Art and the Political

What makes an Artist an Activist?

More appropriately how do we delegate our responsibilities as citizens to the craft at hand. This is a question that stuns as much as it inspires.  I suppose for me the two are wholly intertwined. It can be a simple question of writing that which we know. As an artist, specifically as a female, as a Black female, as a poet I feel an easiness in developing work that speaks to my experience. The easiness stems from the structure but it maybe just stops there.

It is a question of the personal. How do I articulate my place in this world and how does it contradict popular notions of that very same place where I sit.  A few weeks ago at the Playwrights’ center an incredible female Navajo writer articulated a very real point that her work gives voice to an American history that is muted, and also mutated for White display and has been over Centuries. That is, depictions of Indigenous Americans has been subject to slant, idealization and very political slander. Art/Film/Literature about the Native American experience has been Anglofied (verb) to fit models of popular mythology, true or not. This lack and mis-representation is a disenfranchisement. This disenfranchisement leads to artistic difficulties in the cultivation of new work- there is little or no infrastructure, the community is fractured and disconnected from manners of expression that should be inherent.

So there is a structural problem. There are few Native actors, directors, artists for her works production. . . that doesn’t stop the work from happening. Thinking internationally of depictions of Middle Eastern stories. . . (The Prince of Persia- Jake Gyllenhall as a box office stud- methinks he’s not Persian, the use of a French actress Marion Cotillard as Menominee Billie Frechette). There is also the problem of reinforcing certian sterotypes af culture- any culture, Black, Yellow, Brown or otherwise- think Tyler Perry, Carlos Mencia, etc. There is a real experience that some of this information stems from but then when you think of Sapphire’s Push/Precious success I can think only of scheming, of financial gain and the negative connotations of popular film/media/depictions.

What makes a person become a political activist? Specifically an artist? One word could be dissatisfaction.

I’d also say history. (Hurtstory.) I could also say the personal. I have a hard time fleshing the personal experience from the practice of art. In the last few years it has become evident in my work and also in the work I find myself reading that I am responding to a question of generation. A question of passing. A question of voice. I want to voice my experience and there is quite a lot of political in my personal experience. As a Black female writer you find yourself needing to divorce yourself from certain things, but you have to know why. When I was at the Givens Black Writers retreat last year, Ishmael Reed told me to divorce myself from the white avant-garde.

That’s political. Not simply because he is Black and they are white. It wasn’t about that. It was about finding my roots. The roots of what I was doing. It was about politics because it was about learning what a generation before me had done to the political niches they were given, Negro Lit, Negro Theater, Film (yes there is! Oscar Mischeaux) but no one ever talks about it. You have to find it for yourself.

I have two points here, Ishmael Reed was my first Black teacher. In my near 20 years of studentship I hadn’t had one direct English Teacher or teacher at all that was Black. I am thankful to my advisor in my time at St. Thomas Buffy Smith in the Sociology Department for her support and attention but it was not the same as the direct feedback (at times quite harsh) that I recieved from Reed and Laurie Carlos.

I found myself at a precipice where I had to ask myself, do I double back and go back to the safer moments, the safer containers that the Lit world wanted to keep me in or did I want to blossom forth and get a better handle on my perspective, which was really my person?

My second point is that as an Adoptee of the diaspora, my experience of Blackness is likely much different than the experiences of many of my brothers and sisters. I was raised in a white family and it wasn’t until my Givens experience that I had developed a group of other individuals of color. It was like the pieces were coming together. I recognized my face in the faces around me, I also recognized what I had been apologizing for all along. I am an imposter.

I think every artist comes to a time when they have to do them. They have to go forward using what they’ve learned hitherto to create a language and venue for their voice. It takes more than me identifying as a Black writer. It means I have to step forward and scream my experience from the top of my lungs. If that means delving into my personal life and finding profits from the pain I’ve experienced or the hurtstory of my people. Then all the better. I think I do that in my work. I want you to know what I know but I also want you to learn a bit for yourself.

What makes my work political isn’t that I’ve created ( I hope effectively) a new formal structure and mechanisms to convey my experience that don’t align directly with such and such writer or with such and such institutionalized form. What makes my work political is that it doesn’t apologize for it’s apology. It allows for contradiction. It is self effacing and honest. Sometimes the language is hurtful. Sometimes you want to cry. Sometimes you want to laugh. Sometimes you want to leave the room. That, to me, is the beauty of it all. That is what is political. That is what enfranchises me.

I’ve said again and again to my friends in pain. To my friends that are struggling that they need to put it on the page. I’ve had this said to me. If you don’t write it down how do you know if it is real? How do you expect other people to understand your history if you don’t understand it yourself. That is what I was trying to get across in my essay Open Letter to My Generation. You have a history. Don’t invalidate yourself because you don’t know about it or aren’t willing to know it, accept it, learn from it.

I don’t know if after writing this I’m any more clear on what makes a person become an activist.

I guess I learned from my father Bill Brimmer, I learned from Reed, I learned from Carlos and from myself everyday. It’s about not being in the room when the derogatory conversation is going on and knowing why. It is about speaking from the heart of your life and knowing why. Its not just about breaking the rules but exploding knowing full well why and what damage you’re doing to the environment. Activism and Art walk hand in hand – and if yours doesn’t then. . . it’s still art but I wonder whose it is, ’cause it ain’t yours.

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  1. Hi Lisa, Send me something for my zine Konch. Send to
    Your old “harsh” Prof.

  2. What makes a person an activist?

    The desire to not just sit on the side lines and bemoan current conditions, but to do something about them.

    The desire to be a agent for change.

    The desire to do some good in the world.

    That’s all. Welcome.


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