I believe that art and artists are charged with the task of truth-telling and being whole, fully autonomous beings regardless of the institutions, nationalities and communities we are part of or working with. The closer we are to our Creator and higher selves, the easier it is to discern the truth even in troubled times. Seeking the truth is in our Fitra. Truth is the foundation of faith and peace.
A few weeks ago, the global community of artists and cultural workers shared a powerful collective statement of solidarity with the oppressed people and occupied nation of Palestine declaring: “We support Palestinian liberation and call for an end to the killing and harming of all civilians, an immediate ceasefire, the passage of humanitarian aid into Gaza, and the end of the complicity of our governing bodies in grave human rights violations and war crimes.” Thereby standing in opposition to the settler colonial racist apartheid nation of Israel. The arts community is not leading in their call. Prior to this, university students in Harvard, Columbia University, and more were sending out statements in support of Palestine and many are now facing repercussions that aren’t normal within our society which strongly upholds free speech. (Read More 1, 2)
“Billionaire Bill Ackman, claiming to speak for a “number of CEOs,” called in a Tweet for the public release of the names of those who signed the Harvard statement, to ensure that none of these students would ever be “inadvertently hired” for employment at companies within the domain of these executives. An investigation by the Guardian later revealed that the trucks were funded by a network of far-right and fascistic American political organizations.”Israeli government promotes call by Columbia University professor to “eradicate” pro-Palestinian student organizations, Jesse Thomas, WSWS.
In 2014 while being a Southern Constellations Fellow at Elsewhere Museum in Greensboro, NC, I worked on a collaborative social practice project titled Make Safe Make Space. I invited over forty members of Greensboro’s Black community to discuss historical and prevailing issues of safety in “Safe Place”, Leslie Kalman’s fabric fortress installation on a private floor in Elsewhere Museum. These members included students who attended North Carolina A&T and The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Those students understood the legacy of where they came from; a legacy of resistance. It was at a time where segregation was in full effect and not many people thought it would ever end.
It’s not abnormal that students participate in protests and exercise their rights to free speech and self determination. Think back to the history of Black Americans during the Civil Rights era when Black students in North Carolina would sit at counters in restaurants and bars waiting to be served in protest to the fact that those businesses didn’t serve Black people at all. They were harassed and abused for their actions but they knew then, as we know now, that they were doing the right thing.
It’s not normal in our culture for people to experience fear and backlash when speaking out against international injustices. What’s happening now in 2023 begs the question of whether we’re truly free if we’re being intimidated into silence.
The cultural field with its institutions and workers provide a space for discourse and engagement. Cultural institutions and entities stand up for being spaces of discussions, diversity, liberation, and education. All of the prominent figures that we look up to in our history, especially in Black history, were people who were courageous in using their voices and fighting through attempts to silence them. Any one of us who speaks against oppression and genocide is creating space for not only other people to be free, but also where they too can be free.
I want to give Alberta Sabree, who I interviewed for my As The Veil Turns project, as an example of fighting for freedom against all odds. Alberta is a former sharecropper and the eldest of her siblings. She and her family were bound to a land that neither she or her ancestors ever wanted to belong to.Though legally free, like everyone else in her family, she was trapped in a system of hard labor, debt, and deprivation of hope.
Alberta did not feel free.
She was toiling the same land of her grandparents’ slave masters. Her family had labored this same way for hundreds of years in captivity and now in freedom. Unless she did something drastic, the construct of sharecropping would imprison them all for foreseeable generations to come.
She wanted to break free.
One day, along with some distant relatives she stole her own self away from the land and people that were keeping them captive. Hiding in the back of a trunk all the way to Pittsburg, she had her own freedom ride.
Was she fearless?
No. She was scared.
Was she courageous?
Alberta was going to FREEDOM.
You have to leave where you are to get to where you want to go. Think about where we are now, witnessing a genocide, and seeing how people are being pushed back and told to watch in silence.
Do we want to live in a world where injustice and corruption are so prevalent?
Remember that OPPRESSION IS WORSE THAN DEATH.
As a black person whose ancestors were enslaved, I can’t imagine accepting a terrible present as an unchangeable future. People thought Black slavery will never end in America, they thought they’d have to live under an unjust system forever. They were scared for their kids and grandkids, so they resisted and fought back. They took hold of their fate and sacrificed so much for a better future.
Moments like this are when we need to make choices that will outlive us. Some people find it hard to make the right choices because they’re lacking in faith. Years ago I watched a documentary called “Spies of Mississippi”. The film tells the story of a secret spy agency formed by the state of Mississippi to preserve segregation and maintain “the Mississippi way of life,” white supremacy, during the 1950s and ‘60s. One of the spies they talk about in the film was a Black man who spied on his own people. He claimed he did it to be able to protect and provide for his family. Sure, he managed to live in relative comfort for a few years, believing that Jim Crow would never end. He didn’t have faith. If he had, he would’ve been on the right side of history and would have been seen as a hero. He wasn’t able to live an honest life or a life of dignity.
The most prominent figures in our history who managed to bring about positive change have a few things in common -their conviction was strong, their voices were loud and clear, and they were supported by their community. In my social practice and performance project X Speaks I borrow the words of history to speak a good word towards freedom. If you believe in the right to freedom and the right of self determination then use your voice and strength to support our brothers and sisters in their struggle.
No one is free until all of us are free. Plain and simple.