Adrienne Kennedy’s most famous play, Funnyhouse of a Negro, was produced in 1962 by Edward Albee as part of his Playwrights Workshop. Already a prominent voice at the time, Albee brought Kennedy’s first professional production to life, leading to many more award-winning plays and her place as a leading force in American theatre.
In 2013, Kennedy wrote Visited by a Phantom (“It took fifty years to write,” states Kennedy), her reflections on Edward Albee and how he influenced her life and career. It’s a timeless piece that, with Albee’s passing on September 16th, immortalizes the impact he had on Kennedy and serves as a fitting obituary to a man, as Kennedy writes, who affected her “as no other person ever had.”
In January 2002, some friends, a few awesome drag queens, and I took to Palo Alto and the streets of San Francisco to film Raised by Drag Queens. Yet another film shot for a pittance (I believe $5,000, if I’m remembering correctly), the cast and crew featured such names as Amy Kelly, Kennedy, Faye Lasheo, Kortney Ryan Ziegler, and Lisa Dewey, to name a few.
The movie grew out of an idea I had with the movie’s DP and editor, Allan Benamer, as we rode the NYC subway. It was pretty simple—what if three drag queens found a baby on their front step and raised her into womanhood? This is the result. Hope you like it.
In 2005, I created a 16mm short film, Faith-Based Charity, which premiered at the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival. Having thought for many years how about I would ever capture anything of the relationship I had with my mother, I settled primarily on the power of make-believe, fabricating an unlikely scenario between a young white woman and an older black mother.
It became much easier to couch the story in the sociopolitical terms of race, class, and age, while staying true to the overall motifs of loss, sacrifice, the often strange havens we create for ourselves, and mental and emotional well-being.
Interestingly, this was the last film I created with a mostly male crew. It was a positive experience and everyone I worked with was fantastic. Still, it was a turning point for me. In the downstairs area we used as a green room, where my wife spent most of her time alone to stay focused and prep for each scene, I realized that despite the personal material and the wonderful time I had coaching my wife in her role, there was definitely something missing. Or, something I wanted more of, which was the feeling I had creating something with my wife—not only a sense of being held by and holding a community, but being able to bring more of a community feel to a movie set in general.
Since then, my movie sets have been more like gatherings. I hope it shows in the work I create. Perhaps the set of Faith-Based Charity was indeed the start of a small “something larger,” and now I always strive to not only harmonize content and form, but to also view story as process, and to value cast and crew as community.
In The New Jim Crow, author and legal scholar Michelle Alexander charts the history of different Black rights movements in the United States, and the counter-efforts that rolled back important social, political, and cultural advances that these movements engendered.
Reconstruction followed slavery, but Jim Crow stymied further attempts at Black liberation and social betterment. The Civil Rights Movement ended Jim Crow, only for poor Blacks to face stringent tough-on-crime laws and the War on Drugs, leaving one in every 15 Black men incarcerated.
Now, we have Black Lives Matter. More people are learning about the racial disparities of our prison system, our jobs, our schools, and other institutions. At the same time, musicians like Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé are creating unapologetic pro-Black music and videos, powered by young masterminds like Kahlil Joseph and Warsan Shire.
In journalism, TV, fiction, and film, Ta-Nehisi Coates continues the legacy of James Baldwin, while Hilton Als, Ava Duvernay, Jacqueline Woodson, Edward P. Jones, Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, Channing Dungey, and so many others lead the current surge of Black creativity and power.
Despite recurring periods of cultural, political, and social forces repelling and subjugating it, Black culture in the United States has always gone underground, revived, and then resurged. Are we now experiencing another confluence all at once — a cultural, political, and artistic renaissance?
I touched base with several Black writers, actors, activists, and intellectuals — even a soul food critic — and asked: are we in the middle of the next Black Renaissance?
I think we’re in a time where the US is becoming more tolerant of Black excellence and Black ideas. And maybe as a result, there are now more Black people who are willing to take more creative risks. I also think the Internet has given all people more of a voice. The creative renaissance of 50 years ago, 20 years ago even, seems limited to accessibility.
Rebecca Kent, Documentary Producer, Plus Pictures and CBS News
With the heightened awareness of acts of police brutality and daily acts of social injustice, we have seemingly arrived at a tipping point in Black culture which has increased Black cultural production. We’re living in a time ripe with unapologetic expression against systems of oppression through politics, song, film, and art. From Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly to Beyoncé’s Formation, artists and artistic expression have taken on a more radical tone.
While Formation has of course inspired numerous critical essays listing its merits and deficiencies, one thing is clear — it has caused much conversation and debate. Her song provided the perfect vehicle to reach the masses and infiltrate popular culture, to initiate conversations and to hopefully affect change.
There’s definitely more interest in African American cuisine these days, but not where one would expect. Of the various riffs on traditional soul food, the most creative energy comes from those cooking vegan soul food. That’s right, no meat with your greens, and no dairy in all of those glorious desserts. Also, the hottest soul food spot in the world is . . . Paris, France! Just in the last two weeks, I’ve gotten interview requests from French media about soul food. This fascinates me because soul food still gets a mixed reception in its home country because many see it as inherently unhealthy and essentially slave food unworthy of celebration. It’s like the 1920s all over again.
It strikes me that when my husband and I came to New York in January 1955, and he was in grad school at Columbia and I took a few writing courses at the New School, etc., that we were in a Renaissance.
Perhaps it was because I was young — Hansberry Ellison Baldwin Brooks were all to follow. …….the Village overflowed with Miles Charlie Mingus midtown Birdland Joe Williams Dizzy Count Basie and so many more. Poitier arrived at the movies. ………but paramount was the attitude toward young blacks. our age…….the world seemed far more in tune to us and all of the above as. people. Now always we are this entity African Americans…… ….. and this antecedent. ….increasingly by American Society seems to carry a burdensome troublesome meaning……….about us.
We are not heading toward a Renaissance. I cannot see this. No matter what our brilliance we are chained to these old definitions. A Renaissance it would seem to me has to be a world that has
rid itself of those old clichés before the new can flourish …and be defined as such. Still.
no definition. is needed for Louis Armstrong. and I cling to no definition just infinite struggle.
Nafis White, MFA Candidate Digital + Media, Rhode Island School of DesigN
“Are we in the middle of the next Black Renaissance?”
When I was first asked this question I thought, well of course we’re in a Black Renaissance, because we’re seeing blackness in all its beauty all around us, all the time, and ain’t that glorious!!! To see all this representation and to see all this artistry growing where it wasn’t before, or perhaps we may think it wasn’t prevalent before.
Somewhere between the 1920s and the 1980s not much was happening, or was it? But then I got to thinking about the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, and the New Black Renaissance of the present day, and about why I feel that all of a sudden there’s such a crop of talent the world over, of melanin-laden, blessed women and men doing the damn thing.
I started wondering about representation and about what was happening in the 60’s and 70’s with Black Art and who the players were then. We had Melvin Edwards, Betye Saar, Adrian Piper, David Hammons, Fred Wilson, Senga Nengudi, Maren Hassinger, Noah Purifoy, Glenn Ligon, and a host of others, yet these artists, though credited now, were not widely recognized then, and some might argue that they’re still not widely known or given their due.
I recall seeing a stirring exhibition while in New York at PS1 in 2013, called “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles,” curated by Kellie Jones, Associate Professor in the Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University, and I felt that all of a sudden, Black artists had been made visible who weren’t there in my lexicon and my life before, and it saddened me that these prolific artists were just under the radar.
Through reading Double Consciousness: Black Conceptual Art since 1970, I discovered some unknown players and kept adding to my knowledge of Black greats all across the scene. I love Jean-Michel Basquiat, but there are so many more people that should be made available, visible to us, and this exhibition and book got me looking and questioning why these brilliant people were absent to me for so long, especially as a fine artist who is part of the African Diaspora.
Why a Black Renaissance, and why now? We have so many gifted Black artists on the scene and so many up and coming. There is Toyin Odutola, Simone Leigh, Sanford Biggers, Carrie Mae Weems, Yinka Shonibare, Hank Willis Thomas, and Jacolby Satterwhite, Juliana Huxtable, and Niv Acosta and so, so, so many more hundreds of brilliant beings doing what they love and making immense gains and inspiring us all.
I feel that the reason why we’re so acutely aware of all these talented people now has a lot to do with social media and the transference of information across the Internet. We have so much access and are able to find talent everywhere with a few searches.
Decades ago, you may have had to follow a crowd to find Hammons or Saar, or be in the know with curators or museums, or get lucky through word of mouth and underground artist communities. Now, you can reach out and find your artist family so much more easily. Technology allows us to make connections and collaborations so much more readily.
So, the answer to the question of, are we in the middle of the next Black Renaissance is yes, a resounding YES!, all the while knowing that there was an enormous amount of Black pioneers making art back in the day, in the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s. We don’t know many as household names because they weren’t widely sold, represented, or known, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there or that they are forever gone from memory. They can be found.
Now, we thankfully can find artists more easily, and we can celebrate them while they are still alive. That is one of the many gifts of technology — we get to be a little closer while we’re all here on this wonderful planet. Don’t know Kerry James Marshall? Get in touch. Barely heard of Theaster Gates? Betta look him up. Curious about Faith Ringgold? That beautiful sister is still walking this Earth. Didn’t know Betye Saar had a daughter named Alison? Who, what?? You guessed it, she’s an artist. Get into them!!
Are we in the midst of a Black Renaissance? The answer in my view is yes, absolutely. From my youth through today, a period spanning approximately 40 years, me and most other Black Americans approached change-making with a degree of measure, and a willingness to make do — to push the envelope of culture to fight for inclusion and increasing justice, but not too much.
Sure, you had front-line activism and pockets of pushback, but the intellectual class would be split between marginalized revolutionary types (marginalized by essentially every quarter, white, Black, and otherwise) and those who sought to make change happen, largely within certain bounds set and blessed by mainstream society. There was the balancing act of acceptance of things as they were, on one hand, and pushing for change on the other.
Today is a different day, due in large part, I think, to younger folks who’ve taken a fresh look at our country’s history — including not only the plight of Black people but others who’ve been poorly served or oppressed — then taking stock of the status quo and what justice should look like, and then demanding step-wise, not gradual, change towards justice.
I recall as a young software engineer, wanting to bring in more Black engineers into companies in which I worked but at the same time was careful to not rock the boat and attempt to bring in too many. Contrast this with a lawyer I met few years ago who is part of a well-known high-flying startup’s legal team. In response to boss’ goal of diversification, he brought in only Black lawyers for interviews to fill a set of open positions. When questioned about why all the candidates he brought in were Black, he explained that if the company wanted diversity, he was going to bring it. He was playing from a different playbook.
Similarly, after nearly a decade of running and supporting political organizations that both worked on the inside and outside of government, with arguably the most aggressive large-scale campaigns in existence, I saw young organizers throwing down with unapologetic ferocity, dismissing the idea of respectability politics, yet operating with a clear sense of strategy, context, and history. I believed I was witnessing a reinvention of the playbook for creating political and social change.
I’m talking of Black Lives Matter and similar efforts, which risked a backlash from other Black people, and certainly most non-Black Americans. Yet they are withstanding the backlash, changing the perception of what is possible and appropriate and embracing intersectionality (for them, it’s not about Black people alone, but freedom and love of humanity across the board). And there are hundreds of these folks, if not more — powerful organizers who are connected and operating within the same paradigm.
For the last few generations, Black Americans have operated within a context of extreme injustice, yet being largely polite. This despite our communities having been decimated by racist policies that affect mobility, dignity, and freedom, as well as the simple ability to live stable and happy lives. In the face of that, we have been taught — and reflected back to each other — that success is to withstand it and attempt incremental change.
It isn’t just the set of groups and efforts that fall within the Movement for Black Lives, or what may seem to be a new frontline of activism. That’s simply one facet of the kind of change in front of us. The rise of public intellectuals like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michelle Alexander, journalists like Shaun King — people who have gained a strong prominent voice both in the eyes of Black America and people of conscience within American in general — is testament to something bigger. And while there has been backlash, for sure, progressive white Americans are being given a more accurate report card of the state of affairs in America than has ever been present during my lifetime.
And while the work of this community of activists, intellectuals, artists, and funders, is centered on Black liberation, the landscape of problems and the push for solutions is broader. There is a critique of systems of oppression, whomever they oppress, and it is anchored by the notion of human liberation.
Activists often quote the words of Assata Shakur: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” On the one hand, this is about those taking major risks to achieve change speaking to each other, but I’ve repeatedly witnessed these activists speaking of their desire for increased humanity and freedom for all — even for those who are in opposition, and who are part of maintaining the status quo, actively or passively.
And these voices, these Black Americans, not only speak to a new view of liberation, but they themselves largely embody it in their individual and collective identities. For them, it’s not just that who is in the fold of being loved and deserving of justice is broad, but some of the most powerful voices are LGBTQ, female, and young (and often a combination) who are not only dedicated to Black liberation, but human liberation, and beyond the borders of the United States.
We are in a Black Renaissance, and it is led by Black women. Look at the freedom in hair styles, large and creative. Hear the powerful voices leading the Civil Rights movement of our day, demanding accountability from candidates, entertainers, the masses. Make them say the names of those abused and killed on the state’s dime.
There isn’t a hint of pleading, or relying on a better moral nature. It heeds Shirley Chisholm’s call to demand power directly. It draws in people from communities who themselves have suffered. Our Renaissance unifies. See how women won’t play second to any man, including Black men who expected race to be more important than being a women.
Nope, it’s intersectional all the time, and this Renaissance embraces the nuance of identity on the scales of race and sex and sexuality. Notice that we’re stronger because we lead nuance. Pick up a copy of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and her sparse, powerful words lead a national struggle to understand what it’s like to live under racism daily. It’s a bestseller for a reason.
And read this: Black women have the highest voter turnout of any race, any gender, any group of voters. We have the power to choose presidents now. But we’ve been the most ignored power block.
Our new-style Black power comes when we tell the Democrats that we won’t let our backs be the path to the White House without our vision, our change, our leadership. Our voices are no longer silent or stigmatized as Bill Clinton found out when he tried to “Sistah Soldier” Black Lives Matter protesters last month. That doesn’t fly in this Black Renaissance.
We’re bold now, with many voices, many leaders. We define trends on Twitter. We can do a collective take-down fast when racism tries to pull a fast one. It’s ‘no more White tears’ and ‘it’s not for you.’ Yes, an amazing time to be Black in America because despite it all, we’re finding new strength, courage, and influence.
Aimee Allison’s new book, She the People: The New Politics of Women of Color, is out in September 2016.
“The future of our communities of color is directly tied to the expansion of our experiences, the depth and breadth of our reach and interaction with other communities and the framework from which our talent can stand front and center.”
Reinaldo Barroso-Spech & Diarah N’Daw-Spech launched the African Diaspora Film Festival in 1993, to highlight innovative films otherwise ignored by traditional and mainstream venues. Now in its 23rd year, the festival remains one of the few opportunities available for Black filmmakers creating independent dramatic features, documentaries, and shorts that “focus on the human experience of people of color all over the world.”
ArtMattan Productions, the festival promoter, is an organization dedicated to the promotion of Afrocentric cultures. Their mission is to “present these films to diverse audiences, redesign the Black cinema experience, and strengthen the role of African and African descent directors in contemporary world cinema.”
ArtMattan Productions has several activities under its umbrella:
The African Diaspora International Film Festival
Films in the Classroom Program
ArtMattan Films International
According to ArtMattan, since they started, the Black film landscape has changed drastically, as the films become richer and more diverse, and the competition grows more intense. What’s missing from the ongoing discussion of Black representations in film and media, however, is how to create more opportunities for filmmakers of color.
ArtMattan understands and promotes the huge role that film and media play in helping to create a richer social dialogue that can be conducive to a more democratic society. With their film festival and programs, they’re contributing to the changing cultural tenor of the United States.
“We grow up with these people. We see their movies, we hear their music on a regular basis and we really get to know them. In a sense, they become a member of our family — especially the ones we really like — so when they die, it’s like an extended member of our family dies. It’s somebody we feel like we know.” — David Kaplan, chief professional officer of the American Counseling Association, as told to Huffington Post
Prince died almost a week ago. People continue to use social media to grieve his passing and celebrate his life, one that ended way too early from still unknown causes.
He means everything to his fans, but holds a specific place in the heart depending on who you are — a hipstorian focusing on his breakout period or B-sides; a member of the LGBT community who idolizes him for his androgyny and for guiding us into an earthly paradise of purple sexual liberation; a musician or ham musicologist who marvels at his multi-instrumental and vocal prowess; a Black person who applauds him for shattering normative images of the Black man and being a genre-bending hero.
He means everything to his fans. Looking back on the impact he had on my own life, and drawing inspiration from the anniversary of the birth and death of another timeless artist, William Shakespeare, it becomes a sort of work in five acts — as complex as a Shakespeare play, with the same fusion of comedy and tragedy.
Act One: Exposition
My brothers and I are plopped on their twin beds, eyes positioned toward the old TV set with wood panels and knobs so loud that when you turn them, everyone in the house knows you’re channel surfing. This afternoon we’re tuned in to Prince singing I Wanna Be Your Lover on American Bandstand, January 26, 1980. Only 19, he already has all those traits he’d refine, own, and define throughout his career: sexy, bold, original, unafraid, and impossibly multi-talented despite his young age. This was something we all wanted in on.
Who is this wild and enigmatic man?
Act Two: Complications
High school. Some people have fond memories like prom, house parties, the establishment of longstanding friendships. For the rest of us, high school sucked. There I am, a shy kid on the track team, escaping my home life and my shouting father, among other disagreeable things.
June 1984. Purple Rain officially releases to a hailstorm of lace, flowers, and side-draped hair. That whole subsequent school year, Prince’s songs blare through campus, on Walkmen, from the lips of teens of all colors and stripes, and through the psyches of those particularly prone to age-appropriate angst. Which is most of us.
There I am. Locked to my Walkman and cassette tape. Coincidentally, I develop a massive crush on a Prince lookalike, a kid named Carlos Berrios on the competing Keppel High School track team. I devote pages upon melodramatic diary pages to this young man who made me so badly want to fall in love, and at the very least, forms an imagined but steadfast bond with his Minneapolis-born adult doppelgänger.
There I am on a chartered bus, heading back from a track meet. The Beautiful Ones awakens the possibility of current and future passions. When Doves Cry makes it seem like things will indeed get better, and that I’ll eventually take to the air, leave this place, and get to eat Doritos in bed and sleep in as late as I want. (If Prince does it in Purple Rain, why can’t I?)
And there I am with my older brother and our friend Mike at my first live show, at the Forum in Inglewood for the Purple Rain Tour, dressed in skimpy lacy things as colored lights flash and flowers rain down from the ceiling. (An aside: After Prince’s passing, Mike reminded me via Facebook of the Prince-inspired band that he, my brother, and I attempted to start. Suggested band names included ‘Lascivious Reflection’ and ‘Suite 707’.)
The final scene of this act: One day while my father’s away from home, my brothers and I use a camcorder I borrowed from my track coach to create We Be Fitten’ to Throw Down, a DIY blaxploitation takeoff. The soundtrack features several Prince songs from For You and Prince, including “In Love”, “Just as Long as We’re Together”, and “I Feel for You” (which manages to make it into a living-room chase scene).
Act Three: The Climax of Action
When I come out in 1990 as someone who likes mostly women, Prince’s music is on standby. Between the works of authors like Anaïs Nin and Milan Kundera, and songs like Kiss and the dance mix of Erotic City, there’s really zero room for confusion once I get past any remaining traces of self-inflicted homophobia. Plus, how could anyone who paid close attention to Prince and grew up watching his videos have any remaining doubt once they hit college and its turbo-permissive mores?
I don’t have an awakening — it’s a detonation. During the era of Anything That Moves, I leave the prude behind, and into its place steps the 24-hour party people me. Goodbye, hometown, goodbye.
Act Four: Falling Action
September 9, 2004. I’m having a post-production fundraiser for a short film I just created, Faith-Based Charity, at the Paradise Lounge in San Francisco. I’m drinking a lot. I’m not making much money at this fundraiser. So, I step outside to the sidewalk. Just a little break from my own party, I think.
A crowd’s gathered outside BeatBox next-door, and I see a white guy in a straw cowboy hat moving lights in through a side door. What’s up? I ask him. Prince after-party, I find out. Prince?? Yeah, he played at Oakland Arena tonight. Can I help you? Grab a light!
I teeter and crash through bodies, stagger up some stairs, and set the lights down before looking around. Jerome Benton’s there. Jellybean Johnson’s there. I introduce myself to Jerome and he tells me, “Don’t cause any trouble.”
A doorman guards another inner room, all white with a white couch lining the perimeter, and inside sits Morris Day. The doorman flirts and wonders why “the prettiest girl here” won’t agree to hang out with him for the night, but I have other things to do and it’s not my fundraiser or this guy.
I go inside the Morris Day room.
I immediately drop to my knees and bow before him, to which he responds, “Aw, naw, don’t do that, get up,” so instead, I sit beside him on the white couch, asking him something or other about the wife and kids, remembering in my drunken state the advice that says the best way into someone’s heart is to ask about their family.
Cut to me back in the main room of this second floor, arguing with a woman who appears to be a stage manager of some sort for Prince’s entourage. She’s trying to get me to leave and asking why I need to be there, to which I reply, “I’m here for the lights.”
“But they operate with an on-off switch.”
“Well, you see that video screen and DVD player over there? If anything happens to that, you’re screwed.”
She lets me stay. Moments later, through another side door, Prince walks in, without much fuss, and he’s right there. Right there. Close enough for me to touch, but I don’t (yet). Playing cool for now. Watching the guy in the cowboy hat give me a side glance. Sensing Jerome nearby, on the lookout for my “trouble.”
I’ll never have this chance again. So I calmly approach Prince, extend my right hand, and ask, “Mr. Prince, can I shake your hand?”
He shakes my hand. I notice we’re the same height even though he’s in heels, and I tell myself to never forget this feeling, never forget to say “warm and soft” if anyone ever asks me what Prince’s hand feels like. It was warm and soft. He smiled.
My Prince moment soon comes to an end. I offer him a flyer for my fundraiser and he slowly shakes his head. Jerome’s on me repeating, “I told you not to cause any trouble, I told you not to cause any trouble!”, just as I’m snaking my way down the stairs declaring something about how Prince won’t take the flyer for a movie about my dead mother.
Just before I leave the balcony for good, someone from Prince’s retinue announces, “I’ll take your flyer.”
But it’s too late.
Act Five: Catastrophe
On the morning of Thursday, April 21, I sit at my desk at work, checking the day’s news, and see that there’s a “death at Paisley Park.” Whoa, I think. I wonder what happened? Maybe some racy party-til-dawn gone awry? Just a few moments later, my co-worker tells me Prince died. The first thing I say is, “No.” It’s not yet denial or grieving. It’s simply a correction. After all, he was 57, and known for eating well, keeping fit, and avoiding drugs and alcohol. Everyone else dies, but for Prince this is impossible, right?
As social media starts flooding with sadness, tributes, and breaking news, I shut down emotionally. This always works well for me — keeping it together until the coast is clear and I’m alone at home. After the work day ends, I find myself like so many others, reminiscing and in tears, not understanding how someone who’s such a fixture can simply no longer exist, even though I never personally knew him, and I’d only met him in person once (and not even while I was sober).
Everything that we always knew, that we took for granted, came into sharp relief — how he smashed gender and racial roles and stereotypes, how he promoted women, his unyielding confidence, his colossal talent.
All the stages of grief were there on social media. I saw posts representing each one:
Denial: This can’t be right. Someone else died. New details will come in letting us all know the authorities were able to revive him.
Anger: What higher power would let an artist die so young? How can so much suffering exist in the world?
Bargaining: What if he’d gotten a save shot? Did he overwork himself? Did his religion kill him?
Depression: Shocked. Crying. Devastated. So weird saying he “was.”
Acceptance: He’s gone. Let’s celebrate his life and music. Let’s watch movies and videos, listen to his songs, and be with friends and family. Some of us will donate to organizations like #YesWeCode and promise ourselves we’ll do a little more.
(A Final Aside: More on Acceptance)
For me, acceptance means giving back. It means not caring a whole lot how Prince died, and promising myself I’ll turn off the social media chatter for a good couple of weeks after this information is made public.
It also means already crafting my message for people who don’t get it, even if this message is never delivered, if and when they say, “See, Prince is another bootstrap example of not letting racism stop you from success. Instead of complaining and whining, Black people should be like Prince.”
“After the Trayvon Martin verdict I was talking to Prince and he said, ‘You know, every time people see a young black man wearing a hoodie, they think, he’s a thug. But if they see a young white guy wearing a hoodie they think, oh that might be Mark Zuckerberg. That might be a dot-com billionaire.'”
“I said, ‘Well, yeah, Prince that’s true but that’s because of racism.’ And he said, ‘No, it’s because we have not produced enough black Mark Zuckerbergs. That’s on us. That’s on us. To deal with what we’re not doing to get our young people prepared to be a part of this new information economy.'”
The people who don’t get it will say something to the effect of, “See, you people have to do the work and not always blame racism.”
And my message to them will go like this: It’s not your place to speak for Black people. It’s not your place to interpret words spoken from one Black man to another. So, I’ll interpret them for you: Racism exists and those in a position to do so can give back and lift up, recognizing that this is one of our most powerful weapons in making white power structures irrelevant. You can be an ally. But you can’t set the tone of the argument, nor can you issue armchair directives, nor can you lead us down a path to success.
I’ll say: Unless you’re currently or formerly part of the communities that organizations like #YesWeCode serve, or you’re already helping in the fight for justice and equality, here’s what you can do: Donate funds. Respectfully decline to comment. If you happen to comment or proffer an opinion since you refuse to be “silenced,” then expect to be denounced or ignored.
This is my acceptance, and it feels pretty good. It means being ready to move on to the next phase. It’s taking ownership of my place in the cosmos. It’s giving back.
Thank you, Prince — for helping us love, live, dance, come, take action, and open ourselves up to possibility.
If you’ve been paying attention to this blog, you know that I’ve been making most of my films available online, for free, going backward in time until I hit the first one I ever did. That was in 2000 with the ultra-low-budget production of I’d Rather Be…Gone. (When we get to that point, I’ll explain the ellipsis.)
There was a big gap in posting anything because I tried to go in the exact order — even if some weren’t edited yet. Getting these done has been a challenge. I’m a busy mama (and employee, and sleeper, and eater, and ceiling watcher). Ergo, there are still a bunch that haven’t been completed. Excuses, excuses.
Well, I’m starting the new year uploading those that are completed, the first one being a short film I created with Rena Marie Guidry, Janna Browning Weir, and Amal Kouttab in 2007, titled We There.
That year, Rena and Janna conducted drama therapy sessions in San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood with a group of local youth. On March 16, 2007, one of the group’s participants, Antwanisha Morgan, was shot and killed by a stray bullet from the gun of a Potrero Hill gang member.
We There grew out of the collaborative efforts of the young people in these drama therapy sessions — Antwanisha’s friends — using creativity as a means of expressing rage, grief, and the trauma associated with living in a violent environment. The movie centers on a main event — a neighborhood shooting — but also incorporates everyday occurrences in the lives of the youth. These were all dramatized in such a way as to anonymize the storyteller’s experience.
When I heard about the group at a night of performances at CIIS and their goal to create a short film, I knew I had to be involved. After approaching Rena and offering anything they needed, they asked me to direct, and I said yes. The project, however, was very much a co-directorial effort.
Our slim budget went toward food and rental of a second camera, and we otherwise used my equipment and filmed using natural and available light. We shot guerrilla style with no storyboards or shot list. All the sound was done by whoever happened to be free to hold a boom mic.
A memorable moment for me was directing one of our actors during a scene where, while on the ground, her mother attempts to choke her. My mother tried to choke me when I was around eight or nine years old. I was honored to be able to contribute to the narrative, from a position of adult survival and success, in another form of creative giving back. Perhaps the drama therapy went all ways.
Cheers to our young actors for making themselves so vulnerable in this film. We There premiered at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater to a sold-out audience, with the actors arriving in a limo to a red carpet reception. It also won Best Docudrama at the 2007 Southern Appalachian International Film Festival. I hope you enjoy it, warts and all.
If the news is any indication, this was a horrible year. We know better than that, right? Why? Because we know the news only covers the worst, most heinous, most shocking stories that are most likely to cause either rage, fear, or disgust.
Some truly ‘game-changing’, positive things did happen in 2015. And, we heard about it on social media. The moral of the story: there’s mainstream media and there’s social media. Guess which one is (currently) a forum for regular, non-corporate people like us?
So, my main resolution for 2016: set the narrative.
In 2014 (which seems like such a long time ago) I made a few film resolutions. Some were stretch goals, some I actually met.
I didn’t post any resolutions for 2015, although I had a few: spend lots of time with my family, finish my unedited short films, finish a screenplay. The latter two didn’t pan out.
So, in addition to the general resolution, here are a few specific goals I’m setting for 2016, in order to focus on the positive and rally my social network base, as it were.
Spend lots of time with my family.
Devote more time to friends.
Continue donating funds to social justice organizations and causes.
Exercise regularly and get sick less (to fend off depression and maintain optimal energy and health).
Finish editing my short films, and don’t shoot any new ones until I do.
Continue focusing on characters we don’t often hear or see.
Upload the rest of my films to this blog, regardless of the exact backward-chronological order.
Complete a draft of a solo performance.
Raise funds and start principal photography for a documentary on resilience.
It’s been about 20 years since I’ve performed on a stage in a dramatic context (I count film festival Q&A’s as “performing on a stage,” minus the dramatic context). The culminating moment of those experiences was a 20-minute show at the former Josie’s Cabaret and Juice Joint that was curated by Justin Chin; something else I did shortly after that involved acting as my older brother and I freaked out. Thus the last time on a stage.
The creative force is strong with this one. Try as I might, I can’t take much time off from creative pursuits before being called yet again—despite my best judgment and waning energy—to spend lots of time and anguish on the written, filmed, and/or performed word.
Ever since the publication of Alex Haley’s Roots in 1976, and especially because of the rise of services like Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, The Freedmen’s Bureau Project, and 23andMe, people are wild about genealogies. Some devote decades to teasing out their family history. Others often travel to various global destinations, retracing migratory paths.
I’m using all of the above to do the same. Maybe I’ll end up devoting years to it. Fine by me. These are all the fun things you can do to find your place in the world history cosmos:
Travel to places you otherwise might never see. So far, I’ve been to Louisiana, Jamaica, and France, although the former two places I visited before officially starting my family quest. In France, I drove with my daughter Dakota from Paris to Martaizé, which I mistakenly believed to be the village that the first Breaux left to pursue adventure in the New World. After getting back home, I learned he actually hailed from La Chaussée. Bummer — I’ll have to take another international trip!
As you learn more, travel more. Other places that are now must-sees include Nova Scotia, Senegal, and return trips to Jamaica and Louisiana.
Continually dig deep into ancestry sites. After extensive digging in FamilySearch.org, I found out that one of my forebears, Joseph Troisville Breaux, was a white man who had an interracial “relationship”. Another one, Joseph Breaux, owned slaves, as did Firmin Breaux, whose namesake is Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.
The web is your oyster. A lot of library microfilm is now web-searchable, text-based content. This is how I discovered the list of slaves owned by Joseph Breaux, as well as the names of the ships that brought slaves from Senegal to New Orleans. Keep clicking, and don’t rely on just the first page of search results.
Books still exist. Young’uns — believe it or not, people still read books, huge ones! And there are so, so many of them. I’m currently about to make my way through The French Peasantry in the Seventeenth Century and A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from Their American Homeland. If you end up reading Roots, let me know and we can chat!
Visualize and imagine. The more you learn, the more you know about past daily customs, dress, weather, and physical characteristics (Acadian men were “of good height,” for instance). Close your eyes and imagine. Or, re-imagine the space right in front of you. For example, as you pick up a fork to eat a meal, picture the hand of an ancestor doing the same.
Watch movies. Movies are, by default, usually not 100% historically accurate, but period piece dramas are a great way to get even a remote sense of what a certain time period must’ve been like. And, like 12 Years a Slave, many movies bring stories and narratives to life that were previously lost in obscurity. Binge watch that shit.
Talk to people. If you’re lucky, you have a family that passed down stories of long-deceased crazy uncles, or angry Cajun men, or renegade frontier guerrillas. Or, get in contact with a professor specializing in whatever time period or subject you’re studying. Many brilliant scholars are out there and sometimes available to answer questions. Look up their faculty page to find their email address.
And a bonus suggestion: Create a Google Drive folder and organize all of the information you find into folders and files. Share it with family, so that they can contribute, too. Never before have we had such access to easy archiving tools, so be sure to use them. The Great Fire of London ain’t got nothin’ on Google Drive!
Awhile ago I promised to make all my films available online, one by one, working backward in time until we got to the first movie I made back in 2000. This is still ongoing, among so many other things:
Researching my family history
Occasional bouts of depression
Frequent moments of awe and wonder
So, the movie thing is still in progress. My new goal is to upload one film a month, starting in December. Wish me luck. Until then, I confess to thinking about a few things….
Family History Probably Repeats Itself, but I’ll Never Know 100% For Sure
On the family history front, things are scientific and metaphysical — the scientific including 23andMe, and the metaphysical centered on meditative, imaginative states where I try to visualize the daily lives of my ancestors. Notable things I’ve contemplated so far:
The Acadian Expulsion packed huddled bodies onto flimsy boats and sent them to various locations all over the Eastern Seaboard, in addition to Louisiana. Unlike my Western African progenitors, they were not sold into slavery.
According to a Publishers Weekly review of John Mack Faragher’s book A Great and Noble Scheme, the Expulsion “was the first episode of state-sponsored ethnic cleansing in American history.” Except for millions of Native Americans.
Modern French kicked in around 1600.
I suspect one of my forebears, Firmin Breaux, had a falling out with his family when he moved to Louisiana from Boston at age 17 and they returned to
Beausoleil was one of Beyoncé’s ancestors, so we’re all clearly related.
Social Media is Still Media — It Presents Only Select Glimpses of a Full Person
In my case, I post things that are either political, an attempt at comedy, or happy. What I don’t usually post: the moments of recognition where I understand how challenging parenting, being an artist, and living with depression can be. How do I cope?
My mother relied heavily on medication to detrimental effects, so I opt for exercise, relaxation, and gratitude practice, all of which work most of the time. Depression isn’t something one readily talks about when asked, “How’s it going?” Although, I do have friends who answer this question honestly. I also have friends with whom I can be honest.
Such are the current thoughts of someone attempting to not only piece together the distant past, but to prepare for an unknown future with a very predictable end of an earthly departure. Oh, and check out my 23andMe ancestry composition.