The walls littered with academic social justice posters and historic reminders of disparity maintain a sort of welcome mat when I see them. I usually take a deep sigh to notice a teacher who has taken the time to put up a Malcolm X poster. Not Martin Luther King, not Booker T. Washington... just Malcolm. A strange quirk for me: It’s a sign said teacher fully grasps the difference between prejudice and systemic disparity. Her walls exhibit the such, and would have me attend her 6th grade class for the entire week to lead a slam poetry workshop within the realms of Minnesota history. The history part works, as she’s laced the entire syllabus for the slam poetry workshop with equity, racial disparity, classism, and an all-around breadth of sociology.
Egg white walls stretch as high and far as I care to see. The thing about art and design schools, for me, is the dead silence. Passing by several classes of capacity auditoriums and paint labs, while walking the 2nd floor, you can hear the welcome desk person typing from the floor below. Dead. Silence.
I had been requested to step into an art and design college to speak about my process as an artist, touching on the themes of community and social responsibility. By now, having traveled the country for over a decade discussing racial prejudice and systemic disparity, I have no problem standing in front of a group of 20+ year old white students and telling them their privilege is one thing, however not communicating it through their art is a failed responsibility on all accounts.
So, here we are: Friday morning, 30 junior/senior students with emphasis from animation to film directing to sculpting, me, two poems, and an hour to kill before we all disperse into the weekend.
For 5 days, 5 classes a day, I circle up with the tykes to discuss where they’re at with their slam poems and level of confidence in what they’ve written so far. Some display an unrivaled passion for academics I can see their parents have encouraged, and have pages upon pages sketched down of what they’ll present the final day of the workshop. Other students, who have taken animosity with school and disdain for authority, express a page or shorter of absolute brilliance. I can quickly see the disparity of house income, ethnicity, and perceived self-image from each student. It’s amazing how quickly their deepest insecurities can surface once given a space designated for expression.
At what first felt like a time-killer, the first slam poem I delivered to the class brought about the elephant in the room: money and art. If your art is a piece of your soul, can it have a price tag? We barrel through that and a litany of other subjects regarding school, working with youth, and soon the dreaded… race and art.
So far, the class has been mild to luke warm on the subject matter we talk about, until I asked, “Do you feel the overwhelming presence of white people and whiteness in Minnesota affects your art?” The auditorium erupts in a collective of agreeing gasps, sighs, and laughs of “no shit”. The ball is rolling, and I’m going to make for damn sure I don’t push it too much, otherwise whatever precious momentum we have could be ruined.
Of the 30 students and faculty in the room, 4 to 6 were non-white. The room equally chips in to the discussion on whiteness, to my surprise, scaling a gamut of defining white art to whiteness in Minneapolis hip-hop. The conversation is jilting to the point several students begin to speak on the subject out of turn, overlapping one another.
The 3rd to last class, on the final day of the workshop, enters the classroom to present their slam poems. The class is daunting in size as our circle begins to creep into the other half of the room. Students deliver impassioned poetry from historic subjects as foreign to me as the great typhoid outbreak in St. Paul, and the not-so-foreign-to-me lynchings in Duluth. Some of the poetry is personal, some of it not. Uniform to all, their poetry is delivered with conviction.
Rounding the bend to the final portion of the circle, a shy student stood to speak his poem. Brown skin, Spanish accent, and standing no taller than 4-and-a-half feet in height, he began his piece with the softest voice yet. Hard to hear under the acoustics, I lean in from my chair, as does the majority of the class.
For the life of me, I can’t remember verbatim what his poem spoke, but he began with listing…
“I am Mexican. My family is Mexican. My people, are Mexican. We work the jobs you don’t want to. We roof your houses, we clean your dishes…”
Sweet Jesus on a Klondike, I think to myself at this moment. What was presumed to be another innocent declaration of one’s newfound interest in MN History, turned into a personal essay with a resounding emotional boom slowly working its way through everyone’s solar plexus. Tears well up in the young man’s eyes, his voice bubbles through the excess saliva choking him up, I quickly look about to the rest of the class- White students unknowingly spectating with their jaws dropped, while each Spanish speaking student began to tear up in unison with the young poet. He continues…
“How would you feel if… How would you feel if…”
He cracks. A part of him can no longer hold back his heart’s momentum. In his youthful mind, he hasn’t quite connected the dots that it’s perfectly ok to speak with conviction, cry, and be human all at the same time, so he turns his back and begins to release more tears, haulting the poem.
At this point, every brown student in the classroom is tearing up or fully crying. Another student, races from an arc of the circle to hold him. In solidarity, they hug, communicating “Hey, it’s ok. You can make it.” And over all gestures, the embrace says “What you have to say is important.”
With his back still turned, he reads on.
“How would you feel if your parents could be taken away from you at any moment and deported to another country”.
Annnnnnnd we lost it. Now the teacher, the teacher assistants, and myself are caught in a wash of tears, unbridled empathy, and a fervently shaken control to keep it all in.
I wrap with my testimonial on my entrance into college at St. John’s, then to Hamline, then to drop out, and then to the University of Minnesota. Illustrating how I found my footing as an artist, and reconciling with Minnesota that I will forever be heavily viewed as an artist of color before anything else of my being or work is taken into account.
A white student raised his hand to ask, “As a white person, how can I touch on racial disparity in my art. I mean- how do you talk about that”.
I respond, “I don’t know, because I’m not white. I wanna know what you feel like though! When you walk into Spyhouse and see dozens of white people on expensive laptops typing & clicking into the day, meanwhile, an old homeless black guy is passed out in one of the chairs next to all of this- How the hell does that make you feel??? Privilege is invisible, so I want to know at what point is it unavoidable? We’re in Minnesota, where a white rapper can go an entire career without having to see one person of color in her or his audience, go without charitably donating one song to the fact that he’s a white artist participating in an art originated by an entirely different ethnicity and culture, go without having to acknowledge race for a fiber of a second- I wanna know how that makes you feel?”
Time’s up. The hour is away from us. We adjourn.
Students line up to the side of the stage bestowing thanks and questions to me they weren’t able to quite get to during the discussion. A brown woman stands waiting for 5+ minutes while I converse with a student on what exactly the air of the school is like when a student tries to bring race into their assignment or project. Our dialogue goes on longer than I expect. The brown woman stands diligently still. Wrapping up, she took a meager two steps to greet me.
“Hi” I introduced myself basically.
“Hi, I uh…” she stifled. “I- Ok, I was fine, but now it’s happening again.”
Tears surface to the bottom crescent of each her eyes, so thick they’re even noticeable behind her thick black-rimmed glasses.
“What’s up? You alright?”, I tip toed.
“Yeah, I’m fine. When you were talking about race up there. See, I'm from South America- I was born in South America, and I was adopted…”
She goes on to divulge her background of adversity with being presumed too white to be accepted by people of color, and too brown to be accepted by white people. The line is ugly, and I’ve lived it all my life. I can still remember Bridget from the 4th grade screaming at me during recess, “Nigga I’ll slap the black outta you! (Laughs) If there’s any black in there (More laughter)”. I can tell her experience is filled with moments that have moved her as an artist, human being and potential activist. Continuing her story, “And, it’s when you try to talk about that (race) or present it (race) in your project, other students just harp on it so hard and dismiss it so quickly”
Again, I can’t recall what she said verbatim, but I can recall the way it made me feel. As the tears continue to surface, I ask her a question I don’t think I’ve ever asked anyone before. Almost tearing up myself, I ask, “Do you want a hug?”
Not even giving her a chance to answer, I take a half step toward her, stretch out my arms in tandem with her own, we hug it out for a quick few seconds. In that moment, I can recall just how many times I needed a hug like this in my earlier days. The days of cradling my head in my hands trying to figure out just why the f writing, performing and acting felt like skating uphill- felt like I was speaking to an audience that hadn’t a shred of empathy- felt like I was giving my best to Minnesota, and only receiving apathy in return. That hurt, that pain, that struggle is what has made me the artist I am today. Not fully, but definitely a fair part of me.
We chat a little longer, and draw comparisons to her final project and a show I did recently at the Bryant Lake Bowl. The entire lecture, the talks afterward… all of it humbling.
I never expect tears on such occasions, however when you designate a space to speak freely, express truthfully, and value your neighbors thoughts and ideas as much as your own, I can think of no better place to give someone a hug.