"An artist's duty is to reflect the times..."
Screw your status quo. Collective liberation and truth matter. Complacency? Not so much. As a child, I befriended kids everyone else shunned. Ostracizing folks never sat well with me - even on the elementary school playground. I simply could not pretend I did not see their pain. You see, I feel intensely.
I think its why I connect so deeply with Nina Simone, a woman of fierce talent who dared to speak about the ugliness of America while simultaneously pushing for change. She understood creatives do not produce art in a vacuum. We are deeply impacted by the world around us - whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.
Being awake is painful, exhausting - you face what others deny. And yet, ironically, this discomfort liberates us. Because what you and I urgently confront ceases to imprison our minds.
I am here for radically reimagining possibilities and systems. And I believe as a creative, an artist, this is my time, our time… Cultivating creativity is oxygen in a world determined to suffocate resistance through domination and fear. And yet, we, the, writers, musicians, dancers, and thinkers, must continue despite this current climate in America. Many of us amplify the truths of the marginalized. We arrest long-held notions that what exists must remain.
At the height of the Civil Rights movement, Nina Simone sang songs like "Mississippi Goddamn," with such arresting passion. Radio stations refused to play it. Undaunted, she pressed on artistically. "I could sing to help my people," she said in a clip from the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? "I mean how can you be an artist and not reflect the times?"
These words from the song Backlash Blues, taken from a poem by Langston Hughes, are chillingly relevant now:
Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash
Just who do think I am?
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages
And send my son to Vietnam
You give me second class houses
And second class schools
Do you think that all the colored folks
Are just second class fools?
Mr. Backlash, I'm gonna leave you
With the backlash blues
When I try to find a job
To earn a little cash
All you got to offer
Is your mean old white backlash
But the world is big
Big and bright and round
And it's full of folks like me
Who are black, yellow, beige and brown
Mr. Backlash, I'm gonna leave you
With the backlash blues...
This past summer, immediately after the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, my heart still in tatters, I picked up my phone, and wrote on Instagram, soon after blogging about the challenges of raising a brown girl in this culture. I wrote for my life, my daughter Nai’s life, and all the women and girls before me who could not:
“One week ago, while you slept, Mommy stood in the kitchen, surrounded by plates and cups and cried. I nearly collapsed, knees aching, my stomach somersaulting with uneasiness and lingering pain. I cried because when I looked at Philando Castile’s fiancée, her eyes, worn from grief and shock, mirrored my own in ways you will one day, sadly, know as a black woman, unless the conscious of America profoundly shifts. Your Mama is an optimist, and a Christian so I stand on the anchor of hope (Hebrews 6:19), praying we will begin seeing each other not as Americans but people, people whose individual truths are valid and real…”
As I drive and listen to Nina, sunshine fading on this unseasonably warm March evening, her voice bears the ache of frustration and sting of exclusion, but also I hear audacious hope, a belief in the generations to come and our power to transform.
Towards the end of her live performance of "Mississippi Goddamn" she urged the audience to join the cause, not leaving her to resist alone: “If you have been moved at all… for God’s sake, join me, don’t sit back there.. good God.” And this is the power of the artist – inspiring and awakening others. Until I take my last breath, I remain committed to changing the world – one poem, essay, blog post and photograph at a time. How can I turn away? How can any of us?
**The Woke Pretty aka Emelda De Coteau is a loving wife, mama, creative, and believer seeking God anew in each moment. She is the founder of the inspirational and faith blog, Live In Color. Emelda is a columnist for Beautifully Said Magazine, contributing writer at Our Words Collaborative, Founder of @WomenCreativesChat , and founding member of Black Womyn Rising, a radical organizing collective for Black womyn and girls.