From Dayna Del Val:
I’ve done very little reading during this sheltering in place period, which is extremely odd for me. Given the chance between reading and almost any other activity, I’ll choose reading nearly every time. I’ve heard from other voracious readers that they aren’t doing as much of it as they normally do, either. It must have something to do with the mental uncertainty we are all still living under: between the pandemic and the economy, we are likely feeling, consciously or not, a tremendous amount of stress and distraction.
And then we add to it the activities of the past week. George Floyd’s murder, another killing of an unarmed black man by those who are charged with protecting all citizens, has stirred up another wave of fierce emotions in people of all races and all walks of life.
I am not qualified in any way to comment on this systemic pattern of violence, mistreatment and, often at best, mistrust of black and brown Americans, now in its fourth century of existence. My goal is to listen more, to learn more and to determine if there is anywhere that I can add value to dismantling, once and for all, this inequity that has divided America for far too long and kept many of our citizens–neighbors, classmates, colleagues and friends–from having access to the same rights and freedoms that so many of us take for granted, including me.
But perhaps I can add something of value in thinking about how the arts intersect with moments like this.
The one book I have finished in these months is Looking for Lorraine by Imani Perry. This intriguing biography of Lorraine Hansberry, brilliant playwright of A Raisin in the Sun, was illuminating and gave me additional insight into her journey to creating that seminal play as well as a window into her personal, political and artistic life.
Ms Hansberry never shied away from using her art to push her political agenda or her politics to create her art. With A Raisin in the Sun, white Americans in 1959 were given one of the first tastes of a typical African American family, living and working in a poor part of Chicago, interestingly, a similar neighborhood to where Michelle Obama grew up.
This isn’t a book report, so I’m not going to tell you about the premise of the play, but I will implore you to rent the 1961 movie. Sidney Poitier leads an incredible cast, and the movie version is a fabulous adaptation of the play.
This play humanized African Americans for an entire generation of Americans–I wish I didn’t need to note that. Think about what I just wrote: it humanized…a group of humans. These are people we recognize; a domineering grandma, a flighty college-aged sibling, a disgruntled married couple. This story could be the story of nearly any working class family in America; this one just happens to be black. And so their story has an added weight to it; an added element of unfair disadvantage to overcome.
And I’m ashamed that this play still resonates today. And boy does it resonate.
So flash forward to the present. What are your lasting images of Mr Floyd’s murder? Don’t focus on the violence that erupted by the very few in the midst of dozens of peaceful protests. Don’t let the media’s insistence on showing the looting be what you think about as you watch the news from your safe homes and neighborhoods. Instead, let the images of art created to memorialize Mr Floyd and to call us all to action invade your mind and heart. Focus on the fact that artists the world over have taken the horrific murder of George Floyd and given his life global meaning because of his senseless death.
Artists have done what artists always do in times of strife, despair and loss: they have shown up and created. They have given dimension and humanity back to a man who was stripped of his basic human rights simply because of the color of his skin. And they have created for us all tangible representations of an injustice that’s way past time we who can make change demand that change happen.
Not sure what I mean? Watch this incredible production of “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” by composer Joel Thompson as performed by the University of Michigan’s Men’s Glee Club and the Sphinx Symphony in 2017. And then think of the pieces that could be added to this work: Stephon Clark, Botham Jean, Ahmed Aubrey, George Floyd…
I don’t imagine that Mr Floyd’s family has found peace from the art created. Like anyone who loses someone in an act of violence, they likely would rather their son, husband, father, brother and friend be with them still.
But as is so often the case, the arts, by representing and interpreting the current reality, might just be the way we all find our way back to a better, higher humanity. I hope so, for Mr Floyd’s sake and for the sake of us all.
Minneapolis Mural credit: Xena Goldman, Cadex Herrera, Greta McLain, Niko Alexander, and Pablo Hernandez