through bodies easily. Even if you hit your target, you may likely hit another person.

All of this means that you are far more likely to kill someone you know and love–a member of your Sunday school class, the teenager being baptized today, the baby girl sitting in the row in front of you–than to kill someone who is a danger to you or others.

Every speck of data scholars have ever collected on this issue makes it very clear: you are in greater danger with a gun on your person than you are without it.

When you choose to bring a gun into a church, you are telling your co-religionists that you are willing to take risks with their lives because you believe that you are superior to the statistics. That’s not a decision you should get to make on their behalf.

Rebecca

Black History Month Celebration of Art and Poetry: Jacob Lawrence as Restored Beautiful Soul

This month, 606 is honoring Black History by sharing art and poetry by black artists and poets. We’ve invited artists, art historians, curators, archivists, literary scholars, poets, and others with expertise in art and poetry to share their favorite pieces of art and poems by black artists around the globe. If you find your life enriched by this blog series, say “thank you” by buying art from a black artist and poetry by black artists, visiting a museum, asking your local art museum to include more black artists, donating to an art scholarship for students of color, asking your library to stock more books on black art and by black poets, dropping off some art supplies at your local community center or daycare or senior center, or donating art by artists of color to your local school, community center, or house of worship. 

Today, we thank Dr. Robin Masi, MFA, Ed.D., for teaching us about Jacob Lawrence.

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The human subject is the most important thing. My work is abstract in the sense of having been designed and composed,but it is not abstract in the sense of having no human content…[I] want to communicate. I want the idea to strike right away.(Jacob Lawrence, as quoted in Wheat, p. 4.)

The Studio

The Studio, lithograph, 30 x 22.1” 1977
Seattle Art Museum

Why is there no Nobel Prize for art? Is the lingering Romantic perception of the visual artist—as crazy, self-involved, and sometimes even cruel, all in service to the authenticity of the artwork—a fair depiction of this type of professional? Or is it time to hear from artists themselves about the ethical and moral considerations, and level of integrity to their art, required to create meaningful artwork?

In her recent dissertation research (2018), I explore the visual artist as an alternative type of moral exemplar known as the “restored beautiful soul.”

Three ethical constructs make up the “individual factors” of the conceptual framework of the Masi Model of the Artist as Restored Beautiful Soul (MMARBS):

  1. the Beautiful, which encompasses various psychological and inherent traits of the individual and is about
  2. the Good, “moral exemplar,” which encompasses ethical principles, reflections about creative process, religiosity, influences, and philosophical writings and beliefs and is about doing.
  3. and the Communal, which encompasses aspects of moral action and solidarity and is about

One of the six artists from the study, Jacob Lawrence, is explored in this post.

The Artist

Jacob Lawrence was born on September 7, 1917 and spent most of his years in Harlem, New York. His father was a chef for the railroads, and his mother had to place him and his siblings in foster care so she could work. Lawrence demonstrated a keen early interest and aptitude for the arts that were shaped by the Depression and the urban and artistic community of Harlem. He was particularly encouraged by the sculptor Augusta Savage, who introduced him to the hiring board of the Federal Works Project (WPA).

Lawrence exhibited a driving and ambitious work ethic that defined his entire career. Although he never completed high school, he spent hours in the Schomburg library studying African-American history, which contributed to the evolving theme of early  heroes such as Harriet Tubman and John Brown.

The Library

 The Library, (1960)
Tempera on fiberboard, 24 x 29 7/8 in. (60.9 x 75.8 cm.)
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Lawrence was greatly influenced by his friendships with Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright. Hughes commissioned Lawrence to illustrate his book One Way Ticket. It was during this period that he developed his unique style, which he described as “dynamic cubism of jagged compositions in bold flat colors” (Schjeldahl, 2015).

One-Way Ticket

The Great Migration One-Way Ticket, Museum of Modern Art, 2000 x 1336

 

In 1941, he reached near overnight success at the age of twenty-four with his exhibition of The Migration Series with themes of homelessness, poverty, joblessness and the challenges faced by the traveling African American migrant from the south to the north. The sixty panels are split between the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MOMA).

In 1946, he was invited to teach at Black Mountain College in North Carolina by the director of the College, artist Josef Albers. Through Albers, Lawrence studied the meaning of color, movement, and organic shapes and refined his approach to creating a three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional surface. In a letter he wrote to Albers in 1946, he states,

My belief is that it is most important for an artist to develop an approach and philosophy about life. If he has developed this philosophy he does not put paint on canvas, he puts himself on canvas. (Lawrence, 1946)

Faculty Black Mountain College

Summer Arts Institute Faculty, Black Mountain College, (1946)
Left to right: Leo Amino, Jacob Lawrence, Leo Lionni, Ted Dreier, Nora Lionni, Beaumont Newhall, Gwendolyn Lawrence, Ise Gropius, Jean Varda (in tree), Nancy Newhall (sitting), Walter Gropius, Mary “Molly” Gregory, Josef Albers, Anni Albers.
Courtesy of Western Regional Archives

Lawrence was sometimes criticized by fellow African Americans for not expressing enough outrage and anger at the plight of his people. Having had the mixed blessing of being the “first” to exhibit, become part of, or interviewed by white artists, educators, and writers, he expressed a more positive and nuanced view of his work and personal experience being an African American artist:

I think any experience that evolves because of your ethnic background, and especially pertaining to the Negro, it’s been such a special kind of experience.

And since we as a people have not been integrated (we may never be), I don’t know, because of the physical difference…doesn’t mean that it’ll always be a negative thing but it cannot help but influence …my thinking and then my work and my whole being. (Lawrence 1968, p.19)

Jacob Lawrence’s prominence as one of the greatest American artists is further demonstrated by his election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Black Academy of Arts and Letters; his winning the National Medal of the Arts, as well as the NAACP Spingarn Medal; and his being inducted into the National Academy of Design. His work appears in over two hundred international museums. In 1974, the Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective of his work, which later toured throughout the country. He was inducted into the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983 and was Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, Seattle until his death in 2000. His work appears in many collections in the United States and throughout the world.

The Artist as Restored Beautiful Soul

The following figure identifies the categories from the MMARBS conceptual framework most applicable to Lawrence.  A summary of each of the categories follows.

Good 

Figure 1: Lawrence Top Five Super-categories from the MMARBS

 

 

  1. The Good: Ethics

One of the most compelling and challenging ethical characteristics of the moral exemplar is the ability to make the particular universal (Swearer, 2006). This means that through their action (writings, imagery, speeches, or other forms of communication), they are able to communicate their message to a very broad audience who can relate to the message. This occurs even if the work depicts a singular struggle. Many artists and writers can communicate in an autobiographical manner, voicing views and opinions based on their personal experiences. However, it is a rare individual who can take personal experiences and make them relevant in a universal message. This ability to universalize largely explains why Lawrence is such an acclaimed artist. He was able to take the “Negro struggle” and, through his choice of media, message, and experiences, transcend race and thereby open his viewers’ hearts and minds to a universal human struggle in us all.

1. The Good: Reflection on Creative Process

Lawrence speaks of his belief that simpler the form, the more powerful the message. Due to his semi-abstracted compositions and color palette, his challenging subject matter was more widely accepted, admired, and viewed. Style and color have much to do with his popularity and ability to transcend difficult subject matter.

Lynchings

Lawrence, Jacob, The Great Migration, There were Lynchings (1941)
[Casein tempera on hardboard, 2000 x 1336”]
Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.

It was found that where there had been a lynching, the people were reluctant to leave (Lawrence, in Wheat, p. 287).

2. The Good: Influences

Lawrence had a very early dedication to becoming an artist during a time when there no African Americans prominent in the art world. He speaks of being greatly influenced by his upbringing as well as the artists, writers, and musicians in the Harlem arts community.

 3. The Communal: Moral Action Imagery and Individual

Lawrence always portrayed ethical themes in his art work, which is considered a form of moral action and can best be described as social realist or social commentary. His work was rarely decorative or simply created for pleasure. He believed in art always having a message, and his message was the human struggle.

Lawrence was a committed activist. He devoted his entire life to rendering the African-American struggle in art, and through his decisions about how to present his work, widened not only his audience but also the dialogue between white and black communities.

Lawrence’s use of storytelling and captions offers viewers accessible as well as multi-modal ways (i.e., writing and imagery) to experience very difficult subject matter. Although he worked abstractly, his choice of colors, flattened features, and forms helped to de-personalize the subject, creating some distance from the more horrific nature of the events, so that his message could be understood and experienced by the widest possible range of viewers.

Given his level of success, Lawrence also took the unusual step of dedicating himself to teaching young artists, another characteristic of the ethical exemplar. Many successful artists may do an occasional stint as a visiting artist or conduct workshops; however, Lawrence taught consistently in institutions of higher education, which meant his teaching responsibilities and workload were those of a full-time professor.

Jacob Lawrence was considered the first African American visual artist. He came into prominence at an important point for the black American when various forms of incredible injustice were finally becoming into fuller public awareness. The courage he exhibited was formidable in his efforts to chronicle the “Negro struggle” at an early age  and provided an essential way to bring these injustices to light. Over the decades in which he worked, his commitment to the theme of struggle never wavered.  He began his career interested in conveying the struggle of one group; however, his ability to take this struggle and make it universal defined him as a restored beautiful soul.

References:

Harkin, Ellen Wheat. (1987). Jacob Lawrence. dissertation for the University of Washington, Seattle.

Lawrence, J. (1968). Oral history interview with Jacob Lawrence. Smithsonian, Archives of American Art. (1968).

Nicholas, Xavier. (2013). Interview with Jacob Lawrence. Callaloo, 36  (2) Spring 2013, 260-267. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Schjeldahl, Peter. Telling the Whole Story: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. New Yorker. 4/20/2015

Swearer, D. (2006). Religious belief into moral action. Coursework from Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA. Unpublished manuscript.

About the author:

MasiI am a practicing visual artist and Professor of Art Foundations with the Art Institute of Pittsburgh Online Division where I teach studio and digital art, ethics, and aesthetics courses. This post reflects part of my dissertation research: The Restoration of the Beautiful Soul Ideal in the Lives and Works of Six Visual Artists (Käthe Kollwitz, Wassily Kandinsky, Jacob Lawrence, Mark Rothko, Vincent van Gogh, Remedios Varo), (Masi, 2018: Boston University). Feel free to email me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Readings: One year after Parkland

arms blur close up firing
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

I have a column over at The Week about the one year anniversary of the Parkland school massacre. I reflect on the shabby treatment that has been afforded the survivors. Wherever you find survivors of mass gun violence, it seems, you’ll also find gun rights defenders making the survivors’ lives more miserable.

Some people might argue that by plunging into the gun debate, Hogg and other survivors asked for the treatment they’re getting — our politics are loud and ugly, and if you’re going to take a stance, you’re not going to be treated with kid gloves. Hogg, in particular, seems to give as much as he takes, which might be why he seems to be singled out for extra abuse. That kind of argument, though, suggests that name-calling and conspiracy theorizing should be a normal part of politics. Maybe it’s time to challenge that idea.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that gun advocates have to accept the Parkland survivors’ policy prescriptions. And it doesn’t meant that gun-control advocates don’t have to listen to their opponents — Kasky, for example, has embarked on a project to listen to gun rights advocates. But the Parkland students should have been treated as people worthy of respect, as survivors of a horrific crime. Because that’s what they are.

About blackface: Why not listen to black people?

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A lot of white folks really want to defend blackface, it seems.

…conservatives are wondering whether blackface — typically, the act of white people dressing up as black people by using makeup, or, in Northam’s case, shoe polish — is always racist, or whether it can be the product of ignorance, without being inherently racist or reveling in stereotypes. In short, does an action require racist intent to be racist?

Good intentions, road to hell, etc. etc…..

To this day, many white people have bristled at the notion that blackface is inherently racist, arguing that it is a tribute to the person being imitated or, as Robert H. Michel, the Republican from Illinois who served as House minority leader, said in a 1988 interview, “just a part of life” that “was fun.”

In 2008, Mel Kuhn, then the mayor of Arkansas City, Kan., appeared with a darkened face as part of a charity drag show. His character was inspired, he said, by movies like “Big Momma’s House”; The Associated Press reported that the character’s name was “a vulgar reference to female genitalia.”

Mr. Kuhn apologized publicly shortly after the performance after meeting with the N.A.A.C.P., but he sounded a defiant note this week. “There was no insult intended,” he said, adding: “You’ve got to stop this P.C. nonsense, where if I don’t say something perfectly correct, people just get disjointed.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, including what looks like an overwhelming sense of entitlement among people who use blackface. If I want to do a thing, why shouldn’t I? It’s an attitude that suggests we have no obligations of kindness or respect to our neighbors and fellow citizens, that their feelings pale in comparison to those of us who just happen to be white and, in the grand scheme of things, relatively powerful.

Here’s an idea: Why not just listen to black people?

There are a few African Americans, I’m sure, who will defend the rights of white people to wear blackface. But the vast majority seem deeply wounded and offended by it.

Jamelle Bouie:

The most popular form of entertainment in 19th-century America, which continued well into the 20th, blackface minstrelsy was defined by its caricature of and gross hostility toward black Americans. In the minstrel show, blacks — and free blacks in particular — were objects of ridicule, lampooned for seeking equality and respectability. Beyond simple mockery, the pleasure of blackface for white performers and their audiences lay in the vicarious experience of an imagined blackness — a wild, preindustrial “savage” nature that whites attributed to black Americans.

“Painting oneself hearkened back to traditional popular celebrations and to paint oneself as a Black person, given American realities at the time, was to throw reason to the winds,” the historian David Roediger wrote in his 1991 book, “The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class.” He notes later that blackface was a form that “implicitly rested on the idea that Black culture and Black people existed only insofar as they were edifying for whites and that claims to ‘authentic’ blackness could be put on and washed off at will.”

In other words, blackface is so thoroughly associated with the worst of American racism that we should expect immediate condemnation of politicians and public figures who have any association with it, even if it’s a decades-old offense.

So, white folks, try to think empathetically: Even if you think you mean well, even if you are just “paying tribute” to some African-American celebrity, the truth is that blackface will be taken as hurtful by black people. If you know that’s the case, why persist? To restrain yourself in the service of not giving unnecessary offense may be “politically correct” — but it’s also the responsible, adult thing to do.

BHM Celebration of Art & Poetry: Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues”

This month, 606 is honoring Black History by sharing art and poetry by black artists and poets. We’ve invited artists, art historians, curators, archivists, literary scholars, poets, and others with expertise in art and poetry to share their favorite pieces of art and poems by black artists around the globe. If you find your life enriched by this blog series, say “thank you” by buying art from a black artist and poetry by black artists, visiting a museum, asking your local art museum to include more black artists, donating to an art scholarship for students of color, asking your library to stock more books on black art and by black poets, dropping off some art supplies at your local community center or daycare or senior center, or donating art by artists of color to your local school, community center, or house of worship. 

Today, we thank Dr. Adriano Elia for insights into the poetry of Langston Hughes. 

Rebecca

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The Weary Blues

Above, Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues, 1926. Illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias. From the Collection of Alden and Mary Kimbrough. Image courtesy of the Museum of the African Diaspora.

In the autobiography The Big Sea, Langston Hughes recalled his childhood days in Lawrence, Kansas. His grandmother, a proud woman who looked like an Indian with long black hair, would tell him stories about “people who wanted to make the Negroes free.” In these stories, nobody ever cried, and the young Langston seemed to absorb this message fully – he didn’t shed a tear even when she died because she had involuntarily taught him the pointlessness of crying about anything. Such imperturbability proved essential for Hughes as a means to keep safe his true self.

This is apparent in a historical video broadcast on the Canadian program “The 7 O’Clock Show” in 1958, where Hughes recites his poem “The Weary Blues” accompanied by the jazz of the Doug Parker Band. Although the poem ‒ and the gloomy blues song it evokes ‒ is about the emotional condition of sadness and loneliness, Hughes’s detached delivery somehow disrupts its content. His gravitas was probably intended as a reaction to decades of minstrel shows, where African Americans were always portrayed as stereotypical caricatures.

 

Above, Hughes recites “The Weary Blues” with accompaniment by the Doug Parker Band.

Over fifty years since his death, Hughes’s contribution still resonates in different ways: in 2015, for example, the prestigious Barbican theatre in London commissioned from rapper Ice-T and jazz trumpeter Ron McCurdy a performance based on Hughes’s collection of poems Ask Your Mama. Ice-T was thus both a credible contemporary interpreter of Hughes’s person behind the persona as well as a living embodiment of his enduring influence on 21st-century arts and letters. Just consider the often-quoted definition of poetry Hughes offered not long before his death: “It is the human soul entire, squeezed like a lemon or a lime, drop by drop, into atomic words.” In today’s chaotic socio-political scenario, more than ever it is crucial for a poet to condense in few, effective words feelings and thoughts having an impact on the behavior of contemporary readers: “Hang yourself, poet, in your own words. Otherwise, you are dead.”

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Adriano Elia, PhD., is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Rome “Roma Tre”. His publications include books and essays on word-image interrelationships, contemporary British fiction, Afrofuturism, Hanif Kureishi, W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes.