Multitudes #3: Policing Black Art

By

We are pleased to announce Multitudes, a new column at The Rumpus, which will feature the work of writers of color, actively seeking underrepresented voices and perspectives. We hope that the writers who appear in this column can count this among their earliest publications, and that they will find an engaged and thoughtful readership here. 

Multitudes was created through a partnership with VONA/Voices of Our Nations Arts, the only multi-genre summer workshop for writers of color in the US. Founded by Elmaz Abinader, Junot Díaz, Victor Díaz, and Diem Jones in 1999, VONA/Voices brings writers of color from the margins to a community where their work is centralized and honored. We are grateful to Faith Adiele, who first proposed this collaboration, and to the VONA/Voices Board of Directors for offering a model for future partnerships with organizations who serve people of color and other underrepresented artists and writers. Elmaz Abinader will serve as the editor for VONA.

–Mary-Kim Arnold, Series Editor

***

“Hands up or a put four mother fucking bullets in your mother fucking chest.”

“Sir, I am unarmed.”

“Let me see your art.”

“Yes, sir. I am going to reach into my back pocket for my Black art.”

“He’s got a gun!!!!”

“No! No! No… It’s my…”

Bang. Philando Castile.

Bang. Alton Sterling.

Bang. Korryn Gaines.

Bang. Sylville Smith.

Bang. Kimani Gray.

Bang. Tyre King.

Bang. Terence Crutcher.

Bang. Victor Steen.

Bang. Trayvon Martin.

Bang. Tamir Rice.

Bang. Rumain Brisbon.

Bang. Michelle Cusseaux.

Bang. Eric Garner.

White institutions police and kill Black art like America polices and kills Black bodies. White institutions strip Black art of its social and economic capital, and leave Black souls murdered at the bottom of white supremacy’s hierarchy. Naked Black canvases are forced onto white gallery auction blocks, analyzed as objects, and commodified to neutralize their humanity. White men examine teeth to determine overall health. Touch and squeeze breasts. He moves Black genitals around to ensure they have the ability to propagate lustful art that will continue to increase the wealth of the white institution. Pound their bones and squeeze their muscles. Bend them over to look inside their bowels. Today, Black art, like enslaved Black Africans, is policed, objectified, and demonized to control its power. Why is white America so afraid of Black art’s power?

Amiri Baraka once said, “The Black Artist’s role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it. His role is to report and reflect so precisely the nature of the society, and of himself in that society.” I am a poet and too often I create my work around the premise that white supremacy will have the ultimate decision in how I create my work and if it will ever be read or heard. I hope my words will humanize the Black artist and Black art experience in a white America.

Over the years I have subjected myself to neutralizing my Black art with the art of whitewashing. It is common for white poetry connoisseurs to whitewash my canvas with no regard of its worth.

Neatly choke
yourself
to death
with white tear
gas and hands
cuffed behind
your back

America kill
yourself
gently strap
a bomb across
Lebanon,
Kansas and push
the button
Suffer. Peace-
fully.

They respond to it, calling my art “raw, provocative, angry, unpatriotic and anti-white.” But, when a white poet writes with similar bravado and content it’s deemed “progressive, solution-based” and even “patriotic.” When I reference in my poetry that Black folks rise up against injustices they experience, people suggest that it “advocates looting, rioting, violence, and it’s un-American.” But, when white poets evoke similar sensory imagery of a celebration after the big game, turn over, and burn a few cars their audience calls it, “funny, all-American boys being boys, and honest.”

Editors and producers skin my art and wrap my entire face with it, asking me to write and read in Black face. They suffocate my work and want me to suffer peacefully to make their white spaces comfortable or entertain the fragile white gaze. I am aware of the ulterior motives; they only want me to be a colored pixel to fill their frame, enabling them to call the event or organization diverse. I have allowed them to take my art and tie it to a tree so that white folks in power can sculpt my art with their lashings.

This is the year of white politics. We live in a time where white supremacy is on the ballot. It is the ballot or our art. Like Malcolm X stated, “I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver—no, not I! I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare!” As a victim of the American nightmare, my art stands in front of a white man’s world. My art breeds thought-provoking work that challenges white supremacy, fighting for freedom. My body of Black literary work is not always welcome. It is strategically policed by white supremacy.

An elderly white man walked up to me after a poetry reading with my poetry collective, “The Gutta’ Collective.” My body tensed up because physiologically I react to the trauma in order to prepare and protect myself for what white folks may or may not say disregarding my agency. My heart began to beat rapidly. I looked for an exit. In this case I had my Gutta’ Collective brothers, Marco Piña and Joel Salcido, close and felt a sense of protection with Brown Angels. He walked up to me and said, “I understand why you are so angry. But, we are not all like that. I feel like I want to give you hug, but I don’t know how you will react.”

After years of this type of symbolic violence used against me as a Black artist and my art, there have been many times where I questioned the existence and purpose of my art in a white world.

After dealing with the trauma of symbolic violence I lose a piece of myself as an artist and my art crosses the threshold of mediocrity. White mediocrity forces me to ask myself:

“Who taught me to hate my art?

Who taught me to hate my space?

Who taught me to hate the line of my images?

Who taught me to hate form of my narrative?

Who taught me to hate the value my content?

Who taught me to hate the color my canvas?

Who taught me to hate the texture of my canvas?

Who taught me to hate the shape of my frame?

Who taught me to hate the size of my frame?

Who taught me to hate myself?

Who taught me to hate my own?”

Recently, my work was policed and I was un-invited to read it at a white institution’s event. The event aimed to bring awareness to its audience about the different types of oppression marginalized communities experience in America. I was told it was not oppressive enough, but yet good enough and would be a fit for a “Welcome Black to School Poetry Celebration.” I have experienced this micro-aggressive behavior enough to understand that it is white folks not-so-subtle way of saying, “It’s too Black and it will make white people uncomfortable.” White folks use this method and many other strategies to police anti-Black racism. They tell Black people how to define racism and what classifies as racism or not. The predominantly white art community mimics this method and tells Black artists what constitutes as Black art. The ability and power to define racism and art, systemically controlled by mainstream white art collectors and artists, perpetuates white supremacy and anti-Black art in America. When Black artists with their integrity intact refuse to negotiate their Blackness and whitewash their art, they usually end up excluded from the frame of diversity leaving white art alone with the white gaze.

Through my creative process I have learned creating unapologetic Black art is a revolutionary act of resistance and love. I draw art that represents and highlights Black culture from the margins and centers its Black magic, beauty, and excellence.

Prison Birth

I scraped against her
pink shredded canals
Dead Black seamen waved
while praying. Old Negroes
Spirituals waiting
For a Black Messiah.
Choked out
blessed in excess
feces tangled
in a gnawed umbilical cord,
down her middle passage.
Wet, cold concrete
slammed my face,
no arms to hold me. Bound
by history to be sold.

(Niggers For Sale)

She refused to look
into the eyes she gave me.

Noose around my neck,
a brush stench of burnt flesh
one foot to my head
she beat me repeatedly
waiting for cries to lynch the silence.

I was still born,
a lone, life-sentence
on a row of closed caskets,
death was my gate guard.
She watched me closely
to ensure that I did not
steal her job.
24 hours imprisoned
by walls made of cracked
black skin and bars
of broken bones.

Solitary confine-

ment I refuse to speak

in tongues
or bow to white Jesus

Found treasures

Behind concrete cribs
in the creases
of obese women who breastfed
me brown liquid
to nurse centuries of pain.

Stolen
________from my skin.
Stolen
________from my land.

I sat_ in a highchair
with wires spun like strands
of rainbow cotton candy.

Angels in white hoods told me
I could not wear the their robes
because I had not washed my skin
for eternity

Even though I was born imprisoned by the margins, I am constantly encouraging others to create and be Black art of freedom. Simply because Black art was born in America’s prisons does not mean it only can exist under the weight of the white gaze and its myopic definition of art. If we don’t art for Black freedom there is no need to fight. And if there is no need to fight we should expect more incidents where law enforcement act in fear instead of honoring Black art.

***

Feature image © Scott Olson/Getty Images.


Rashaad Thomas is a husband, father, USAF Veteran, poet, Voices of Our Nation’s Art Foundation (VONA/Voices) Alum, who resides in South Phoenix, AZ. He is a Spring 2017 MacDowell Colony Fellow. His work can be found in a number of publications, most notably in the book Trayvon Martin, Race, and American Justice: Writing Wrong, Heart Journal Online, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, The DeColonizer Magazine, Failed Haiku: A Journal of English Senryu, and is forthcoming in the Columbia Poetry Review and others. He is also a member of the Gutta' Collective based in Phoenix, a group committed to sharing a Black and Brown narrative through art and poetry to give a voice to the silent, isolated, and marginalized. More from this author →