I recently attended a spoken poetry event called The Artist Lounge, hosted by Dometi and Awthentik Poetry.
I was there on behalf of an artist, Zac Franzoni, installing and representing his artwork. I approached it like any other gig, professionally and without preconception, but the experience stirred something in me.
Like always, I felt compelled to share my thoughts.
A hundred or more people came through the door that night at Elee Art Gallery. It was standing room only as some seriously talented poets delivered remarkable performances. Poets bared their souls and moved the crowd with their impressive word-play and cadence.
Clearly, this community was a force. And by “this” community, I mean the Black community.
You see, my wife and I were the only white people in the room that night, which didn’t seem to bother anyone. We were warmly welcomed, and we felt honored to witness Chicago’s black art community come together and create such a passionate and inspiring atmosphere.
However, this is not exactly typical.
What is typical is that different cultural groups tend to stick together. We are comfortable around people with whom we have a common interest. We don’t typically go to parties filled with strangers that speak another language, or attend an event catered to a demographic of which we do not belong.
Most people like to share similarities.
We trade relevant stories and tell “inside” jokes. We do this out of habit, or because we find pleasure in the company of kindred spirits.
However, these tendencies are a symptom of cultural isolation and the result is that anyone outside of the group becomes an alien.
In a country where so many different cultures co-exist, it is important to expand our interests beyond the familiar. We need to open our minds and share our experiences with people outside of our relative community and redefine the boundary of who we consider “us”.
I like to think I’ve been doing this my entire life.
I have always sought out those who were “different” than me and engaged in the mutual sharing of our experiences and beliefs.
As a formative part of my worldview, this mission has helped me keep an objective opinion when others point fingers. Because of this interest and respect for other cultures, I have never been treated as an interloper.
When I was in prison, where the cultures of America are closer to each other than anywhere else, I was accepted by Blacks, Hispanics and Whites equally. I treated everyone like a member of my social group and in response, they treated me like a member of their social group.
As a matter of fact, every time they transferred me to a new prison (which happened six times in three years), I was welcomed by the Hispanic inmates, not the white ones.
If you watch the nightly news, you will see a dialogue unfold. Usually, it centers on the uprisings and protests of young black people spurred by police violence.
If not – maybe you’ll hear a panel discuss the murders in Charleston, NC, where Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African Americans in a church. And if not that, it’s probably over the murder of Kathryn Steinle at the hands of a Mexican felon.
The events mentioned above are newsworthy. Death, police brutality, and righteous protests deserve airtime. But news organizations are still ignoring one simple element.
If we keep the “us” and “them” dialogue going, every ethnicity will continue to be agonists.
We are all one, an organism trying to survive on a planet. The different cultural and physical traits that accompany various ethnicities should not be the determining factor in how we perceive another human being.
Our differences should be celebrated as we come together as the human race.
I believe this union is possible through the shared experience of art. Art is a powerful mode of communicating ideas and bridging gaps between cultures and individuals.
When the talking heads on television start arguing about who is right and who is wrong, we ingest that process and continue the argument in our daily lives.
When someone speaks through art, it is not a reactionary thought, but a meditation. It’s an idea communicated with intent. And that’s exactly what I experienced at The Artist Lounge.
“Ideas with intent.”
They didn’t speak of the atrocities they’ve suffered. They didn’t speak of the slandering they’ve endured. And they didn’t speak of the violence that has plagued the Black community for generations.
Instead of wallowing in despair, their voices called for action.
They spoke of keeping tradition alive. They spoke of living with self-respect. And they spoke of building communities based on love.
One group of poets, Poetree, brought a sense of purpose and comradery to the room that inspired all in attendance.
Poetree is an acronym for People’s Organized Entertainment Teaching Righteous Education Everywhere. They spoke briefly about the passing of founding member “Brother Mike” Hawkins, mentor to Chance the Rapper and many other young Chicago artists. Brother Mike was a phenomenal human being and an example of what an artist can do to make a positive impact on the world around him.
His approach to mentorship and activism was based on “learning experiences that incite creativity and active participation.” And now, his legacy lives on in the hearts of artists everywhere that believe they can change the world for the better.
At one point in the night, I was asked to speak about Zac’s art and my writing. I stood in front of this group that did not share my skin color and gave a five-minute speech about the importance of art and sharing one another’s stories. They received me very well, laughing at my dumb jokes and applauding when I finished.
I didn’t feel like an outsider.
We were all there to share our art, and that common interest helped us look past our differences.
If we decided to have our artists speak on behalf of our cultures instead of politicians, the result might be a dialogue worth ingesting. But we don’t have to appoint anyone to speak on our behalf. We could just go straight to the source.
We could start attending events, art oriented or otherwise, that are not catered to our demographic. We could share experiences with people of different cultures often enough that the boundaries dissipate.
As crazy as it sounds, we could become one culture. Instead of Blacks and Whites and Hispanics, we could simply be Americans.
I don’t know for certain if art can bridge the culture gap and end racism in this country. But, what I do know is that we need to focus on commonality instead of disparity.
We can still celebrate our heritage and idiosyncrasies without contentious attitudes or antagonistic behavior. We can start a new dialogue focused on sharing one another’s strengths instead of exploiting each other’s weaknesses.
Most of all, there should be no “them.”
There should be only “us.”