"Revolutionary art is art which inspires the people to fight against all forms of injustice, which is the only true purpose of revolutionary art. Reformist art teaches the people to accept injustice in essence, while fighting against its form. I think the artists must use the form of their art to confront all evils in the society."
- Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael).
There are some black cultural artists who have been taking advantage of their popular mainstream status to gloss over the existence of institutionalized racism and structural violence meted out against racialized peoples. Of equal concern is the way these narratives help to shape North America's false notion of a post-racist society and are gradually being relied on to replace and distort genuine conversation around race and class privilege. Pharell Williams' "New Black" concept, Common's apologetic victim blaming of black people and Raven-Symoné's labelless world are just a few of the dangerous narratives that have become centre stage within our popular imagination.
It is not unique for artists to use their art form to weigh in on social causes. The black community, for instance, has always had to rely on the cultural arts as an outlet to propel the struggle for social justice and to legitimize black artistic expressions, whether through literature, music, film or poem. The historical berating of African-informed culture by white supremacy has always been one of the primary sources of progressive black artists' inspiration to create revolutionary art that speaks to black experiences and to inspire social change.
In the early 20th-century, the Harlem Renaissance served as one of the major catalysts in the Americas wherein black writers such as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston dedicated their work to articulating the lived realities of African-Americans as well as challenging Euro-American cultural models. Though some were problematic figures of the time, their poetic and fictional work are testimony to how they and others committed their work to exposing the social inequalities in the United States and to speak against imperialism globally.
Négritude, a more diverse literary movement consisting of African and Caribbean writers later followed in the footsteps of the Harlem Renaissance artists asserting black self-determination. The Black Arts Movement of the 1960s was also paramount in advocating for black power and black cultural autonomy.
Contrary to the primary image of key Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey as a political activist, Garvey also engaged and supported the arts, namely literature as a source of social change. Other revolutionaries such as Franz Fanon advocated for the use of literature as forms of cultural recuperation and nation-building. Fanon eventually participated in the Algerian revolution for independence and used his skills as a writer to articulate the ideas of the national liberation struggle in his adopted country and the African Revolution across the continent.
In a significant way, many of these writers unwaveringly used their writings as a tool to gain an understanding of black people globally, critically examine white supremacy and the colonial condition, and build networks or organizations to advance the struggle.
After writing an essay on popular music losing its political content by conforming to the capitalist marketplace, I was reminded by some friends that there are still musical artists who are using their work to promote social justice. Indeed, I am aware that there are musical artists who are currently producing revolutionary lyrics that speak out against systems of oppression. In fact, I was impressed by popular reggae singer Chronixx's recent criticism of United States president Barack Obama for being useless in the struggle for justice. Chronixx received an avalanche of critique from many Jamaicans.
What has become apparent to me, however, is aside from popular music, black literature has immensely effected social change even though this artistic form is often dismissed as futile in the struggle for emancipation. Impressively, with access to little or no technology, many of the players from the Harlem Renaissance, Négritude and the Black Arts Movement were able to meaningfully champion the cause of Black liberation using their literary work.
Globally, black communities continue to voice their dissatisfaction against the forces of police brutality, poverty, gender-based violence, class disparity and the exploitation of transnational corporation and international financial institutions. Yet there has been no effective means to collectively pull together the social causes of the diaspora.
In the struggle for social justice and human rights, the mass and social media give undue attention to uncritical and politically safe comments of some artists, while covering with the veil of silence the views of progressive cultural workers who consistently provide an oppositional view of economic exploitation, the impact of sexism on women and the operation of white supremacy.
Certainly, I am not setting an impossible standard for the artist as an agent of change. It is clear that the cultural and literary efforts made by earlier writers and other cultural workers have contributed to political movements that have drawn inspiration from their work.
Moreover, these artists' work continue to inform the activist spirit of cultural and political leaders or organizers who are committed to the struggle for social justice globally.
Feminist and poet Audre Lorde's activist effort extended to Berlin where she formed political network with Afro-German women and she joined them in their struggle against racism, xenophobia, classism and homophobia within its black movement. Lorde's desire to write for change came from her exposure to African and African American literature and an organizing culture.
With respect to the writer as a threat to the established order, Edwidge Danticat had this to say in her book Create Dangerously, "Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. This is what I've always thought it meant to be a writer."
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