Elizabeth Alexander on 'Total Life is What We Need: Self-determination and Black Arts Collectives'

Event

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Elizabeth Alexander, the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, spoke at UC Berkeley Friday, December 8, 2017, in a talk titled "Total Life is What We Need: Self-determination and Black Arts Collectives."

It was the fifth and final talk of the Haas Institute's Research to Impact colloquium series.

Find a transcript of the talk below.

See other speakers who participated in the series here.

TRANSCRIPT

Karen Barkey: It is an incredible pleasure to actually welcome Elizabeth Alexander here to the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley. Elizabeth is the Wun Tsun Tam, I hope I read that correctly, Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. She's also a well-known poet, essayist and playwright. It is wonderful that at the end of the semester on ... it is wonderful to end, I'm sorry, the semester on such a high note with a scholar, a poet and a humanist who fits the institute so perfectly. Elizabeth Alexander is perhaps best known because on January 20th, 2009 at the presidential inauguration of Barrack Obama, she welcomed the president with a poem, Praise Song for the Day. 
 
I remember that day so well where we were the whole family, watching, sitting on the couch, watching the inauguration, listening to Elizabeth and teary-eyed and so, so excited and so hopeful for a new beginning. Then, when tragedy struck her family in her life, she dealt by writing The Light of the World, a beautiful melancholy, as well as warm and blissful memoir of meeting and losing her husband. This book is about love, about family, community, the power of the arts and the power of what somewhere else she has called traveling together.
She also published in 2002 a collection of essay ... of poems, sorry, American Sublime and The Black Interior, a collection of essays in 2004 where she discusses contemporary African-American artistic life through literature, paintings, films, popular media et cetera. Today, Elizabeth will talk about Total Life Is What We Need, Self-Determination and Black Arts Collectives. We are so honored to have you here Elizabeth and we give you a warm welcome. 
 
Elizabeth Alexander: Thank you. Thank you so much and thank you all for coming today to let me share some work with you. I'm going to talk ... for the last two years, I've been doing something a little bit unusual. I've been on a leave from academic life and I've been working at the Ford Foundation as director of creativity and free expression, doing the granting in arts and culture and film and journalism. In learning a whole new profession at this stage in my life and thinking about what it means to do it well as myself, if you will, what I wanted to do today as we talk about this topic is also give you just a sprinkling of work by some of the grantees whose work we've been able to support. 
 
To show the way that, from a philanthropic angle as well as for the ideas and the values of my life as an artist in this talk, there's also a way that I've been trying to think about it with money and how ... that our perspectives in philanthropy are needed as well, and I have lots of really wonderful things that I'm excited to share with you. This is from the Rodeo Caldonia Collective. These amazing women, this is like 1984 and this still comes from the show that we supported, we wanted a revolution, radical Black feminist art that was at the Brooklyn Museum recently.
 
What was really exciting about the way that they did that show and the way that we were able to support them to do that show is that, there were works of art as such but there was also really incredibly displayed archival work in the Brooklyn Museum so that you could see that some of the histories of collectives like this one that might otherwise be ephemeral had a place in kind of restoring a timeline of Black feminist practice so that is what this is. I'm going to be playing Sekou Sundiata's Shout Out and the ideas to start out with an invocation to bring everyone into the room who is not here, to bring Sekou himself into the room.
 
He passed away in an untimely fashion about eight, nine years ago. To say that the room is always fuller than what we see in front of us. What you hear Sekou Sundiata saying in this beautifully performed poem is here's to somebody who can't be within the radius of your voice tonight. We are always more, we are always tribe, we are always community and how to name and see that community when so much conspires to wear us down and exhaust us is one of the value of some of the Blacks arts collectives that I want to speak about, because of course, I'm also talking about the value of Black arts collective in a time where so many lives but here, I'm talking about Black lives in particular our ... under a unique sort of siege.
 
In talking about these collectives, I also want to talk about the memorial function of Black art. The ways in which Black art eulogizes, remembers, makes ancestral reference and mitigates against violence and destruction. I have found myself interested deeply in art that speaks in intimate proximity to death and the ancestral imperative in Black culture. I quote Ishmael Reed when he says, "Don't forget to feed the loas," in Mumbo Jumbo. "Don't forget to feed the loas," and that's kind of a refrain and salvo in that book, which helps us understand that one of the functions of collective is to remember to honor the deity like ancestral forces that guide us through our contemporary lives if we let them. 
 
The offerings on their altars maybe fruit or flowers, chicken or wine. When taken metaphorically, offerings may also be found in the form of art in the calling of name that honors our dead and keeps them near. In speaking also about space and the lineage of space is where that work is taking place, it seems particularly important in ... what's their different names for this age but the age of Trayvon is one way that I think about what this age means for our young people especially who came of age seeing Black death on their telephones in a repeated fashion over and over and over again and I think we haven't yet begone to take the measure of what that witnessing has meant.
 
A few ideas of institutional spaces and again, I'm kind of trying to do a dovetail with some places who are Ford Foundation grantees, to give a sense of the ways that philanthropic dollars can sort of think in a certain way. This is the studio museum in Harlem and one of the things that ... they're doing a new building project so that they will be the first Black art space that has started with the idea of a collective, with the idea of studio and people making art in it. That's what makes is distinct from a lot of other museum art spaces. There are always human beings, Black people making art in the building. 
 
What has it meant to contribute to a building project, that will help that space in Harlem be permanent, be proper and be able to stand as the kind of Diasporic beacon of an idea of what it means to mindfully grow out a community project and keep it, understanding what it means in community at the same time that, that actually, I think beams out into the world is what we're thinking about the studio museum in Harlem. This was a small and wonderful project where, in thinking about Black curators and curators of color and what does it mean when museums are as segregated as they are at the level of who decide what goes on the wall. 
 
Who decides what's art, who decide what matters, who decides what the institution is going to remember. We've been thinking about how to support curators who are making that decision, who have some alternative visions of what that might be like. This is The Dark Room Collective, a collective of poets founded in Boston in 1988. A group of extraordinary poets who came together, they met each other at James Baldwin's memorial service at the Cathedral of St. John, The Divine. I mentioned that to say, it's a wonderful origin story but also it goes to this idea of the ancestral imperative being a gathering force for Black community. 
 
Poets, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Sharon Strange, Major Jackson, Natasha Trethewey so I mean, people ... That's Natasha Trethewey on the left. That's Kevin Young, that's Major Jackson, Ellis in the front. These are people who ... they're kids here with a great sense of a Black style and drama. Black Aesthetics in everything they do is I think what's also really interesting about them. They understood the visual as well as the word. Here's another picture of them. Interestingly, this is a picture, they were featured in the New Yorker at a time when the New Yorker almost literally wasn't publishing anything by Black poets. 
 
The idea that this kind of sexy Black collective with a fabulous dreadlock picture, the New Yorker has changed a lot now. Actually Kevin Young is the poetry editor of New Yorker. I think there's actually been some very important forward movement in some of these mainstream institutions. Then, here, also in their sense of ... the wonderful graphics, they started putting on their readings first in a little townhouse, where a bunch of them live together, in a rickety townhouse, rented their room. They'd invite visual artist to come with poets and when I had my first book of poems before it was even a book in book form. 
 
Before the internet, before anything, these people found me and called me on the telephone that plugged in to the wall and invited me to come and share my poetry. Just kind of sight unseen, I don't remember where I was living. I got in the car, Philadelphia and drove to Cambridge and in that room was a community of such power and such force and such animating Black love that remains one of the most amazing community moments of my life. This is The Dark Room Collective. Then, an organization that I help build Cave Canem, so now, we're moving a little bit away from grantees. 
 
Although Cave Canem is part of a larger entity called the Poetry Coalition, of 25 poetry organizations that we've been giving some support to because they are so small so when you go into big philanthropy, then you're supposed to make big grants, which don't necessarily always serve fragile arts institutions. The kind of bigger is better doesn't always work so you can't give a million dollars to a little poetry organization. I mean, it actually just ... it doesn't always work. I help support these poetry organizations to come together and it was their work to work together with you unifying projects. 
 
These are not just ... I mean, there are not many Black poetry organizations so this is CantoMundo for Latino poets and the Poetry Society of America and Poets House. They did a project the last year where each of them from where they stood were elevating the work by poets on the theme of migration and displacement. This year, they're thinking about the question of the body and how people are exploring it in poetry. Cave Canem is a part of that. A home for Black poetry as we called it when we started it over 20 years ago. Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady being the founders, myself and Afaa Weaver, first faculty and first board member and builder all the way throughout and there's a little bit that I want to share with you about that. Do we think now, we've got it?
 
Camera person: Yeah. Whenever you're ready.
 
Elizabeth A.: Super. Okay, let's try and let's go back to just a snippet of the Sekou Sundiata that I wanted to play. It's worth it. 
 
Poet (Sekou Sundiata): To the twelve-steppers, at the thirteenth step.
 
Elizabeth A.: Sekou Sundiata.
 
Poet: May they never forget the first step. To the increase, to the decrease. To the do, to the did, to the do, to the did, to the do, to the did. To the done done. To the lonely. To the brokenhearted. To the new, blue haiku. Here's to all or nothing at all. Here's to the sick and the shut-in. To the was you been, to the is you in. To what's deep and deep, to what's down and down. To the lost and the blind and the almost found. Here's to the crazy, the lazy, the bored, the ignored, the beginners, the sinners, the losers, the winners. To the smooth and the cool and even to the fool. Here's to your ex-best-friend. 
 
To the rule-benders and the repeat offenders. To the lovers and the troublers. The engaging, the enraging. To the healers and the feelers and the fixers and the tricksters. To a star falling through a dream. To a dream, when you know what it means. To the bottom. To the root. To the base, uh, boom. To the drum. To the was you been, to the is you in. To what's deep and deep, to what's down and down. To the lost and the blind and the almost found.
 
Elizabeth A.: Okay. There we go. We're going to leave you to full, Sekou and pour out some water always for him. I think that, and myself and Karen, Professor Barkey mentioned writing a memoir in the face of the unexpected loss of my husband and coming face to face with death, reminded me profoundly that poems per se are not the point but that rather how poems are a carrying forward of the human strand. Poems, art lives long after we do, if we do it properly. I'm interested in particularly in collective spaces that keep lifting those voices and moving them forward and giving us an ongoing sense of what it means to struggle well, what it means to find the language, to be in community and expect something better. 
 
This emerges from the long line of innovative response to the disproportionate death and violence that have always played African Communities in the United States. I'll remind you of Tony Morrison, "Not a house in the country ain't packed with Sethe to its rafters, with some dead Negro's grief, and it created emergences from that unavoidable fact, I think at the juncture of spirit and intellect is a very extraordinary thing." The title of these remarks by the way, comes from Clarence Major's, 1967 manifesto on what Black artist should demand for Black people. "Total life is what we want," he wrote. 
 
I've transposed that into total life is what we need, which is the state of mantra of the Black room collective. I, my self, became a poet in what we would call the woodshed. A way and outside of much community and certainly out of a community of African-American peers. They were people writing their poems, I wasn't anywhere around them and again, we were not connected virtually in the ways that we are now. I came of ages of poet in the wake of the women's movement as identify politics was starting to be named celebrated and derided. I belong to some small women writer's group and was part of rich communities of Black people in the heady world of academia in the 1980s. 
 
Black poets of my generation were doing their work in diaspora. Those older than I was, Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa and others seem to be working on their own and certainly institutionally they were always the only ones in the spaces, as they were in their teaching and poetry writing worlds. I was, eventually found my way to Derek Walcott as a teacher at Boston University, where again, once again, I was the only one in that space but I was in that space, the only poetry teacher I ever had, the only poetry teacher I ever needed with someone who looked at me as a Black young woman trying to make poems and saw nothing exotic or strange or peculiar or unexpected about that. 
 
Someone also to me, as a Caribbean so a Jamaican though, my grandfather, as a Caribbean elder, his gruffness was familiar and not frightening to me. I didn't think he was speaking to me inappropriately, when he said, "Go girl, go write some poems. Don't come back until you have some poems." That just felt like, that was an expectation and so I became a poet in that one year. I'd tell a story about something that shifted for me in thinking about and understanding the need for creating these spaces, when the painter, Romare Bearden passed away, I went with Walcott as a little hanger on because where he was very generous was in letting the kids come and sit at the big people's table. 
 
We would just sort of follow around and listen to Shaye Masini and Joseph Brodsky and this one and that one, as long as we knew our place. I think to my self, I'm very glad that happened in a particular point in my life because had I been about like three days older, I wouldn't have liked that at all. It was at a time when I could take it in and soak it in and again, I'm taking you to memorial spaces, the cathedral of St. John, The Divine, Romare Bearden has passed and there was another one of these extraordinary memorial services. Alvin Ailey dancers dance. The pianist Jackie McLean plays. 
 
Poets memorialize, a sense of these Black arts collective brought together in that memorial moment is something that I witnessed and then when invited to go out afterwards with Derek and a large group of visual and literary artists, I thought myself, everyone at this table is brilliant and Black and made a commitment to a life in the arts. They're not in the same ... we were talking about being in ... they weren't in the same place all the time but they were powerfully and indelibly to my consciousness in one space. A table of vibrant Black people, telling stories and eating food and sharing precious bits of Black cultural history that otherwise could have been lost. 
 
It was a dream come true and I thought that those were the kinds of spaces that I wanted to be in and that I wanted to be able to support. We can go back to some Black writers collectives if this were a much longer thing. I'll just mention the salon held in Georgia, Douglas Johnson's house in Washington DC in the 1920s, the Italiase of the Harlem Renaissance. The Umbra Group in the New York City in the 1960s, chronicled so beautifully by Lorenzo Thomas. Obasi in Chicago beginning later in the 1980s. The Harlem Writers Guild, The Wintergreen Women's Collective, so forth and so on. There is this lineage when it is formal and when it is not.
 
This is just a snippet from one of the things that Cave Canem did starting with the poetry workshop in the summer, where Black poets were brought together and then expanding into other ways of community building and one of them was the Legacy Writers Series. This is just ... We're looking for a minute, so I just want you to see the people. Imagine, Lucille Clifton and Sonia Sanchez had never come together to talk retroactively about their lives as feminist. You know, we can't hear ... because I turned it down. This is Eisa Davis, Sonia of course.
 
Eisa Davis: Your work nourishes us and knocks us against the rocks sometimes with its power and we thank you for teaching us not only in classrooms and in your books but at how you walk, how you cook and how you wear your hair.
 
Elizabeth A.: I'll just say, Eisa Davis is Berkeley's own by the way.
 
Eisa Davis: We are training ourselves to fill your shoes so tonight, we ask you to show us the compass and the river and our pens will cast shadows by your moon. 
 
Elizabeth A.: Okay, so this is a beautiful thing.
 
Lucille Clifton: These are some poems that ... 
 
Elizabeth A.: I mean, we could do this all day, right, but we can't. Anyway, just to give you a sense of growing out from what it means to be 25 poets in a room with all Black teachers, to thinking, we need to be in larger space, to thinking ... telling our history is a part of being in the present, to starting a book prize, to all of the kind of organic ways that it's grown, to make the space of the Black collective both literal but also much, much wider. At Ford, an interesting project that I was really excited to work on was selecting these art of change fellows. 
 
In thinking about what it would mean to assemble a cohort that would be like a flag of ... I was asked to do this work right after the election, right after the election where as director of creativity and free expression, which I always have to tell the funny story that when I got this job my mother said, "Oh darling, that's very, very good for you. Director of creativity and free expression, that's who you've been since you were a child so like what do you do with that title?" In thinking about what we could do with our work and how to also ... I don't believe in responding to Trumpism per se as though it has nothing to do with everything that came before November. 
 
At the same time, we're in a time and at the same time, certain kinds of values and people have of course very explicitly become the object of hatred and violence, even more intensely. One of the things that made me ... has made me very distressed is the way that the idea of America. Every time that motherfucker says, "Our country," every time he says, "Our country," the way he says, "Our country," I think like, "What are you naming? What are you describing? What are you talking about? It's not our country, you don't get to say that. We get to say what our country is." I thought with these art of change fellows. 
 
We could think really powerfully about starting with brilliance and excellence and amazing people in different genre. Thinking about what it would mean to bring those artist together. What would it mean to bring them into cohort and say, "Yes, we're giving you fellowship money but we're also asking you to make things together and we don't know what they'll be. We're asking you to think of yourself in relationship to someone." People brilliant at different levels of career. What does it mean when you have immigrant artist to ... one of our art of change fellows is Mikhail Baryshnikov, who said yes in about 30 seconds. 
 
Not ... I mean, you know, like $50,000. Yes, it's significant but the point is, in telling a story, with native artists and telling a story with African-American artists and Latinx artist and with over half first generation Americans in this cohort, I wanted to really surface the idea of how did he become part of America and what he does with his collective space, again to the grant-making at the Baryshnikov Art Center, among other things is that he makes space for dancers, many of whom, the majority of whom came as refugees to this country. We supported the project for refugee African dancers, to be able to make work in the Baryshnikov Art Center space.
 
This fellowship became a way that that piece, that in addition to being in his art form, the greatest person who ever did a Pirouette, if that's what you're doing is Pirouettes that, what that made him want to do is talk about America as a space where refugees could be welcome and bring their creativity and make work. That's just one person who's a part of our group, the group of native artist post commodity are a part of the group. Lots and lots of incredible people and I can send you a link but I'm really proud of it. What was interesting was we brought everyone together and what was fascinating was how many people talked about space and making space for the collective and how many people are turning their money to space projects. 
 
Ava DuVernay used the money to found and get physical space for ARRAY, which is her organization, supporting especially women of color, independent filmmakers. The poet, Robin Coste Lewis, who is the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles and the author of the Extraordinary Sable Venus, was so moved by the vision of what it meant especially to empower Black women, telling visual stories and that she and Ava DuVernay are both daughters of Compton, that she donated her fellowship to building this space. The poet Dominique Morisseau, deeply rooted in Detroit is creating a writer's room for young theater artist in Detroit. 
 
I mean, again, when we gave them these funds, it would have been okay for them to just go write and make. This is the way that they immediately, when brought together in cohort started to think. Las Nietas de Nonó from Puerto Rico, founded a space called Patio Taller, which is where they explore spaces, ever more important now that ... of the hurricane and the devastating neglect that has followed. In their grandparent's and auntie's houses, on the patio, making theater where they explore issues of race and over-incarceration. They're really, really, really extraordinary. Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran. 
 
Part of the idea of also naming some groups was to interrupt the idea that great artist are always solitary and that sometimes great artist become better artist working in community and this is a spousal pair who are also using their work, one of the things that they do regularly is bring together artist, Black artist in different art forms. They know how busy and crazy everyone's lives are so they'll say, "Okay, I got the Museum of Modern Art on March 13th, be there." People come where they are and bring what they're doing and make some extraordinary happenings so they're building out how that will happen.
 
Carlton Turner, who is starting the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production. That is, and again, he's a theater ... he could be making his own thing but I think part of my point is that the individual artist in some of these instances that interest me is strengthened by having a community in which too fit. Moving forward out of art of change fellows, a space that's been really exciting to me to learn about is The Underground Museum in Los Angeles. To remind us of the theme that we've been thinking about the ancestral imperative, the artist, Karon Davis was married to the painter Noah Davis and his brother, so that this is Karon with her hand on her hips over there. Her brother-in-law, Kahlil in the back, his wife Onye. 
 
These two are filmmakers and then the mother, Faith Davis of Kahlil and Noah who passed away of cancer at the age of 32. Before he died, he put forward a vision of what he wanted to do, which was to have an art museum in the hood. To have an art museum in the hood that would show world class art, without any fancy or complication, that, that would be a matter of fact thing and that the institution of the museum would no longer be a space where ill-gotten booty was protected but rather the museum would have to be a civic space by the challenge that The Underground Museum was making. 
 
Noah paired with a very, very visionary curator at LA Museum of Contemporary Art, Helen Molesworth. In partnership together, Noah sketched out this idea for the underground and he said, "Actually what I want to do is I want the museum to show the work we make and I want the museum to lend works to us in the hood." It took a while to get that going, like the museum, didn't immediately think that that was an okay thing. In their first show, they made replicas of famous works of art and showed it in the underground, that were in the LA Museum's Collection. Then, Helen was able to somehow crazily work her magic because the museum ... has anyone been there to the underground Museum. 
 
It's like a storefront on the street but it doesn't have like ... it's actually not yet an ideal place for art to be but things don't stay there forever and now, Noah passed. He left behind blueprints. His work, Kahlil's work has been shown and other artist's work, Black artist at the museum and work from the museum comes to The Underground Museum. It's also, very, very important holistic Black space. In the back of the museum is something called the Purple Garden. Purple was Noah Davis' favorite color. They've planted something like 50 different purple blossoming plants to really extraordinary the space to go into and there, they show open air movies there. 
 
There is yoga, there are talks, there are all kinds of extraordinary things that happen in the space and Black lives matter has also, right after, you know, I think after which indignity. Was it after which non-indictment. I can't even tell you which one but Black Lives Matter has come into the space and done work that has a sense of the necessity for holistic community healing. This is the art. Okay, this is Flying Kendrick. We're going to watch him fly for a minute. Kendrick Lamar ... so here's the Underground Museum. I want to put the Underground Museum in the context of an extraordinary moment in Los Angeles, where there is a really, really, really powerful sense of cross genre Black art being made in that extraordinary city. 
 
In that extraordinary community. There is the commercial sense of the Kendrick Lamar but I want to put his work and with that little ... so one of my co-workers made that little gift for me, of the vision. In that particular video and in that song, which has become something of a little bit of a movement anthem, right? You see the young African-American man literally envisioning, being able to fly, being able to transcend, being able to be in his community but above some of the dangers in his community and that ... over and over again, in his work and in his videos, that's something that you see happening. 
 
Kendrick has obviously this extraordinary commercial success but he is part of a larger community of which the underground museum is a part. I want to draw a little line to Kahlil Joseph's films and also, the musician, Flying Lotus who is among other cool things the nephew of Alice Coltrane but who is a part of this art scene, the musician, Thundercat. All of these people are part of the same scene and so in a way, it gives the kind of a grassroots depth to what Kendrick is doing and the span of his work on its much larger stage actually I think accrues back to Black LA at this particular moment.
 
This is just a little tiny thing here, just to show you when the protesters in 2015 at Yale were gathering together, the student protesters. That's a lot of kids and there are probably these videos for many school and then just to show you a snippet, if you all are probably familiar with the controversy around Calhoun College and the renaming of Calhoun College, which in a way has become an interesting kind of urtext of the monument's moment, that we are in right now and I thought that the kids ... I taught at Yale for a long time and I had just left but these are my babies. What I feel proud about ... I mean, it wasn't just me in the teaching that I did before I left. 
 
We ... Some of us were teaching them that culture needs to be a part of activism and politics and the way that you can express that well so I really loved the way they came up with saying, "The school wouldn't change the name of Calhoun." They said, "We will rename Calhoun. We don't accept your name," so we'll just show a minute of this. Again, we're on Berkeley's campus like this for that campus, that's a lot of kids. 
 
Yale student in video: There's a time when you all represented John C. Calhoun's vision of America, when this place was marked as white men only, the women and people of color whose labor built this university and this nation were not welcome here. That today is no longer. Today, we take yet another step forward to making Yale the most inclusive educational environment in the world by removing the emblem of hatred and racism that is John C. Calhoun's name from this place of learning, from this home. 
 
Student in video: This is the part of any Yale event when we usually thank our donors. We thank people whose sacrifice and generosity had given us the bittersweet privilege of studying at this university. I'm standing right here today, together on ...
 
Elizabeth A.: See, they're renaming the college. You can see all these names Herston ...
 
Student in video: It's not because we are beholden to corporate master's past or present. You and I know that we survived and prosper because we are loved. We are here because when we cried, our community has offered their shoulder and because when we were happy they danced with us. We are here and fed and provided for because of the labor of countless Black and brown residents of the city of New Haven, where Yale University is the single largest employer and where our institution engages in a semi-colonial project of its own. We are grateful people. We are not selfish. We are painfully self-aware but our gratitude and allegiance belong to those who love us and to those whose sacrifice truly built this university. It does not belong to you.
 
Elizabeth A.: This really moves me and I think like also the love ethic, which really comes via Berkeley's June Jordan, right. Where is the love and what does it mean in any kind of protest to know not only what you're fighting against but what you love enough to fight for and move towards, is something that really animated them. June Jordan, who also taught for a minute in the 1970s at Yale and wrote the words that I would often quote, that she would wear heels when she would go to class because she said, "Let the hallowed halls echo with the sound of a Black woman passing through." Just to come and bring us to conclusion. 
 
To think about what it means, that we were not meant to survive but we are surviving and then we'll have some time to talk, is ... and I'm thinking about this LA aesthetic and this LA visual aesthetic. This is a Flying Lotus, Never Catch Me, Kendrick Lamar is in it. I mean, again, Flying Lotus is not a Kendrick but Kendrick is on his albums. It's made ... directed by Hiro Murai who is very much affected by the aesthetic of Kahlil Joseph from the Underground Museum so I'm going to close with Kahlil's vision and he is ... Hiro Murai is now the cinematographer on Atlanta if that's a show, that you all have seen but this is I think really extraordinary. 
 
Has anyone seen this, Never Catch Me? Raise your hand if you have. I'm so happy, hardly anyone because I think that it's extraordinary and I think it's visioning something very important and different. This actually isn't very long so we're going to watch the whole thing. What does it mean to contend with again, like of a generation where the murder of Black people is available to us all the time. Another funeral and a different kind of Black communal moment with Black communal ancestral practices and who are we remembering? We're remembering children. The community has lifted up these dead children, has resurrected them. 
 
There's a really extraordinary vernacular dad. These kids can really, really dance, in very particular movement vocabularies. Of course, what is so powerful though is in this exuberance that the congregation is not aware that this is happening so have they been resurrected or are they crossing over to the other side, are they passing to the next life? Are they becoming paradoxically free as they cross over and they leave their community behind. Here, we think about them as we hear the refrain about the different ways that, that never catch me my register and then we see what happens. 
 
Because of course, in this practices, this is throughout ... they are trying to take people to the other side, right, so that's made literal and I just want you to see what happens next when they escape. In this luminal space, where are these children? What do we expect for these children? They can dance, I mean, I find this very accelerating but again, the children can't see them. They go in the back of the Hearse but then the children drive it away. That continues to a very, very quiet conclusion but it's really extraordinary. Then, to bring us finally ... and with the question that's been raised about what's happened to the traumatized community that's left behind, I think that that is the big question. 
 
Here, just to focus us on Kahlil Joseph with another Flying Lotus and this is a very, very iconic video called Until the Quiet Comes. Who've seen this, Until the Quiet Comes? Okay, something else. These things we've been talking about but Black death, untimely death, the death of children, a very, very similar ... I don't know the neighborhoods of Los Angeles well enough to describe you but both of these ... we've been talking about like an LA visual aesthetic that is very original and very present in these. I mean, as you can imagine also the iconicity of an empty swimming pool is something that we see here. This came before the Murai. Very iconic LA, Nickerson Gardens. 
 
You might think here about Kerry James Marshall's amazing Nickerson Gardens painting. This is really characteristic Kahlil, his interest in Black people, in Black communities. It's so beautiful. You see, in that fence, you think about our flying Kendrick. I'm not sure who was the cinematographer for that particular video but ... and so here's the part for you to see. Again, a resurrection and a very, very particular dance form here. This is like the harder version of those beautiful celebratory children because we are not allowed to forget how he was killed and how he lived in the way that he shows and uses his body. 
 
Once again, is the community in a another time space, as in the one that we just saw or is the community indifferent or is the community inured and numb? That's what we don't exactly know. You know, LA Style, but is it his Hearse, what is it exactly, who is driving the Hearse? Is he going crossing over, if you will? This makes me think of Gwendolyn Brooks' amazing poem of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery. You might know that poem. He was born in Alabama. He was bred in Illinois. He was nothing but a plain Black boy, swing low, sweet, sweet chariot, nothing but a plain Black boy, driving down the ... by the pool hall underneath the L. 
 
Southwest corner prairie that he love so well, where he met his women, where he drank his ... some wine, where he ... it is a heroic journey to the underworld that Gwendolyn ... in Black community on Southside Chicago that Gwendolyn Brooks memorialize many years before in that poem that we also see I think very powerfully in this space with people who are too often stereotyped as not the heroes in their own communities or in their own life. Final words, what does it mean in these visual examples to bring together the naturalistic and the imaginative, to imagine community is capable of reanimating even its most hopeless and anaesthetized and tragic. 
 
What does it mean for Black bodies to come to life in a dance idiom that is uniquely Black and youth, all of that power channeled into a lifting. What I think is so extraordinary about these collective spaces, what I think is so extraordinary about the Black creative power in Los Angeles now is that it is understanding and exploring the necessity of the spiritual dimension, in Black creativity. Sometimes the spirit element is something, when you see commercial success has been achieved that seems as though it's gotten lost but in order to really begin to let Black collective spaces be sustaining, and powerful tools as we move forward is something that I think has been exemplified really powerfully with some of this work. 
 
Thank you very much and I'm going to quietly put on Sekou. Well, in just this moment, my computer ran out of power so we're not going to hear Sekou. Although I do have something to charge it back up with. Let's have some conversation and questions. Yes. You're welcome.
 
Audience member 1: I'm wanting to hear you talk about how you thought about the relationship between our visual, musical, whatever and the social sciences but I ... so I went to Berkeley's, I'm undergrad, I'm fantastic right now but and I was political science major who took every class June Jordan offered, right? Every class brother Christian offered because it seem to me, we couldn't understand Black politics without other ... right, having a place to locate that part and Black imaginaries and I often felt sort of deprived as a social scientist but I don't get to tap into the artistic wisdom that exist in these creative spaces. I don't really ... I just want to hear you talk about how you think about that?
 
Elizabeth A.: Well, it's why interdisciplinarity is the new discipline, right? I mean, it's why I was talking with a really dear old friend of mine, who teaches at Stanford about how interdisciplinary, narratee is not really like a thing there and for 15 years, I taught at Yale so that's the school I know the longest and what I think was interesting there was a lot of what was happening in interdisciplinary studies was really eclipsing the energy and life force of what was happening in the dying traditional disciplines. The idea ... that of course, I mean, I always thought about it as the academic version of you have to be twice as good. 
 
It's like, "Well, you can't just know your discipline. You have to know more than one thing at a time in order to be able to think better, know better and understand the temporality of learning in experience," right, that it's just different shapes of brains and different opportunities and different languages but happening simultaneously, and I think that when you put those things next to each other, it just is so enriching and broadening. Let's just take Gwendolyn Brooks' one example to someone whose work I care about and know very, very well and think about Black University of Chicago Sociology being born in that time that she's writing those poems. 
 
Her sense of urban space living in the same ten block radius as Drake and Cayton and probably, I haven't researched this, but I can't imagine that she didn't know those people in some kind of way. Even if she didn't know them, it doesn't matter. They were in the same space, living the same great migration experience in the same great migration grid, right? One has event for words and another has event for a particular kind of analysis. I mean, I don't mean to even flatten difference but just to say it seems so self-evident to me, that the way that you're talking about being able to think about more than one way of looking at the world at the same time is an enriching one. 
 
I think though ... I mean, again, getting into the weeds of different institutions and their histories, the University of Chicago actually didn't have a space in the humanities for that Black tradition. That didn't exist there, there was kind of the social science trend that then William Julius Wilson and others and now, Michael Dawson and Cathy Cohen and even the Center for the Study of Race there, they're looking for a new director and I've been wondering is it going ... is that DNA of Black social sciences, the one that's going to carry forward, which would be fine, it that's what it was or like I can't imagine that space as ever being led by a humanist, although who knows, right?
 
Even like the kind of John Hope Franklin School of Black History, John Hope Franklin to Thomas Holt to Julia Saville. That is one strand but the cultural politics strand in Black thinking hasn't had a place there. That's somewhere else I taught to that's why it's happening not well. Yeah. Yes. Thanks for asking. Yes.
 
Audience member 2: Thank you so much, you are such a breath of fresh air. I appreciate the different projects that we looked it up as being example of the kinds of creative work that's being funded, and you also spoke about just being like, there was a time in like the 80s, where certain artist or poets were the only one, and I'm curious just in what you studied and read and explored what would you identify are names of some of the tools and strategies that they used to transcend those phases that have such a dense traditional culture, that is not like almost seeming like they're not ready to be able to embrace cultural ...
 
Elizabeth A.: Yeah. That's a such great question. I've been thinking a lot about how sometimes, and it's something that actually philanthropy has made me think about, that sometimes ... and this is maybe going to sound like what's bad about the Talented Tenth. Although also I think the Talented Tenth is not really alive because I think what's wrong is when resources are not fairly considered but what's true about human beings is that some people in communities are able to take work forward in a certain kind of way. Some people are warriors of a certain kind. People have different ways of being a piece of the puzzle of their community. 
 
I think that actually, it's a very, very few people who have ... I mean, look at the outsize influence of a June Jordan, look at the outsize influence of a Michael Harper, another really, really great poet who we lost last year, who was at Brown University and was the only tenured Black poet in all of the academy forever and ever and ever. I watched him very carefully. I met him before I knew I was going to do any of this. He came and he gave a reading when I was in college and the reading was amazing. I wasn't a poet at that time but I just, you know, and I started writing him. 
 
I look sometimes ... like the first postcard letter I wrote him, I was like, "Oh your work," all of a sudden, I'm like, I was wondering, I felt that perhaps I was hearing echoes of Langston Hughes. Did you read Langston Hughes. I'm like writing this grown-up Black poet, did you read Langston Hughes as only a 19 year old flush with Langston Hughesness which by the way, I wasn't learning in school but I learned on my own, right, being what Robert Stepto called the family bookshelf African-Americanist, right? Michael became a mentor to me and I watched him and I saw how he did things like using the university's resources to bring other people in. 
 
I watched him complaining ... he was another gruff one, about writing letters of recommendation and then I became that person writing letters of recommendation for what is now ... Now, there are actually dozens of tenured Black poets at universities. Michael did things like, get honorary degrees for people like Robert Hayden and Sterling Brown, whose work was not in favor. Get their out of print work published. He never said that, that's what he was doing but I watched him as the one who just kind of by accident, had certain ... was in a place and said, "I'm not going to leave here without redistributing these white people's money."
 
That ... so I think that there's some people who figure out how to do that and that can be a widening thing. I don't know what the science is behind it except that I do believe in cohort building, and I think that one thing that we can't do for in a position to, and one thing that we need to, from within institutions, really, really, really fight against, is bring one person, untenured person and hope they'll survive in a hostile environment. No, you have to bring cohorts and bring people in decision making positions and that's not always easy. Yeah, so that's the beginnings of an answer to your really good question. Thank you. Karen.
 
Karen B.: Thank you for a wonderful talk. I just want to pick up what you just said, distributing white people's money. That is something I think that is happening, and it's moving along, and it's creating opportunities, and it's really pushing this development in many ways. What worries me is that we are launching it, we are learning about it and that it is within a limited part of America, that this is becoming important and that we're not crossing a divide of sorts that this is remaining within ... it's like preaching to the converted. Is this having an impact beyond? How can we have this move on to places and spaces where no one is aware of this and how do we do that?
 
Elizabeth A.: I think one thing that I think at middle age is I have gotten also a very practical about like, what I can do is I can tell you like, this is excellent and that is not. This has the power to transcend and that does not. This is visionary, this is retro grade. This is ... I can discern and then, whether it is in teaching or contest or whatever it is, I can help lift those people up and put them into community, because I think if you feed, what is the thing about, which beast do you feed, right? I feel like, okay, what I know how to do is feed the vision and I can't figure out, the beauty of culture is that it is consumable by those who want to come to it. 
 
That's why I think Kendrick Lamar is a really interesting example and why I like thinking about him in a much more local and small and collective and kind of almost art for art say, context because then, when he's on the, whatever the American Music will ... I remember the award show where he did the song that is about mass incarceration and well, zillions of people saw that and that at another level, at least in the training, I mean, all I can do is think about how things radiate out. Okay. We've sent out some students who know how to analyze that, who know how to spread that, who know how to ... 
 
Then, I kind of feel like, "Okay, kids you all figure out how to move it around. You all figure out in your protest," which has now ... now what I wonder is if you think about the Yale protest, like those images, which I found so powerful, the thing that the right wing media got out there was a screaming girl, right? That was a very, very smart machine that decided to narrate someone whose community space, my god, I mean like, well, I could carry on but the point is like, the idea that anybody thinks of their space as home, that's a value, that's what we should want everywhere, that wherever people stand they think of their space as home, as shared home, right?
 
That screaming girl could turn into someone vilify because of a very, very well-organized and well-funded machine is a terrible thing and I feel like being very practical and very exhausted like we all are, I don't know how to fix that but I do know how to feed the other thing and then hope that other people use their creativity to keep it moving. Perhaps other have ... others have idea, I welcome your answers to Karen's question. What else, any other thoughts or questions? I'm sure there are some. Yes.
 
Audience member 4: The film that you showed with the children jumping out of the caskets, I don't think I've recovered from.
 
Elizabeth A.: Yes.
 
Audience member 4: I mean, it was just really profound, and I don't know, it kind of anchors the grief of seeing what's happening wholesale in the communities. How can we show that but at the same time show hope and I'm looking now at comparing Black and white coming of age films, and the narrative for Black kids, it's always tragedy, it's always dilapidation, it's always a loss of hope. How can we activate without re-exposing us to this kind of constant tragedy and death. 
 
Elizabeth A.: Well, that's the question, right? I mean, what I think is interesting to track is ... I've noticed in a lot of Black popular culture that is making itself a little bit more widely available than when we were growing up right, so I think about something like Insecure, which is on HBO, the Issa Rae Show and I think about Donald Glover's Atlanta where Hiro Murai, the cinematographer in that video is the cinematographer for that. When I watch those, one of the things that really strikes me is I think, will someone please talk about how this is about Black depression? This is about ... these shows are about being depressed, about a depressed generation, with good reason. 
 
I mean, again, a generation that has come of age with the unique ability to witness their violation in repeated fashion over and over and over again, sometimes out of the view of the community. I mean, that's what struck me. My own children are 18 and 19 and I would think that ... by the time they would get home on a school bus, they would have watched Laquan McDonald, get killed 25 times before they could do it with me and like ... and so, I think that one the one hand, we need life force, we need joy and it is the story of Black survival that ... 
I think that it is in cultural expression, that that life force, that hasn't been able to be distinguished, extinguished is still present but I think that also, what work like this insist is that the incredible ... I feel so much joy when I watch those kids but the video won't let you rest in that joy perhaps because we can't. I think that's where we are but I think culture is where the life force is carried. Watching the second one in the Kahlil Joseph, the older man, that is refusing joy but it is so visually compelling and it too is powerful self-expression. Kendrick Lamar himself, I think Kendrick is ... he's depressed to. 
 
Kendrick's art is profoundly depressed art and you can really see it if you look at his videos actually but it's depressed in Black community, which I think ... I mean, like let's just open it up and see there's so much that's there. Yeah. Thanks for that. Anyone else? 
 
Audience member 5: : I have a question about, the Ford Foundation are giving opportunities to support Black arts, but I'm also thinking of the baby boys and girls too.
 
Elizabeth A.: About what?
 
Audience member 5: About the baby boys and girls, I mean, elementary school children and again, that reaches out to more and more to give the inspiration or just the idea. I mean, when you say, "Have you seen this? No. Have you seen that? No." I really like, love that you bring things to me but it's just ... I just think of the little kids too, is that ... has it gotten to that level where it's reaching to the babies?
 
Elizabeth A.: The Ford work?
 
Audience member 5: Ford work or any other stimulation and ...
 
Elizabeth A.: Yeah. I mean, so, here's where I think of concentric circles. If you think about what, when students go out and do, and some of them are teachers, and some of them are parents and some of them are lawyers, and some of them are doctors. What does it mean for all of these students to be taking a Black cultural vision with them and doing something with it? That's an interesting thing about having taught for so long is that they come back, and they've done all kinds of different things, and their perspectives ... where they now are, they're doing something. When I first started to do the work, my first thought, when I really again did not understand what the job was. 
 
I just knew that I was going to go have this crazy adventure, I thought, "Okay, well, with all this money, the thing you have to do ..." Arts education is always the answer. That is never wrong and yeah, that is never wrong but even with all the resources of the Ford Foundation, we can't touch what needs to be done. We can't touch it. What that helped me to understand and theorize really is what does it mean to be extremely targeted and strategic in a way that there's the work itself that get supported, that hopefully goes out but that also ... there is something legible about all the work together. 
 
That is another way of putting an idea out there that hopefully as with any other good or not so good idea, people can join on if they are compelled by it. I think that's the best any of us can do. Yeah, but that's a lot as from where we all stand. Yeah. Well, I think we are done so thank you so much for your attention.
Resource Type: