by Leslie M. Scott-Jones
On February second in 1969 the New York Times published an entire page of essays written by luminaries from the Black Artist Movement. Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, Douglas Turner Ward and Barbara Ann Teer among others wrote about the complicated journey taken by Black artists working in a field financially and accessibly run by white people. The question; whether it was possible for Black and white artists to work together. Belafonte spoke about a more meaningful and nuanced integration. Baldwin spoke about how the question itself was rooted in a perpetuation of a white supremacist system, once again pitting Black and white against each other to control how each side thinks of each other creating a puppet and a victim, clearly defined and instantly recognizable to a readership without any explanation. Ward wrote about the brass tax of autonomy being the equalizer. If Black artists had control over their art and how it entered the world, to him that was the most important thing. As a Black artist, I’m here for all of it. The most real answer to the clumsily posited question came from one of my favorite writers, Alice Childress. Anyone who has ever heard her speak can hear her voice fly off the page. I imagined her seated on a panel next to her sister creators, Shange, Hansberry, Angelou, Simone, Hooks and Morrison moderated elegantly by Saidiya Hartman as they discuss everything from the movement for Black lives to the ups and downs of writing and the responsibility they share as Black women to impart some knowledge of self, community and Blackness through their art.
True to form, my sista aunty friend, Alice spoke about the mirror that theatre must be of the society it is created in. Some may find her take on broadway and the state of the world she lived in to be cynical, until she gives facts about assassinations, the laughable education system, and the adjustment that always occurs following the communal consciousness of amerikkka becoming bothered by injustice. While Black people see and live in it every day, the rest of the country becomes shocked, dismayed, and defiant for a short time before an uncomfortable silence and life resumes unabated. Aunty tells us, “I’ve a play to write that may never be seen by any audience anywhere, but I do my thing. Who cares to hear, hear…all others, later.”
While the question posed is problematic, I think it’s just the wrong question to ask. It’s not about if we can work together, it’s if we should. As Ward says, “…if we believe one white, let’s say, among nine controlling Blacks can subvert the purity of our Blackness then we are really in trouble.” I’m not at all worried about the integrity of my Blackness, however the scientific proof that the observation of a thing alters it, remains true. What I posit is that Black artists cannot truly find their voice and the way they wish to express it while under the watch of white gaze. Understanding that our society has been constructed to ensure that gaze persists every space, as a Black artist I wonder every day what it could look like to create without it. To create without its consideration, and without its judgment. As a Black person it has been required learning – inhabitance of my full self when entering any space – and I wish that for every Black person. In order to wrestle with this question incorporating the ways in which Black people must navigate the world, it becomes a moral imperative to create spaces and places in which the white gaze does not exist. It becomes about Black people creating those spaces and places for themselves with all the cultural inferences and expressions that we bring with us into them. So that, as Aunty says when we do our thing it no longer matters if it is blessed by whiteness, because it was created without taking whiteness into account and has not been created for white consumption.