Commencement Address at Hampshire College

“Obviously, they don’t mind illegals coming in. They don’t mind drugs pouring in. They don’t mind, excuse me, MS-13 coming in. We’re getting them all out of here…Members of Congress who will be voting on border security have a simple choice: They can either vote to help drug cartels and criminal aliens trying to enter the United States, like, frankly, the Democrats are doing. Or they can vote to help American citizens and American families be safe. That’s the choice. Who do you want to represent you? We’re finding the illegal immigrant drug dealers, gang members and killers, and removing them from our country. And once they are gone, folks–you see what we’re doing–they will not let them back in. They’re not coming back.”
— Donald Trump, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, April 29, 2017

“The free world…all of Christendom…is at war with Islamic horror. Not a single radicalized Islamic suspect should be granted any measure of quarter. Their intended entry to the American homeland should be summarily denied. Every conceivable measure should be engaged to hunt them down. Hunt them, identify them, and kill them. Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all.”
— U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, Louisiana Republican, June 5, 2017

“You cannot rebuild your civilization with somebody else’s babies. You’ve got to keep your birth rate up, and that you need to teach your children your values.”
— U.S. Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, March 13, 2017

THE FANTASY-fueled discussion that the election of Barack Obama in 2008 ushered the United States into a post-racial period has come to a stark and dramatic end. Far from post-racial, what we are seeing at the highest ranks of government is open fawning toward white supremacist and white nationalist ideas and politics.

The Ku Klux Klan and David Duke endorsed Donald Trump. His candidacy was met with enthusiasm from white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other organized racist hate groups. Steve Bannon, a self-described architect of the so-called “alt-right,” is Trump’s chief strategist and has an office in the White House. It is not hyperbole to say that white supremacy is resting at the heart of American politics.

And it is a deadly serious matter. It can be measured by the weight of the bodies of those, known and unknown, who have paid the price for the normalization and sanctification of racism, bigotry and hatred in this country.

Ricky John Best. Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche. Richard W. Collins III. Nabra Hassanen. Srinivas Kuchibhotla.

Since the election of Donald Trump, people who may have been considered the racist fringe have been emboldened and activated to engage in intimidation, violence and even murder. From Washington, D.C., to Portland, Oregon, from the East Coast to the West, racist violence has been documented.

In the 10 days after Trump was elected, there were 900 reported incidents of hate crimes. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in 40 percent of those cases, Trump’s name was used when victims were attacked.

Between January and March of this year, the Council on American Islamic Relations received 1,597 complaints. Of the verified reports, nearly half involved abuse by representatives of federal agencies. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Department of Homeland Security officers were implicated in 23 percent of those complaints.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

CAMPUSES OF all varieties have been targeted for racist hate speech. Between November and the end April, there were racist incidents at 284 primary and secondary schools and 330 incidents on college campuses. These numbers did not include a flurry of neo-Nazi and other racist posters that went up in the weeks after the election and then during Black History Month in February.

The right views college campuses as sites of political struggle. At its national meeting in April, the National Rifle Association’s vice president, Wayne LaPierre, said, “It’s up to us to speak up against the three most dangerous voices in America: academic elites, political elites and media elites. These are America’s greatest domestic threats.”

Its no coincidence, then, that college campuses and universities are under attack by groups like the NRA and right-wing media sites that publicize and more fully articulate their agenda. Part of the attack includes trolling students and faculty members–parsing closely every word they write or say and then deliberately twisting and distorting those views to egg on and fuel their readerships and viewerships. In effect, right-wing media, in particular, organize racist and sexist cyber-mob attacks not just on faculty members of color, but they specifically target any faculty who speak out against racism.

Campuses have become easy targets for manipulative campaigns aimed at scaring administrators into admonishing, but more importantly disciplining, or if possible firing radical and left-wing faculty. When administrators act in this way, it is an act of surrender that will not bring quiet, but feeds the mob and invites a continuation of these orchestrated attacks.

And it is orchestrated. Fox News published a story–based on a story originally published by Campus Reform–about my commencement address at Hampshire College. In my opinion, both news organizations published the story with the intention of activating a racist mob made up of its readers and viewers. Fox ran various news stories about my 19-minute speech four days in a row over a holiday weekend.

As a result, I received 54 e-mails in a span of five days. Here is some of the content of those e-mails:

“would not piss in your mouth if you were dying of thirst, lib bitch FUCK YOU, FUCK LIBS”

“I read about your nasty tirade against the president.. Have you ever, just for a moment, considered counseling, a good shrink, or if all else fails, a .44 round to the brain?”

“If Trump is what you say, you are a dirty ass coon dyke cunt. Jus sayin…Cunt..”

“Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a stupid FUCKING NIGGER!!! Burn in HELL Nigger!!”

“Saw your tirade bout Mr. TRUMP…u like your isms, “race ism, corp ism,” and so on. Be clear, what you preach is 105 percent NIGGER ISM…fuck you and your hate speech!”

“Hey nigger keep you keep talking down on the President of the United States we will try you in federal court for hate crimes and have you lynched”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

FOR THE right wing, it’s not just the thrill of victory in humiliating weak administrators, but there is the agenda of isolating, intimidating and ultimately silencing radical faculty, staff and students. The university is one of the few places in this country where, if you are a faculty member, you can freely express your politics and radical ideas.

The right seeks to kill that atmosphere while simultaneously benefitting from it. If nothing else, the right wing recognizes that part of the political struggle is the battle over ideas. That is why alt-right, neo-Nazi Richard Spenser was on a campus speaking tour in the spring that will resume in the fall.

The right doesn’t want to just have fistfights over its presence on campus, though they love the free attention that comes with it–but they actually do want to speak on campus. They believe that their ideas can get a hearing. And make no mistake about it, they can get a hearing on campus and off campus.

But the onslaught of racism and repression are not just about hate speech, the racist cyber mob or nasty fliers placed on campuses. It has real implications when those sentiments are reflected in the government itself. It leads to violent attacks. It has led to murder.

And it has to be organized against in numbers that demonstrate that they are a minority and our side–the side against racism, murder and the terrorism of the right wing in this country–is the majority. They are confident right now because our side has yet to mobilize in a way that reflects that we are the majority.

But the violence of the right is obviously not the only problem. The most profound and dangerous aspects of the Trump agenda can be found in the growing list of policy initiatives to remove regulatory protections while emboldening agents of the state to act against oppressed and exploited individuals across this country.

In other words, the actions of the racist fringe have been amplified in the policies of the Trump administration. Consider as a single example the case of Jean Carlos Jiménez-Joseph.

Jiménez-Joseph, a 27-year old Black Panamanian immigrant, was taken into custody by ICE in March. He was placed in solitary confinement for 19 days after he hopped from a second-floor landing to a first-floor landing, instead of using the stairs, breaking the detention facility’s rules.

After spending 19 days in solitary confinement, he hung himself. When officials in the private detention center where he was held found him, an ambulance was called, and he was driven to a hospital 35 miles away, where he was pronounced dead at the hospital.

In the first 100 days of the Trump administration, ICE has arrested more than 41,000 people–a 37 percent increase over the same time period last year. ICE agents are arresting, on average, 400 immigrants a day. Some 11,000 immigrants of those immigrants had no criminal record at all.

The Muslim travel ban, in combination with a policy of endless war across the Middle East, underpins an unrelenting campaign against Muslims led by the Trump administration.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE GROUP of people who may ultimately absorb the brunt of Trump’s policy changes are African American. Black people suffer from disproportionate poverty and certainly from racism in this country. As a result, African Americans have historically called upon the federal state to intervene to defend against racial discrimination that runs rampant in the private sector.

Because Black people have been poorer because of discrimination, we have relied on the federal state to improve conditions through vigorous defense of existing civil rights legislation as protection against discrimination, while also pursuing affirmative policies aimed at lifting and improving the material conditions of Black citizens.

The efforts to dismantle the “administrative state,” as Steve Bannon puts its, will have a devastating impact on those who need those protections. This is clear in the Department of Education, where officials seem to be avoiding even platitudes professing a commitment to racial equality in education.

It certainly applies to the misnamed Department of Justice, where the administration is calling for an official return to the kinds of law-and-order policies that created the conditions of “mass incarceration” by rationalizing racial profiling as a crime-fighting tool and signaling to police departments across the country that there will be no pretense of reform or oversight–and that they are empowered to harass, arrest, beat, detain and even kill whomever they choose.

These moves are known and understood by many, but the rollback of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) protections is just as dangerous.

Black and Latino communities live in closer proximity to toxins, whether in the form of poor air quality, abandoned industrial site, active industrial sites, highways or railroads, and more. As a result, nearly half of Latinos live in counties that do not meet EPA air quality standards, for example.

The Flint water crisis has tellingly demonstrated the intersection of racial discrimination and environmental degradation. It is not only evident in the fact that city officials allowed Flint’s water supply to have dangerous levels of lead, while doing nothing to clean it up.

But when a city employee in Flint was asked about the water crisis, he said, “Flint has the same problems as Detroit — fucking niggers don’t pay their bills, believe me, I deal with them.” This wasn’t a public official, but given the fact that Flint’s water is still polluted today, it would not be difficult to envision a public official saying the same thing.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THESE ARE the three components of Trump’s racial regime: anti-immigrant hysteria, Islamophobia and anti-Black racism.

But racism in America is never just about racism for racism’s sake. It is always in the service of a larger agenda.

In the case of Trump it is obvious. It is no coincidence that the racism animating much of Trump’s politics accompanies a harsh and draconian economic agenda intended to gut the living standards of the entire working class.

In other words, Trump and the Republican Party explain the inequality experienced by workers–white workers in particular–as the fault of Mexican immigrants who steal jobs; or the fault of Black criminals who make us unsafe; or the fault of Muslim terrorists who make us spend billions on defense. And meanwhile, they pursue policies intended to destroy the living standards of those same workers.

The ruling elite doubled down on the idea that the least powerful among us is responsible for the hardship experienced by millions in this country–while the rich white millionaires and billionaires at the helm of the government are innocent bystanders.

During the campaign, this was not just an appeal to white workers–Trump used scapegoating to appeal to Black workers as well. Donald Trump’s campaign drafted a “New Deal” for Black America, which included a 10-point plan. Number seven of that plan was a crackdown on “illegal immigration.” Trump’s campaign website explained:

No group has been more economically harmed by decades of illegal immigration than low-income African American workers…We will suspend reckless refugee admissions from terror-prone regions that cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. We will use a portion of the money saved by enforcing our laws and suspending refugees to reinvested in our inner cities.

Scapegoating and lies: the essential ingredients of the Trump candidacy and now the Trump presidency.

But here is where the cynicism of both liberals and the right converge. Both think very little of ordinary people–the much-maligned working class.

On the right, they believe that a steady diet of racism and war is enough to satisfy the appetite of working-class white people. This is what Kellyanne Conway meant when she got into a post-election argument with Clinton surrogates and sneered, “Do you think you could have just had a decent message for white, working-class voters?” It is also what Donald Trump meant when he bragged that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York and not lose any support.

Among liberals is a similar attitude, in which ordinary white workers are boorish Neanderthals who eat and drink racism, bathe in their privilege and are an unchanging ignorant bulwark against any and all progress in the United States.

Of course, what has been lost in this stultifying picture of race, class and consciousness is that the bulk of Trump’s support did not come white working-class people. According to the most recent reports, only a third of Trump voters made less than the national median income of $50,000. Another third made between $50,000 and $100,000, and another third made over $100,000. According to one study, Trump received one in four votes from whites without a college degree making under $50,000 a year.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE TWO main things that stand out about the election are: one, Trump lost the election by more than 3 million votes. And two, tens of millions of people did not vote. There are 238 million eligible voters in the United States, and slightly more than half of them voted. That means that more than 120 million people did not vote.

Of course, we know that the Republican Party continues to try and find ways to strip Black voters of their right to vote, but there is an even bigger reason for such a dramatically low turnout. Neither party offers a serious attempt to grapple with the vicious inequality that exists in this country. They used to say, “There is no alternative” to the status quo and to inequality. Now we can look at them and say, “They have no solutions.”

Those people who continue to insist that we give our support to the Democratic Party while getting nothing in return have lost touch with reality. The reason that 120 million people did not vote in last year’s election is quite simple: tens of millions of ordinary people do not believe it is capable of delivering the changes that are necessary to make their lives better. You cannot run a candidate who is a millionaire and who collects speaking fees from the most powerful banks in the country on Monday and then turn around and insist she’s for ordinary and working class people on Tuesday.

Barack Obama promised to change Washington. He promised hope and tens of millions of people believed him. And then we experienced eight years of the status quo, and in some cases, worse than that.

Angrily repeating that Trump is worse–and he undoubtedly is in every way–won’t change the fact that people want something to vote for–and simply saying that they are not Trump or the Republicans is not enough. What are you for?

Instead of grappling with this issue, the Democratic Party stays transfixed on Russia. The mass media is obsessed with finding the smoking gun that finally connects Trump to some Russia scandal.

Meanwhile, they ignore the ongoing assault on working-class life and living standards in this country. They turn the hardships and anxieties of white working-class people into a caricature to explain their supposedly unquestioned support of Trump, while simultaneously ignoring the hardships and anxieties of Black working-class life altogether.

How else do we make sense of the utterly vapid commentary from the Trump administration in response to the crisis of guns and violence in Black communities across Chicago?

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the spokesperson for Trump–if you can imagine a worst lot in life–said last week that shootings in Chicago were an issue of morality. It was as callous as it is ignorant. But it is also the exact same thing the Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama have said for years, whether it was Obama complaining about the absence of role models in Black working-class neighborhoods or Emanuel blaming Black parents.

What none of these elected officials will do is tell the truth: that poor and working-class African Americans in Chicago have been abused and abandoned. Through a combination of public policy and the private actions of banks, real estate brokers and universities on both ends of this city, residential segregation has been entrenched and enforced for almost 100 years.

Segregation has created substandard and inferior housing. It has cut Black people off from the best jobs. It has strangled public schools, public hospitals, libraries, parks and clinics of desperately needed resources. It has isolated and demoralized young and old. Fifty percent of young Black men in Chicago aged 20 to 24 are not in school nor are they employed–35 percent of Black women in the same age group are also unemployed and out of school.

These are structural and institutional problems created by an absence of human and material resources. And this is the exact reason why the political and economic establishments cling to their explanations that blame and punish. What would it mean to tell the truth about the real reasons behind the social crisis in Chicago and in every city around this country?

It would two things. It would explode the myths the capitalism and its free market can actually end poverty and suffering through privatized provision. And second, it would require that they do something about these material conditions, rather than ignore them. Put simply, structural problems demand structural answers. Instead, in Chicago and across the country, human need is met with cruel shouts of “personal responsibility” and policing, policing and more policing.

Of course, we will see the full-throated revival of rhetoric like “culture of poverty” because it has always been a way of blaming the victims of free-market capitalism, instead of looking at a system that has produced poverty, misery and human suffering on scales that seem unimaginable in a world as rich as this one. How do they get away with it? They blame the victims for their hardship, and they get everyone to believe it.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

AND IT is not only Black and Brown people who experience this. As more ordinary white people become visible markers of the failure of capitalism, conservatives increasingly blame white poverty and social crisis–most notably drug addiction–on a morality crisis.

In Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart: The State of White America, he blames declines in white working-class living standards on high divorce rates, out-of-wedlock births, dwindling church attendance, and men who can’t hold jobs. Murray, of course, became infamous by insisting that disproportionate rates of poverty in Black working class communities were because of biological differences between Blacks and whites. He rehashes these ideas to analyze white poverty and also concludes that low IQ and biology are factors–but instead of between Blacks and whites, the biological differences are between rich and poor white people.

The much lauded but underwhelming Hillbilly Elegy also argues that white Appalachian poverty is driven by poor choices behavior and morality, and not material deprivation. But perhaps the most succinct contempt for poor and working class white people came from an article published in National Review:

If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy–which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog–you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be…Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence–and the incomprehensible malice–of poor white America.

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.

Of course, liberals don’t provide a credible alternative to this uniquely American cruelty when they parrot the same contempt by reducing the experiences of ordinary white people to “privilege” in ways that do not resemble and certainly do not make sense of the actual experiences of working-class white people.

There are 20 million poor white people in this country. The imprisonment of white women is “surging,” according to recent reports, because of growing alcohol abuse and drug addiction.

Life in poor and working class white enclaves is increasingly defined by economic insecurity, alcoholism and opioid addiction. And while it is important to point out how elected officials are very willing to paint a sympathetic picture of opioid addiction as a health care issue and not a criminal issue, as they did with the crack phenomenon in the 1980s and 1990s–because opioids affect white people and crack was centered in Black neighborhoods–I would caution against believing all of that rhetoric that opioid addicts are getting loving care from the government.

For example, in Middletown, Ohio, a town of 50,000 people that is 87 percent white and where 532 people died of opioid overdose last year, a member of the city council has proposed that drug addicts get two opportunities for medical treatment in the event of an overdose–but if there is a third call for an ambulance or medical treatment because of overdose, there should be no response. The councilman says the drug is too expensive at $36 a dose.

This is not white privilege. This is capitalism in its most savage form.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE POINT of this is not to deny that racism exists among working class and poor white people. It obviously does. Not all working-class white people voted for Trump but millions did.

So the point is to not deny the reality of the depths of racism in our society–it is to understand why it exists and the conditions under which it can be challenged and changed. Of course, it is easy to uniformly dismiss ordinary white workers as hopeless racists, but in doing so, we uniformly give up on the chance or potential to build a genuine mass movement that can fundamentally change this country.

In a country where public officials readily serve up racist explanations for social and economic inequality, it should not be surprising when those ideas take hold. Of course, not everyone readily accepts racism to explain their life circumstances–most people just blame themselves and the people they know in their families or neighborhoods for their troubles.

But there is a difference between people’s perception of reality and reality itself. Even when ordinary white people buy into the idea that the stagnation in their standard of living is because of the presence of immigrants or because the presidency of Barack Obama improved the standard of living of Blacks at their expense, that doesn’t actually make it true.

But it takes more than an assertion or argument to convince people that their perceptions are not reality. So when well-meaning people suggest that the way white radicals can fight racism is to talk to their racist uncle or father-in-law at Thanksgiving, it is both a sign of the low expectations of the anti-racist movement, but it also reveals the extent to which people accept that racism is just bad ideas that someone can be talked into or out of.

Of course, political argument is crucial, but it actually matters what you are saying. It takes radical politics and struggle to uncover the true nature of any society, but especially one like ours, where the political establishment regularly uses rhetoric, lies and distortions to cloud the truth.

For example, the social eruption of Occupy Wall Street helped to lay bear how the wealthy live at the expense of everyone else, with the simple yet extraordinarily clarifying idea of the 1 Percent versus the 99 Percent.

The Black Lives Matter movement helped to expose the systemic and routine ways that police abuse and violence shape the social reality in Black communities. Despite the efforts of the Trump administration and the misnamed Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, to return to an era of mass incarceration of African Americans, millions of people, including white people, have had their consciousness change about the police.

Ten years ago, the immigrant rights movement brought millions of undocumented immigrants onto the streets and challenged the right wing’s efforts to criminalize their existence. Their struggle gave us the slogans “No human is illegal” and “Undocumented and unafraid.”

The Dakota Access Pipeline struggle made the powerful connection between land rights of the Indigenous and the need for and access to clean, unadulterated water. It also demonstrated what it means to struggle, and how struggle can transform an impossible situation into a winnable one.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

OF COURSE, none of these examples has been enough to completely transform the circumstances or conditions they have exposed. And how could they? Racism is the lifeblood of American capitalism. We cannot end racism and the inequality it produces within capitalism. It means that even when we move forward, the political and economic establishment responds quickly with their best effort to return life to the way it was.

We don’t necessarily forget our victories or forward movement right away, but unless there is an active effort to assess those victories, draw lessons from them and quickly transform those lessons into new strategies and tactics for moving forward, it is all too easy to regress.

No movement is guaranteed success simply by existing. We will not win just because we believe that our side is right. We have to know what it is we are fighting for, and we have to openly debate and strategize our way forward. And most of all, we have to be involved in protests and demonstrations and building social movements to win concessions from the political and economic establishment.

This is all true, but at some point in the feverish effort to build the next movement, and then the next movement, and the next and the next–we must ask: What is wrong with a society, an economic and political system, that will make you beg, fight and struggle for the basic rights of existence?

Why do we have to struggle for affordable housing when everyone knows that the human species cannot live without proper shelter? Why is housing not a right?

Why do we have to struggle for health care when everyone knows that the human species cannot continue without proper medical care? Why is health care not a right?

Why do we have to struggle for a living wage just so we can afford the ever-growing cost of food when everyone knows that our species cannot live without food?

Why do we have to struggle against Corporate America’s insistence on polluting the air we breath, the water we drink and the food we eat?

The list could go on, but the answer is simple: Capitalism is killing our planet; it is destroying our future; it is destroying the lives of millions of people in this country and on this planet today.

These are crises that no political party in the United States can solve. They are the permanent problems of the market: misery means profit; hunger means profit; disease means profit; prisons mean profit; racism means profit.

What does any of this have to do with the struggle against racism? Everything. Racism is the central divide between ordinary people in this country, and without a struggle against it, it will be impossible to organize any coherent movement for anything. What I’m suggesting is not organizing on a false basis of unity for unity’s sake, but unity on the basis of solidarity and the understanding that an injury to one is an injury to all.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

IT IS no mystery why socialism is no longer a dirty word in the United States. It is no mystery why 13 million people voted for an open socialist–Bernie Sanders–in this country. Not only is this an indictment of capitalism’s failures, but it is also an expressed desire for a better way. We want real democracy, where the people who create the wealth in this society are entitled to have a say in how it is distributed. We want real freedom–freedom from racism, imprisonment, borders, detention, and second-class personhood.

This is not the first time in history that socialist ideas were dominant, and where ordinary people demanded a social prioritizing of human needs and not corporate profits. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, where for the first time in human history, the poor and the peasantry, led by the Russian working class, organized a revolution against capitalism and built a different kind of society.

The revolution was hailed by the working class around the world, which saw ordinary people like themselves take their country out of the First World War and take democratic control of the direction of society. In this country, the Russian Revolution inspired socialists and radicals and eventually Communists to get serious about political organizing and building a revolutionary alternative to the viciousness of capitalism and all of the horrors that came with it.

I am going to close with a long quote from American socialist Eugene Debs. This quote is from a speech he gave in Canton, Ohio in 1918 in opposition to the First World War. Debs is known for this speech because, as a result of giving it, he was found guilty of sedition and imprisoned. But this was so much more than an antiwar speech. It was a speech that was also imbued with the hope and optimism that found expression in the Russian Revolution. He said:

Socialism is a growing idea; an expanding philosophy. It is spreading over the entire face of the earth: It is as vain to resist it, as it would be to arrest the sunrise on the morrow. It is coming, coming, coming all along the line. Can you not see it? If not, I advise you to consult an oculist. There is certainly something the matter with your vision.

It is the mightiest movement in the history of mankind. What a privilege to serve it! I have regretted a thousand times that I can do so little for the movement that has done so much for me. The little that I am, the little that I am hoping to be, I owe to the Socialist movement. It has given me my ideas and ideals; my principles and convictions, and I would not exchange one of them for all of Rockefeller’s bloodstained dollars. It has taught me how to serve–a lesson to me of priceless value. It has taught me the ecstasy in the handclasp of a comrade. It has enabled me to hold high communion with you, and made it possible for me to take my place side by side with you in the great struggle for the better day; to multiply myself over and over again, to thrill with a fresh-born personhood; to feel life truly worthwhile; to open new avenues of vision; to spread out glorious vistas; to know that I am kin to all that throbs; to be class-conscious, and to realize that, regardless of nationality, race, creed, color or sex, every man, every woman who toils, who renders useful service, every member of the working class without an exception, is my comrade, my brother and sister–and that to serve them and their cause is the highest duty of my life.

The Ground on Which I Stand, a Speech on Black Theatre and Performance

I wish to make it clear from the outset, however, that I do not have a mandate to speak for anyone. There are many intelligent blacks working in the American theatre who speak in loud and articulate voices. It would be the greatest of presumptions to say I speak for them. I speak only myself and those who may think as I do.

In one guise, the ground I stand on has been pioneered by the Greek dramatists—by Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles—by William Shakespeare, by Shaw and Ibsen, and by the American dramatists Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. In another guise, the ground that I stand on has been pioneered by my grandfather, by Nat Turner, by Denmark Vesey, by Martin Delaney, Marcus Garvey and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. That is the ground of the affirmation of the value of one being, an affirmation of his worth in the face of society’s urgent and sometimes profound denial. It was this ground as a young man coming into manhood searching for something to which dedicate my life that I discovered the Black Power movement of the ’60s. I felt it a duty and an honor to participate in that historic moment, as the people who had arrived in America chained and malnourished in the hold of a 350-foot Portuguese, Dutch or English sailing ship, were now seeking ways to alter their relationship to the society in which they lived—and, perhaps more important, searching for ways to alter the shared expectations of themselves as a community of people.

The Black Power movement of the ’60s: I find it curious but no small accident that I seldom hear those words “Black Power” spoken, and when mention is made of that part of black history in America, whether in the press or in conversation, reference is made to the Civil Rights Movement as though the Black Power movement—an important social movement by America’s ex-slaves—had in fact never happened. But the Black Power movement of the ’60s was a reality; it was the kiln in which I was fired, and has much to do with the person I am today and the ideas and attitudes that I carry as part of my consciousness.

I mention this because it is difficult to disassociate my concerns with theatre from the concerns of my life as a black man, and it is difficult to disassociate one part of my life from another. I have strived to live it all seamless … art and life together, inseparable and indistinguishable. The ideas I discovered and embraced in my youth when my idealism was full blown I have not abandoned in middle age when idealism is something less the blooming, but wisdom is starting to bud.

I am what is known, at least among the followers and supporters of the ideas of Marcus Garvey, as a “race man.” That is simply that I believe that race matters—that is the largest, most identifiable and the most important part of our personality. It is the largest category of identification because it is the one that most influences your perception of yourself, and it is the one to which others in the world of men most respond. Race is also an important part of the American landscape, as America is made up of an amalgamation of races from all parts of the globe. Race is also the product of a shared gene pool that allows for group identification, and it is an organizing principle around which cultures are formed. When I say culture I am speaking about the behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions and all other products of human work and thought as expressed in a particular community of people.

There are some people who will say that black Americans do not have a culture—that cultures are reserved for other people, most notably Europeans of various ethnic groupings, and that black Americans made up a sub-group of American culture that is derived from the European origins of its majority population. But black Americans are Africans, and there are many histories and many cultures on the African continent.

Those who would deny black Americans their culture would also deny them their history and the inherent values that are a part of all human life.

Growing up in my mother’s house at 1727 Bedford Ave. in Pittsburgh, Pa., I learned the language, the eating habits, the religious beliefs, the gestures, the notions of common sense, attitudes towards sex, concepts of beauty and justice, and the response to pleasure and pain, that my mother had learned from her mother, and which could trace back to the first African who set foot on the continent. It is this culture that stands solidly on these shores today as a testament to the resiliency of the African-American spirit.

The term black or African-American not only denotes race, it denotes condition, and carries with it the vestige of slavery and the social segregation and abuse of opportunity so vivid in our memory. That this abuse of opportunity and truncation of possibility is continuing and is so pervasive in our society in 1996 says much about who we are and much about the work that is necessary to alter our perceptions of each other and to effect meaningful prosperity for all.

The problematic nature of the relationship between white and black for too long led us astray the fulfillment of our possibilities as a society. We stare at each other across a divide of economics and privilege that has become an encumbrance on black Americans’ ability to prosper and on the collective will and spirit of our national purpose.

In terms of economics and privilege, one significant fact affects us all in the American theatre: Of the 66 LORT theatre, there is only one that can be considered black. From this it could be falsely assumed that there aren’t sufficient numbers of blacks working in the American theatre to sustain and support more theatres.

If you do not know, I will tell you that black theatre in America is alive … it is vibrant … it is vital … it just isn’t funded. Black theatre doesn’t share in the economics that would allow it to support its artists and supply them with meaningful avenues to develop their talent and broadcast and disseminate ideas crucial to its growth. The economics are reserved as privilege to the overwhelming abundance of institutions that preserve, promote and perpetuate white culture.

That is not a complaint. That is an advertisement. Since the funding sources, both public and private, do not publicly carry avowed missions of exclusion and segregated support, this is obviously either a glaring case of oversight, or we the proponents of black theatre have not made our presence or needs known. I hope here tonight to correct that.

I do not have the time in this short talk to reiterate the long and distinguished history of black theatre—often accomplished amid adverse and hostile conditions—but I would like to take the time to mark a few high points.

There are and have always been two distinct and parallel traditions in black art: that is, art that is conceived and design to entertain white society, and art that feeds the spirit and celebrates the life of black American by designing its strategies for survival and prosperity.

An important part of black theatre that is often ignored but is seminal to its tradition is its origins on the slave plantations of the South. Summoned to the “big house” to entertain the slave owner and his guests, the slave that reached its pinnacle for whites consisted of whatever the slave imagined or knew that his master wanted to see and hear. This tradition has its present life counterpart in the crossover artists that slant their material for white consumption.

This second tradition occurred when the African in the confines of the slave quarters sought to invest his spirit with the strength of his ancestors by conceiving in his art, in his song and dance, a world in which he was the spiritual center and his existence was a manifest act of the creator from whom life flowed. He then could create art that was functional and furnished him with a spiritual temperament necessary for his survival as property and the dehumanizing status that was attendant to that.

I stand myself and my art squarely on the self-defining ground of the slave quarters, and find the ground to be hallowed and made fertile by the blood and bones of the men and woman who can be described as warriors on the cultural battlefield that affirmed their self-worth. As there is no idea that cannot be contained by black life, these men and women found themselves to be sufficient and secure in their art and their instruction.

It was this high ground of self-definition that the black playwrights of the ’60s marked out for themselves. Ron Milner, Ed Bullins, Philip Hayes Dean, Richard Wesley, Lonne Elder III, Sonia Sanchez, Barbara Ann Teer and Amiri Baraka were among those playwrights who were particularly vocal and where remain indebted to them for their brave and courageous forays into an area that is marked with land mines and the shadows of snipers—those who would reserve the territory of arts and letters and the American theatre as their own special province and point blacks toward the ball fields and the bandstands.

That black theatre today comes under such assaults should surprise no one, as we are on the verge of reclaiming and reexamining the purpose and pillars of our art and laying out new directions for its expansion. As such we make a target for cultural imperialists who seek to empower and propagate their ideas about the world as the only valid ideas, and see blacks as woefully deficient not only in arts and letters but in the abundant gifts of humanity.

In the 19th century, the lack of education, the lack of contact with different cultures, the expensive and slow methods of travel and communication fostered such ideas, and the breeding ground of ignorance and racial intolerance promoted them.

The King’s English and the lexicon of a people given to such ignorance and intolerance did not do much to dispel such obvious misconceptions, but provided them with a home. I cite Webster’s Third New International Dictionary:

“BLACK: outrageously wicked, dishonorable, connected with the devil, menacing, sullen, hostile, unqualified, illicit, illegal, violators of public regulations, affected by some undesirable condition, etc.

“WHITE: free from blemish, moral stain or impurity; outstandingly righteous, innocent, not marked by malignant influence, notably, auspicious, fortunate, decent, a sterling man.”

Such is the linguistic environment that informs the distance that separates blacks and whites in America and which the cultural imperialist, who cannot imagine a life existing and flourishing outside his benevolent control, embraces.

Robert Brustein, writing in an article/review titled “Unity from Diversity [The New Republic, July 19–26, ’93] is apparently disturbed that “there is a tremendous outpouring of work by minority artists,” which he attributes to cultural diversity. He writes that the practice of extending invitations to a national banquet from which a lot of hungry people have long been excluded is a practice that can lead to confused standards. He goes on to establish a presumption of inferiority of the work of minority artists. “Funding agencies have started substituting sociological criteria for aesthetic criteria in their grant procedures, indicating that ‘elitist’ notions like quality and excellence are no longer functional.” He goes on to say, “It’s disarming in all senses of the word to say that we don’t share common experiences that are measurable by common standards. But the growing number of truly talented artists with more universal interests suggests that we may soon be in a position to return to a single value system.”

Brustein’s surprisingly sophomoric assumption that this tremendous outpouring of work by minority artists have started substituting sociological for aesthetic criteria, leaving aside notions like quality and excellence, shows him to be a victim of 19th-century thinking and the linguistic environment that posits blacks as unqualified. Quite possibly this tremendous outpouring of works by minority artists may lead to a raising of standards and a raising of the levels of excellence, but Mr. Brustein cannot allow that possibility.

To suggest that funding agencies are rewarding inferior work by pursuing sociological criteria only serve to call into question the tremendous outpouring of plays by white playwrights who benefit from funding given to the 66 LORT theatres.

Are those theatres funded on sociological or aesthetic criteria? Do we have 66 excellent theatres? Or do those theatres benefit from the sociological advantage that they are run by whites and cater to largely white audiences?

The truth is that often where there are aesthetic criteria of excellence, there are also sociological criteria that have traditionally excluded blacks. I say raise the standards and remove the sociological consideration of race as privilege and we will meet you at the crossroads, in equal numbers, prepared to do the work of extending and developing the common ground of the American theatre.

We are capable of work of the highest order; we can answer to the high standards of world-class art. Anyone who doubts our capabilities at this late stage is being intellectually dishonest.

We can meet on the common ground of theatre as a field of work and endeavor. But we cannot meet on the common ground of experience.

Where is the common ground n the horrifics of lynching? Where is the common ground in the main of a policeman’s bullet? Where is the common ground in the hull or the deck of a slave ship with its refreshments of air and expanse?

We will not be denied our history.

We have voice and we have temper. We are too far along this road from the loss of our political will, we are too far along the road of reassembling ourselves, too far along the road to regaining spiritual health to allow such transgression of our history to go unchallenged.

The commonalties we share are the commonalities of culture. We decorate our houses. That is something we do in common. We do it differently because we value different things. We have different manners and different values of social intercourse. We have different ideas of what a party is.

There are some commonalities to our different ideas. We both offer food and drink to our guests, but because we have different culinary values, different culinary histories, we offer different food and drink. In our culinary history, we have learned to make do with the feet and ears and tails and intestines of the pig rather than the loin and the ham and the bacon. Because of our different histories with the same animal, we have different culinary ideas. But we share a common experience with the pig as opposed to say Muslims and Jews, who do not share that experience.

We can meet on the common ground of the American theatre.

We cannot share a single value system if that value system consists of the values of white Americans based on their European ancestors. We reject that as Cultural Imperialism. We need a value system that includes our contributions as Africans in America. Our agendas are a valid as yours. We may disagree, we may forever be on opposite sides of aesthetics, but we can only share a value system that is inclusive of all Americans and recognizes their unique and valuable contributions.

The ground together. We must develop the ground together. We reject the idea of equality among equals, but we say rather the equality of all men.

The common values of the American theatre that we can share are plot … dialogue … characterization … design. How we both make use of them will be determined by who we are—what ground we are standing on and what our cultural values are.

Theatre is part of art history in terms of its craft and dramaturgy, but it is part of social history in terms of how it is financed and governed. By making money available to theatres willing to support colorblind casting, the financiers and governors have signaled not only their unwillingness to support black theatre but their willingness to fund dangerous and divisive assaults against it. Colorblind casting is an aberrant idea that has never had any validity other than as a tool of the Cultural Imperialists who view American culture, rooted in the icons of European culture, as beyond reproach in its perfection. It is inconceivable to them that life could be lived and enriched without knowing Shakespeare or Mozart. Their gods, their manners, their being, are the only true and correct representations of humankind. They refuse to recognize black conduct and manners as part of a system that is fueled by its own philosophy, mythology, history, creative motif, social organization and ethos. The ideas that blacks have their own way of responding to the world, their own values, style, linguistics, religion and aesthetics, is unacceptable to them.

For a black actor to stand on the stage as part of a social milieu that has denied him his gods, his culture, his humanity, his mores, his ideas of himself and the world he lives in, is to be in league with a thousand nay-sayers who wish to corrupt the vigor and spirit of his heart.

To cast us in the role of mimics is to deny us our own competence.

Our manners, our style, our approach to language, our gestures, and our bodies are not for rent. The history of our bodies—the maimings … the lashings … the lynchings …the body that is capable of inspiring profound rage and pungent cruelty—is not for rent.

To mount an all-black production of a Death of a Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our humanity our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the culture ground on which we stand as black Americans. It is an assault on our presence, our difficult but honorable history in America; it is an insult to our intelligence, our playwrights, and our many and varied contributions to the society and the world at large.

The idea of colorblind casting is the same idea of assimilation that black Americans have been rejecting for the past 380 years. For the record, we reject it again. We reject any attempt to blot us out, to reinvent history and ignore our presence or to maim our spiritual product. We must not continue to meet on t his path. We will not deny our history, and we will not allow it to be made to be of little consequence, to be ignored or misinterpreted.

In an effort to spare us the burden of being “affected by an undesirable condition” and as a gesture of benevolence, many whites (like the proponents of colorblind casting) say, “Oh, I don’t see color.” We want you to see us. We are black and beautiful. We are not patrons of the linguistic environment that had us as “unqualified, and violators of public regulations.” We are not a menace to society. We are not ashamed. We have an honorable history in the world of men. We come from a long line of honorable people with complex codes of ethnics and social discourse, people who devised myths and systems of cosmology and systems of economics. We are not ashamed, and do not need you to be ashamed for us. Nor do we need the recognition of our blackness to be couched in abstract phases like “artist of color.” Who are you talking about? A Japanese artist? An Eskimo? A Filipino? A Mexican? A Cambodian? A Nigerian? An African American? Are we to suppose that if you put a white person on one side of the scale and the rest of humanity lumped together as nondescript “people of color” on the other side, that it would balance out? That whites carry that much spiritual weight? We reject that. We are unique, and we are specific.

We do not need colorblind casting; we need some theatres to develop our playwrights. We need those misguided financial resources to be put to better use. We cannot develop our playwrights with the meager resources at our disposal. Why is it difficult to imagine 9 black theatres but not 66 white ones? Without theatres we cannot develop our talents. If we cannot develop our talents, then everyone suffers: our writers; the theatre; the audience. Actors are deprived of the jobs in support of the art—the company manager, the press concessionaires, the people that work in wardrobe, the box-office staff, the ushers and the janitors. We need some theatres. We cannot continue like this. We have only one life to develop our talent, to fulfill our potential as artists. One life, and it is short, and the lack of the means to develop our talent is an encumbrance on that life.

We did not sit on the sidelines while the immigrants of Europe, through hard work, skill, cunning, guile and opportunity, built America into an industrial giant of the 20th century. It was our labor that provided the capital. It was our labor in the shipyards and the stockyards and the coal mines and the steel mills. Our labor built the roads and the railroads. And when America was challenged, we strode on the battlefield, our boots strapped on and our blood left to soak into the soil of places whose names we could not pronounce, against an enemy whose only crime was ideology. We left our blood in France and Korea and the Philippines and Vietnam, and our only reward has been the deprivation of possibility and the denial of our moral personality.

It cannot continue. The ground together: The American ground on which I stand and which my ancestors purchased with their perseverance, with their survival, with their manners and with their faith.

It cannot continue, as other assaults upon our presence and our history cannot continue: When the New York Times publishes an article on pop singer Michael Bolton and lists as his influences four white singers, then as an afterthought tosses in the phase “and the great black rhythm and blues singers, “it cannot be anything but purposeful with intent to maim. These great black rhythm and blues singers are reduced to an afterthought on the edge of oblivion—one stroke of the editor’s pen and the history of American music is revised, and Otis Redding, Jerry Butler and Rufus Thomas are consigned to the dustbin of history while Joe Cocker, Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart are elevated to the status of the originators and creators of a vital art that is a product of our spiritual travails; the history of music becomes a fabrication, a blatant forgery which under the hallowed auspices of the New York Times is presented as the genuine article.

We cannot accept these assaults. We must defend and protect our spiritual fruits. To ignore these assaults would be to be derelict our duties. We cannot accept them. Our political capital will not permit them.

So much of what makes this country rich in art and all manners of spiritual life is the contributions that we as African Americans have made. We cannot allow others to have authority over our cultural and spiritual products. We reject, without reservation, any attempts by anyone to rewrite our history so to deny us the rewards of our spiritual labors, and to become the culture custodians of our art, our literature and our lives. To give expression to the spirit that has been shaped and fashioned by our history is of necessity to give voice and vent to the history itself.

It must remain for us a history of triumph.

The time has come for black playwrights to confer with one another, to come together to meet each other face to face, to address question of aesthetics and ways to defend ourselves from the nay-sayers who would trumpet our talents as insufficient to warrant the same manner of investigation and exploration as the majority. We need to develop guidelines for the protection of our cultural property, our contributions and the influence they accrue. It is time we took responsibility for our talents in our own hands. We cannot depend on others. We cannot depend on the directors, the managers or the actors to do the work we should be doing for ourselves. It is our lives and the pursuit of our fulfillment that are being encumbered by false ideas and perceptions.

It is time to embrace the political dictates of our history and answer the challenge to our duties. I further think we should confer in a city in our ancestral homeland in the southern part of the United States in 1998, so that we may enter the millennium united and prepared for a long future of prosperity.

From the hull of a ship to self-determining, self-respecting people. That is the journey we are making.

We are robust in spirit, we are bright with laughter, and we are bold in imagination. Our blood is soaked into the soil and our bones lie scattered the whole way across the Atlantic Ocean, as Hansel’s crumbs, to mark the way back home.

We are no longer in the House of Bondage, and soon we will no longer be victims of the counting houses who hold from us ways to develop and support our talents and our expressions of life and its varied meanings. Assaults upon the body politic that demean and ridicule and depress the value and worth of our existence that seek to render it immobile and to extinguish the flame of freedom lit eons ago by our ancestors upon another continent—these must be met with a fierce and uncompromising defense.

If you are willing to accept it, it is your duty to affirm and urge that defense, that respect and that determination.

I must mention here, with all due respect to W. E. B. DuBois, that the concept of a “talented tenth” creates an artificial superiority. It is a fallacy and a dangerous idea that only serves to divide us further. I am not willing to throw away the sons and daughters of those people who gave more than lip service to the will to live and made it a duty to prosper in spirit, if not in provision. All God’s children got talent. It is a dangerous idea to set one part of the populace above and aside from the other. We do a grave disservice to ourselves not to seek out and embrace and enable all of our human resources as a people. All blacks in America, with very few exceptions—no matter what our status, no matter the size of our bank accounts, no matter how many and what kind of academic degrees we can place beside our names, no matter the furnishings and square footage of our homes, the length of our closets and the quality of the wool and cotton that hangs there—we all in America originated from the same place: the slave plantations of the South. We all share a common past, and despite how some us might think and how it might look, we all share a common present and will share a common future.

We can make a difference. Artists, playwrights, actors—we can be the spearhead of a movement to reignite and reunite our people’s positive energy for a political and social change that is reflective of our spiritual truths rather than economic fallacies. Our talents, our truth, our belief in ourselves in all our hands. What we make of it will emerge as a baptismal spray that names and defines. What we do now becomes history by which our grandchildren will judge us.

We are not off on a tangent. The foundation of the American theatre is the foundation of European theatre that begins with the great Greek dramatists; it is based on the proscenium stage and the poetics of Aristotle. This is the theatre that we have chosen to work in. We embrace the values of that theatre but reserve the right to amend, to explore, to add our African consciousness and our African aesthetic to the art we produce.

To pursue our cultural expression does not separate us. We are not separatists as Mr. Brustein asserts. We are American trying to fulfill our talents. We are not the servants at the party. We are not apprentices in the kitchens. We are not the stableboys to the King’s huntsmen. We are Africans. We are Americans. The irreversible sweep of history has decreed that. We are artists who seek to develop our talents and give expression to our personalities. We bring advantage to the common ground that is the American theatre.

All theatres depend on an audience for its dialogue. To the American theatre, subscription audiences are its life blood. But the subscription audiences are its life blood. But the subscription audience holds the seats of our theatres hostage to the mediocrity of its tastes, and serves to impede the further development of an audience for the work that we do. While intentional or not, it serves to keep blacks out of the theatre where they suffer no illusion of welcome anyway. A subscription thus becomes not a support system but makes the patrons members of a club to which the theatre serves as a clubhouse. It is an irony that the people who can most afford a full-price ticket get discounts for subscribing, while the single-ticket buyer who cannot afford a subscription is charged the additional burden of support to offset the subscription-buyer’s discount. It is a system that is in need of overhaul to provide not only a more equitable access to tickets but access to influence as well.

I look for and challenge students of arts management to be bold in their exploration of new systems of funding theatres, including profit-making institutions and ventures, and I challenge black artists and audiences to scale the walls erected by theatre subscriptions to gain access to this vital area of spiritual enlightenment and enrichment that is the theatre.

All theatergoers have opinions about the work they witness. Critics have an informed opinion. Sometimes it may be necessary for them to gather more information to become more informed. As playwrights grow and develop, as the theatre changes, the critic has an important responsibility to guide and encourage that growth. However, in the discharge of their duties, it may be necessary for them to also grow and develop. A stagnant body of critics, operating from the critical criteria of 40 years ago, makes for a stagnant theatre without the fresh and abiding influence of contemporary ideas. It is the critics who should be in the forefront of developing new tools for analysis necessary to understand new influences.

The critic who can recognize a German neo-romantic influence should also be able to recognize an American influence from blues or black church rituals, or any other contemporary American influence.

The true critic does not sit in judgment. Rather he seeks to inform his reader, instead of adopting a posture of self-conscious importance in which he sees himself a judge and final arbiter of a work’s importance or value.

We stand on the verge of an explosion of playwriting talent that will challenge our critics. As American playwrights absorb the influence of television and use new avenues of approach to the practice of their craft, they will prove to be wildly inventive and imaginative in creating dramas that will guide and influence contemporary life for years to come.

Theatre can do that. It can disseminate ideas, it can educate even the miseducated, because it is art—and all art reaches across that divide that makes order out of chaos, and embraces the truth that overwhelms with its presence, and connects man to something larger than himself and his imagination.

Theatre asserts that all human life is universal. Love, Honor, Duty, Betrayal belong and pertain to every culture or race. The way they are acted on the playing field may be different, but betrayal whether you are a South Sea Islander, a Mississippi farmer or an English baron. All of human life is universal, and it is theatre that illuminates and confers upon the universal the ability to speak for all men.

The ground together: We have to do it together. We cannot permit our lives waste away, our talents unchallenged. We cannot permit a failure to our duty. We are brave and we are boisterous, our mettle is proven, and we are dedicated.

The ground together: the ground of the American theatre on which I am proud to stand … the ground which our artistic ancestors purchase with their endeavors … with their pursuit of the American spirit and its ideals.

I believe in the American theatre. I believe in its power to inform about the human condition, its power to heal, its power to hold the mirror as ’twere up to nature, its power to uncover the truths we wrestle from uncertain and sometimes unyielding realities. All of art is a search for ways of being, of living life more fully. We who are capable of those noble pursuits should challenge the melancholy and barbaric, to bring the light of angelic grace, peace, prosperity and the unencumbered pursuit of happiness to the ground on which we all stand.

Interview with Okwui Enwezor, Director of the 56th Venice Biennale

On Wednesday, December 4, the Press Office of the Venice Biennale announced the appointment of the Nigerian-born curator and scholar Okwui Enwezor as the director of the 56th Venice Biennale scheduled for 2015. In this interview, Enwezor discusses his career and the significance of his latest curatorial project.

Chika Okeke-Agulu: At the opening of Documenta11 in 2002, I remember saying to you that the next big challenge would be Venice. I said it as a kind of joke, but not because I did not think you could do it. Rather I was aware that only one other person–the legendaryHarald Szeemann–had curated both Documenta and Venice. In any case, since Documenta you have organized Gwangju and Seville Biennales, as well as La Triennale, Paris, and now, Venice. I cannot imagine what it feels to join Szeemann in this curatorial pantheon?

Okwui Enwezor: Thanks Chika. That’s extremely kind of you to make a comparison with me and Szeeman. I know this question will inevitably come up, and I want to be as clear as possible, I belong to no pantheon. There really isn’t a comparison; Szeeman is entirely in a league by himself. In the abundance of his ideas, the almost carnal fervor for artists, artworks, and objects of all kinds, along with his bold, original curatorial experiments, he paved the path to the thinking that curatorial practice need not be too studied, formalist or dogmatic.

The fact that we are the only two curators to have helmed both Documenta and Venice Biennale is a historical happenstance; but one whose significance is still settling in. It is of course, a great honor to be entrusted with the task of organizing an exhibition of this magnitude and international acclaim. Nevertheless, it is not lost on me that there is some kind of meaning in the symbolism to which you drew attention. Exactly 15 years ago, I got handed the reins of organizing Documenta. I was 35 at the time, I had limited track record, no major institution, patron, mentor, behind me, yet somehow that amazing jury that selected me saw beyond those deficits and focused, I hope, on the force of my ideas, and perhaps even a little wager on the symbolism of my being the first non-European, etc. My sense of it was that the jury wanted a choice that could be disruptive of the old paradigm but still not abandon the almost mythic ideal of this Mount Olympus of exhibitions.

I came to Documenta as I said with little track record, but with an abundance of confidence. Now at fifty, I come to Venice with a different set of lenses and experience. As you mentioned I have now organized quite a number of biennials. It’s time to get to work.

C. O.: Documenta11 was one of the few exhibitions that have been called game changers in the history of curating. And this, I believe had to do with your introduction of the multiple platforms scattered across the globe, as the constitutive sites of an event that until then only took place in Kassel. What are your preliminary thoughts about how you might approach Venice, given its history and structure?

O. E.: It’s too early to say what shape the 56th Venice Biennale will take. Of course, I have some preliminary ideas, but those will be worked out in due course. The one virtue of Documenta is the time allowed to organize it, which made possible the platforms. But you must remember that the platform idea, which was fundamentally about the deterritorialization of Documenta, was not initially endorsed by certain landlocked critics, but once it took off its implications about going beyond business as usual became abundantly clear. I drew enormously from the Igbo saying: “Ada akwu ofuebe ekili nmanwu.” The mobility of the platforms across major cities and some not so major ones was premised on this principle. To see the artworld properly as it should be, to engage in meaningful debate the curator must risk the sense of inquisitive wanderlust. However, Venice is an Island, but also a legendary maritime trading city that historically looked out to the rest of the world. The limited time permitted to organize the biennale produces a certain sense of temporal density. I am certainly thinking about how to surmount this conundrum.

C. O.: Looking at the trajectory of your career, from the early 1990s when, with a few friends and colleagues working in the margins of the contemporary art world, you founded Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, to becoming a leading academic, administrator and curator in the field of contemporary art, does it sometimes feel like an improbable story?

O. E.:All stories are improbable. Nothing is preordained. No one is born with a straight arrow in his quiver. It’s a combination of relentless work and good fortune. Without this improbability there is no risk, no adventure, no discovery. I am an autodidact which was the basis of my ceaseless and restless appetite for ideas. I learned enormously about art, not in an art history seminar (I don’t even recall actually taking one) but by seeing enormous number of exhibitions, being in the presence of art and artists every week, everywhere. I still do, and I maintain the exercise of seeing, reading, thinking, and writing.

I arrived in New York in late summer of 1982, at a pivotal point in the development of contemporary art, fashion, performance, music, etc. in the city. I was a beneficiary of the perfect storm of creative upheaval: art, postmodern and postcolonial theory, identity politics: race, sexuality, gender, queer and feminist activism, and the AIDS pandemic further refreshed my perspective on difference and politicized my response to injustice. This was the context that opened me up to complexity and taught me to be courageous and fearless.

Also, Coming from Nigeria I felt I owed no one an explanation for my existence, nor did I harbor any sign of paralyzing inferiority complex. What was apparent was that most Americans I knew and met were actually not worldly at all, but utter provincials in a very affluent but unjust society. And when this became clear I saw no reason why I could not have an opinion or a point of view. I was not about to be respectful of ignorance of Africa or prejudice against African culture. This gave me some chutzpah.

I started learning about what was going on in downtown New York across every cultural and literary sphere through publications like Village Voice, Detail, Seven Days. I attended openings, went to readings, saw an enormous number of exhibitions, in every imaginable context, from apartments to Soho galleries, to alternative spaces to museums, nightclubs such as Danceteria, Area, Pyramid Club, Peppermint Lounge, Palladium, Save the Robots, The World, Roxy, Madam Rosa’s, and later Nell’s, Mars, you just name it. I was educated as it were in situ. I can actually say that I was there.

At some point this intense experience as a young Nigerian who was deeply interested in art and all types of the creative process ceases to be a fluke. I don’t believe in standing on the margins. You should also know that what partly made Nka viable was that I did actually have a deep knowledge of international contemporary art. I was not pretending. When I started thinking of setting up Nka in 1991 when I was in my twenties, I was intellectually ready and had a certain theoretical grounding and immersion in art, visual culture, etc. I was already collecting a bit of photography and some art. My first major acquisition was the portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat by James Van der Zee from Howard Greenberg Galleryon Wooster Street. I would go to the Comme des Garçon boutique downstairs to shop and up to the Greenberg Gallery to browse vintage prints by Cartier Bresson, Kertescz, Weston, Moholy Nagy, Baron de Meyer. So with Nka It wasn’t as if I did not know what I was talking about. The only reason it also worked was because I had the language and it was fresh and people were open to giving it audience. That it led to where I am standing today is both surprising and thrilling. But we are nearly thirty years into this story. The novelty of endless looking back is wearing off. Obama’s campaign slogan in the last election against the hapless Mitt Romney had it exactly right: Forward.

C. O.: Are you going to retire from curating biennales after Venice?

O. E.: I am not the retiring type.

 

The Fight Against the New Jim Crow

This speech by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor was part of a panel called No Justice, No Peace: Families of Police Brutality Victims Speak Out at the 2012 Socialism Conference.

Over 1,000 people gathered for this June 30 panel discussion from the Socialism 2012 Conference in Chicago, featuring family members of Alan Blueford, James Earl Rivera, Jr, and Ramarley Graham, all victims of police murder. How can we win justice for these families, and how can we continue to build a movement against the New Jim Crow?

In the eyes of the U.S. justice system, if you kill a Black teenager, you’re innocent until proven guilty. But if you are a Black teenager, you’re already guilty when you get up in the morning.

These are two faces of the U.S. criminal justice system, where the priority is anything but justice and where racism infects every inch of it – what Michelle Alexander has rightly called The New Jim Crow.

Anger at this system is brewing in cities across the country. At the forefront of this growing movement are the families of the victims of police murder who are bravely taking a stand for justice and fighting for a world where these atrocities are a thing of the past.

Colorblindness and the Myth of Post-Racialism

This public conversation, Colorblindness and the Myth of Post-Racialism, took place in the Carl A. Fields Center at Princeton University on February 10th, 2014. Photos are courtesy of Sameer Kahn, the audio is courtesy of Tim Wise. Tim Wise was invited to campus by a student group to give a lecture. Following the lecture, Professor Imani Perry joined Wise on stage to lead a brief conversation, and then open the floor up for questions.