The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” So I’m calling on African American Artists of a Certain Status to do the right thing and speak out forcefully against homelessness and the social acceptability of poverty, the ongoing [extrajudicial] killings of African-Americans, the school-to-prison pipeline, the slave-like conditions of the federal penitentiary and all other forms of “Jim Crow 2.0.“
Through personal experience and as a professional observer, I know the brutal struggle most artists endure, which is exponentially more brutal for African-Americans. The well-produced and directed documentary, Colored Frames, points this out succinctly, with historical accuracy and jarring clarity.
Over and over again the film reminded me of 20 years ago when I still believed our [faux] democracy was a real meritocracy, and was told by an attorney — while standing in the atrium of a very grand courthouse filled with people — that I should plead guilty to a crime that I did not commit, simply because I was Black. I was innocent and had no criminal record, but apparently that didn’t matter. My attorney believed it was better for me to plead guilty and plea bargain, assuring I would not go to prison, but I said hell no.
It took me nearly 3 years of self-advocacy to get the bogus charges dropped by a former wealthy White landlord, and through that experience I learned the disgusting yet essential truth about being Black in this nation. I also learned how speak up courageously for my own preservation.
It’s all horribly unfair, but no matter what as an African-American artist you feel you’ve already had to sacrifice to get where you are, you are risking losing it all if you stay silent today. And in asking you to raise your voice in solidarity, I ask of you nothing more than I ask of myself.
Objects alone cannot a do not speak to and for the masses — as artwork devoid of a human voice does not in itself constitute direct action. So like Colin Kapernick and all the athletes who have followed his lead, in risking personal gain are you willing to do the same? I’m not naming any specific artists’ names, but just in case you don’t know who you are, here are some defining features for “African-American Artists of a Certain Status.”
Are you an African-American artist who can be defined in one or more ways as someone whose:
- Collective art sales exceeds $1,000,000
- Sold a work of art more than once with an insurance value of $10,000 or more
- Art has been [surveyed] written about in a major periodical
- Had a solo exhibition at an accredited regional or national museum
- Received a grant worth $200,000 or more
- Attended an Ivy League school
- Received a Presidential Award
- Been invited to an A-List Hollywood event
- Written a financially successful book or had a book written about your career
Now while it’s truethe wealthiest 100 citizens of the US have more money than all the combined wealth of (42 million) every living African-American, including all the professional Black athletes, actors, singers, writers and artists, it still remains your responsibility to use your power for the greater good by openly declaring your protest against institutional discrimination against African-Americans, because that’s exactly what others before you have done for you. For however limited it may seem in comparison to your White contemporaries, the opportunities you enjoy today simply would not be.
In giving back what has been freely given to me, at different times in my life I’ve allowed my career to take a backseat to more important things — like taking care of my father full-time the last year of his life until he died, and like the time when I led a several year campaign to preserve the 260,000 sq. ft. Atlanta-Fulton Central Public Library from certain demolition.
Because of those decisions to take direct action, my father was able to live a dignified life in his own home until the last few weeks before he died, and the Atlanta-Fulton Central Public Library, which was the final building designed by Marcel Breuer, received historic recognition from the World Monuments Fund in 2010, and remains standing today.
I have since gone on to exhibit my artwork across the nation, to build my own network of online publications, to become one of the very first arts writers at The Huffington Post, to become a (Truthout.org) features writer, since 2010, at one of the oldest independent online publications, and to become a contributing author to a college text book, entitled At Issue: Poverty in America, which is held in the permanent collections of over 140 public and college libraries worldwide.
So to you who think that silence is golden, hear this: No matter how profound or beautiful the paintings and drawings, or writings and sculptures you’ve created that now find themselves displayed in the pages of glossy catalogs and magazines, behind the walls of elite museums and the gated homes of bourgeois enclaves, when the day comes that your civil liberties are stripped away because you strategically chose to censor yourself in fear of not getting that next commission or award, none of it will matter when you find yourself behind bars or killed by police for walking or driving-while-black.
Until 1967 less than “a dozen museum exhibitions had featured the work of African American artists,” and though things have slowly (about as fast as molasses) gotten better for Black artists, it didn’t happen by magic. It happened because African-American artists, like Bennie Andrews — who once protested in front of The Metropolitan Museum of art and whose work now hands inside of The Metropolitan Museum of Art — were courageous enough to take to the streets and demand change!
I’ve spoken up before, and I’m speaking up now…won’t you do the same?