We are all bearing witness to an uprising in the United States of America. Traditional social structures are being critiqued, questioned, and considered outmoded by protesters who believe incremental reforms are ineffective. The context of this change is multifactored, but the impetus is simple: a demand for human rights.
The latest iteration of this demand is Black Lives Matter. Prior to this moment, Black artists from the 1960s such as Gil Scott Heron, Sam Greenlee, and The Last Poets were inspired by Malcolm X’s demand for human rights and imagined this moment in their work. For Greenlee, it was writing a story about Black people resisting white supremacy by using guerilla tactics against law enforcement to achieve social equality. For Abiodun Oyewole of The Last Poets, it was imagining a societal reaction to uprisings in When the Revolution Comes. For Heron, it was building on Oyewole’s line from that poem, “You’ll know it’s revolution cause there won’t be no commercials,” when crafting his classic poem, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. This moment has long been in the imagination of people who wanted to end white supremacy. Some organizations are using this moment to publicly update their value statements, as others find ways to bring about sustainable change to dehumanizing systems. UrbArts is prepared to meet this moment by determining the most constructive way for us to be involved.
For the entirety of our existence, we have supported black artists by creating platforms for their performances, preparing walls for their paintings, and facilitating youth workshops. Although this work has helped adult artists continue their art-making and enabled them to join us in our youth development programs, our efforts cannot prevent a white officer or any officer from ending the life of one of our artists. People are risking their health to protest police brutality and the system that sustains it. Before now, risking our lives only involved police or communal violence. It did not include surviving an airborne viral infection while shouting down injustice.
When I founded UrbArts in 2001, it was in recognition of the work black artists can do to mentor children and strengthen community. At the time, I did not see the connections between the work of the Black Arts Movement and what needed to be done in St. Louis until I engaged in years of study. Just as the Black Artists’ Group supported the rent strike that challenged the St. Louis Housing Authority and its management of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, I know there are ways that cultural organizations can work to make structural change. Though our mission remains to create platforms and platform creatives for youth and community development, I recognize the need to support efforts that would prevent the next Black life from being lost by policies that protect police misconduct. For the next couple of weeks, I will engage the UrbArts board, staff, and community in conversations about how we can deploy our resources in service of changing our criminal justice system in St. Louis and, if necessary, at the state level.