On merg­ing art, so­cial jus­tice

Charles Stephens is the Di­rec­tor of Counter Nar­ra­tive and co-editor of ‘Black Gay Ge­nius: An­swer­ing Joseph Beam’s Call.’

GA Voice - - Outspoken - By Charles Stephens

Art is in­dis­pens­able to so­cial jus­tice. Ef­fec­tive so­cial move­ments are of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by, if not shaped by, art and artists. One of the more re­cent ex­am­ples that comes to mind is from the 1980s, when a flour­ish­ing black LGBTQ move­ment was re­in­forced by the cul­tural pro­duc­tion of po­ets such as Es­sex Hem­phill, Audre Lorde, and Pat Parker, along with the es­say­ist Joseph Beam and the film­maker Mar­lon Riggs. In 1986 alone, we saw the found­ing of such iconic or­ga­ni­za­tions as Gay Men of African De­scent (GMAD), Adodi, and the first con­fer­ence on HIV in the black com­mu­nity, cou­pled with the pub­li­ca­tion of the an­thol­ogy In the Life and the found­ing of Other Coun­tries, a black gay men’s writ­ers col­lec­tive. These com­bined forces inspired a col­lec­tive com- mu­nity re­silience that demon­strates the power of art in the ser­vice of so­cial jus­tice.

In our cur­rent mo­ment, when we are con­stantly con­fronted by im­ages of black peo­ple be­ing mur­dered, I’ve also no­ticed, on so­cial media in par­tic­u­lar, the ref­er­enc­ing of Audre Lorde and James Bald­win. Art thus helps in­spire a lan­guage of re­sis­tance. This in­di­cates the ur­gency of al­lo­cat­ing re­sources to sup­port the work of artists and the de­vel­op­ment of arts in­sti­tu­tions that can cred­i­bly grap­ple with racial eq­uity and black LGBTQ jus­tice in par­tic­u­lar. At­lanta has one of the most pow­er­ful lega­cies and tra­di­tions of black LGBTQ artists speak­ing truth to power, and the city can best honor those lega­cies by in­vest­ing in their con­tin­u­a­tion by sup­port­ing artists, arts in­sti­tu­tions, and strate­gic part­ner­ships with so­cial jus­tice or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Cer­tainly, there are At­lanta-based artists and arts in­sti­tu­tions that have been very ef­fec­tive at en­gag­ing black LGBTQ is­sues, but there has to be more. Most crit­i­cally, arts fun­ders: theater, literature, film and the vis­ual arts must also rec­og­nize their role not merely in sup­port­ing ex­ist­ing in­sti­tu­tions, but also in fos­ter­ing in­no­va­tion by cre­at­ing new op­por­tu­ni­ties for emerg­ing artists, par­tic­u­larly within the black LGBTQ com­mu­nity. This has oc­curred spo­rad­i­cally, but not in a sus­tained way.

To move in that di­rec­tion, here are some ideas about what that could look like: (1) A fel­low­ship specif­i­cally des­ig­nated for a black LGBTQ per­son to work as a cu­ra­tor in one of the lo­cal mu­se­ums; (2) a res­i­dency de­signed for a black LGBTQ play­wright at one of the lo­cal theater com­pa­nies; (3) a fel­low­ship tar­get­ing black LGBTQ artists in the literary and/ or vis­ual arts; (4) a work­shop for screen­writ­ers that fo­cuses on en­gag­ing emerg­ing black LGBTQ writ­ers; (5) fund­ing that en­cour­ages the de­vel­op­ment of black LGBTQ lead­er­ship in the theater com­mu­nity; and (6) part­ner­ships be­tween com­mu­nity-based or­ga­ni­za­tions and arts or­ga­ni­za­tions to grap­ple with racial eq­uity and black LGBTQ jus­tice in the city. There are two ma­jor AIDS ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tions within walk­ing dis­tance of the Woodruff Arts Cen­ter.

Some­thing as sim­ple as a monthly cof­fee be­tween, say, an AIDS ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tion and an arts or­ga­ni­za­tion would go a long way.

At­lanta must lead not only in racial jus­tice, and not only in in­vest­ment in the arts, but in bridg­ing so­cial jus­tice and the arts.

“In our cur­rent mo­ment, when we are con­stantly con­fronted by im­ages of black peo­ple be­ing mur­dered, I’ve also no­ticed, on so­cial media in par­tic­u­lar, the ref­er­enc­ing of Audre Lorde and James Bald­win. Art thus helps in­spire a lan­guage of re­sis­tance.”

Septem­ber 4, 2015

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