by Dr. Michon Benson-Marsh
When people question whether Black art has the power to effect political change, their tone at once bespeaks skepticism, anticipation, and fear. The skepticism is certainly rooted in an historical narrative that insists Africana people cannot create anything of value. In 1781, Thomas Jefferson publicly insisted: “[I]n imagination, [blacks] are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. Among the blacks is…no poetry.”1 Once that debate settled, many art enthusiasts began interrogating the efficacy of Black art. At an African art exhibit, for example, contemporary museumgoers might pore over drum and mask and tool, hoping to learn what the artifacts do – what magic they conjure, which gods they stir. The popular perception is that, beyond merely existing, the “arts of Africa were meant to make things happen.”2
The most prolific Black artists of the twentieth century have, instead, recognized the power in Black art, describing its potential to destroy the extant political structure and to change the lives of oppressed people everywhere. While working to attract a diverse audience of consumers, a generation of new artists explicitly charges their contemporaries with the task of activating an arsenal of visual, aural, and written texts in order to “wage war against every institution which influences the actions of black people.”3 Yet these same artists allow themselves to be wooed by the alms of their respective community’s oppressors, and, subsequently, stop making their art.
In his one-act play “Dutchman” (1964), the “godfather” of the Black Arts Movement Amiri Baraka explores the dangerous paradox of Black art—“Die if you do; die if you don’t.”4
In “Dutchman,” Clay and Lula are strangers riding the evening subway. When the attractive white woman sees the middle-class Black man, she begins to seduce him, first by offering him a bite of her apple, then by dancing suggestively and talking frankly about sex. Visibly uncomfortable with her advances, Clay might have consented to be intimate with her, but he soon becomes too incensed by her cruel comments. Rapid- fire attacks on his ineffectual heritage and his impotent manhood, coupled with her misplaced confidence in her superficial understanding about Black music and culture, prove too much for him to stomach. When Lula attributes his shortcomings to his fear of white people and to his being “Uncle Tom Big Lip”, Clay slaps her as hard as he can, signaling his wrath and squelching any insecurities he once had about his own identity. In that moment, Clay deems himself an artist, “a poet”, and he elucidates for Lula (and for the bystanders on the train) the function of Black art:
“You wanted to do the belly rub? Shit, you don’t even know how…Belly rub hates you. Old bald-headed four-eyed ofays popping their fingers…and don’t know yet what they’re doing. They say, “I love Bessie Smith.” And don’t even understand that Bessie Smith is saying, “Kiss my ass, kiss my black unruly ass.”… Charlie Parker?…All the hip white boys scream for Bird. And Bird saying, “Up your ass, feeble-minded ofay! Up your ass.” And they sit there talking about the tortured genius of Charlie Parker. Bird would’ve played not a note of music if he just walked up to East Sixty-Seventh Street and killed the first ten white people he saw…If Bessie Smith had killed some white people she wouldn’t have needed that music. Crazy niggers turning their backs on sanity. When all it needs is that simple act. Murder. Just murder! Would make us all sane.”5
As painful as the physical blow he deals Lula (and as fatal as the knife Lula thrusts into Clay’s stomach at the end of the play), Clay describes the effect of Black art as intensely palpable. For him, art powerfully, albeit guilefully, communicates the artist’s social, cultural, and racial politics. Clay sermonizes about the power Black art has to entertain the masses. He also recognizes how artists can use it to suppress their desires to furiously unleash their political agendas in the real world. Spewing idle threats about what powerful art can do, Clay the artist dies because he never allows his “art” to annihilate his peculiar oppressor.
Baraka’s drama echoes all the anxieties around Black art suffered by society at large. Baraka’s staged response illustrates what happens to Black artists who are too apprehensive about executing their individual and collective strengths in the face of their oppressors. They die at the hands of very systems they are obligated to “kill.”
Many young artists begin their careers ready to affect all manner of positive change. But, quieted by the lullaby (or perhaps, in the context of “Dutchman,” we might call it a “Lula-by”) of commercialism, among other things, they fail to activate their power. Now is the time to effect change. Show work in the spaces where the people need it most – in community galleries, like the Community Artists’ Collective and Project Row Houses. Showcase in the myriad coffee shops and lounges and restaurants around Third Ward. Hell! Go rogue, and push art onto the Metrorail train in memory of artists like Clay, who could not quite make art do what it does. The time has come to initiate the next, triumphant political surge. If the artists don’t, we all die!
1 Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. (Historical Printing Club, 1784) 150.
2 Davidson, Basil. The African Genius. (James Currey, 2004) 160.
3 Gayle, Addison. The Black Aesthetic. Doubleday, 1972. 4 Baraka, Amiri. Dutchman. Faber & Faber, 1964.
5 Baraka, Amiri. Dutchman. Faber & Faber, 1964
Michon Benson-Marsh is an Assistant Professor. She is a graduate of Jack Yates High School and long-time resident of Houston’s Third Ward community. Dr. Benson has been a secondary school teacher and an instructional leader for over 25 years. In 1990, Dr. Benson received her undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin in Studio Art, a Master’s degree in Rhetoric and Composition from Texas Southern University in 1996, and her PhD in African American Literature in 2007. As a Visiting Professor of English, Dr. Benson has earned excellent performance evaluations for her work in Freshman Composition and African American Literature courses. Additionally, Dr. Benson actively engages community service. On campus, she sponsors student-led organizations and mentors members of the Student Senate. Off-campus, she is a guest host on KCOH Radio show “Interchange” with Larry Payne. She serves on the advisory council of the Community Artists’ Collective. Dr. Benson’s most recent scholarship includes an essay in the Journal of the College Language Association, entitled “SOS – Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader” (2016), and she collaborates with a team of TSU Science professors as co-Project Investigator on an 2017-2020 HBCU-UP grant through the National Science Foundation.