the philosophactivist

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Our POC Reclamation and Retrieval in the Arts (but don't call it a Renaissance)

Often, I go out of my way to support POC in any way possible. From music (especially "alternative", punk, rock, jazz, experimental, new wave, etc.), art, theater, magazines, media, online shows, films (especially independent ones and the ones that stay on the film festival circuit briefly)- to community organizations, groups- political and not-so-political, groups committed to indirect action and direct action, community gardens, mentor and leadership programs, youth-run groups, anti-racist organizing, civil rights organizing (including for LGBT, queer/genderqueer, disability, feminist or womyn's rights, etc. ). I didn't notice myself doing this at first. I think it started  with Austin. (*dream sequence harp music*)

I lived in San Antonio for 5 years- immersed in Latino/Brown culture and then, abruptly moved to Austin to begin organizing and working at a non-profit that supported Central Texas. I experienced culture shock, but I wasn't able to put my finger on it for some time. I'd moved from a town that was predominantly brown to one that was predominantly white. Most of the brown/black folks lived across the highway and were continuing to be pushed farther from the center of town. Something was up with this city that claimed to be so "liberal" and "progressive." Brown and black folks were struggling while gentrification was continuing to creep in. I rarely saw any black or brown folks in suits downtown. Most were working behind cash registers in the service industry and later I'd find out that there were a lot involved in non-profit organizations or as social workers,etc.  Very few Austinites, besides the heavily political college students or activists, seemed to have a clue about what was going on in the town along racial lines and socioeconomically. So, this environment created within me a yearning to understand what was going on racially and to find a space where I could converse with others who viewed what was happening and had a similar perspective to my own.

Years before, I had begun working with a gay and lesbian film festival in Austin and  noticed right away that there were very few people of color on staff or represented in the films that were chosen. Around that time when I was trying my hand at screenwriting, acting, cast assisting, and filmmaking, I took note of the same trend. Hmm...where are the people of color? When writing my screenplays I didn't know how to (or want to) create characters that weren't brown or queer and back then I'm not sure people reading them knew how to handle this or how to deal with it. (Which is not a valid excuse, but I've seen it used a lot for different  purposes- such as employing someone! Namely, a brown or queer person. erg)

Fast forward to now- there are web series, films like Pariah, emerging networks like, and we have a presence in the online media like never before. Excellent. It's ripe for all of us to really grow our creativity and continue to plant seeds. Brown folks are showing out and more importantly, showing up!

Another key to my awakening and reclamation was (and remains to be) music. Music is a really important part of my life. Growing up, I was that kid who listened to everything but didn't say anything so I wouldn't get criticized for it. Do you remember what happened to black kids who listened to rock, punk, etc. in junior high? Yea- you were ostracized.  I had to listen to Bjork, ska, and punk in the privacy of my own home. All but a few of my friends were listening to R&B and rap and that was it. Interestingly enough, in high school I stayed mainly to myself so I could preserve my style and taste in music without criticism and sought out a handful of friends who were also "outside the box." Nah, I wasn't completely a loner- I was a track star ;). And you know that people in "athletics" roll deep.

My mom listened to all kinds of music from the 50s-70s and my stepdad listened to all types of old and nu jazz. So, I guess from the beginning my musical tastes were pretty diversified. Weeeell- at some point I think I went off the deep end and most of the bands I was listening to were basically a bunch of white folks. This was before AND after my "conscious" phase where I listened to only neo-soul and downtempo music. (Smiles). Well, let's face it- most of the mainstream bands (especially rock and alternative bands) that we had access to were white! Record execs didn't give many black/brown folks the chance to branch out of hip hop and r&b.

So, at some point, I began noticing that white folks were all I was listening to and I began digging and digging for any bands that had a black/brown singer (besides Lenny Kravitz). Then I started looking for completely brown bands. I got deep into afro-punk music. I became fascinated by all these black, female lead singers who were creating a new type of music with the "soul" I had grown up with -Santogold, Janelle Monae, Skye Edwards from Morcheeba, the lead singer from Esthero...and of course...back in high school, Kelis. And now we also have Tamar-Kali, Arama Mara, Joya Bravo, Amanda Rey, Sarah White, and Esperanza Spalding- just to name a few. I can't express to you how excited I am every time I hear of a new singer or band that is majority POC and creating unique music.

I remember hearing Tamar-Kali for the first time. I walked into a dark room full of people swaying and headbanging and I heard this soulful and brooding voice over guitar riffs and outstanding drums...and I looked at the people who I came in with and one said "Yea, this is me. I can get into this." I made my way to the stage and stood in front, really feeling the energy. I realized that a soulful, brown voice was what I'd been missing in all my years of listening to rock, punk and alternative. I needed those two worlds to come together; the soulfulness of r&b and the angsty, rebelliousness of rock. Well, black/brown folks invented rock. Yes, we all know that. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Ritchie Valens, Los Lobos, El Chicano and so many others...all those great singers from the 50s! But it was stolen from us. Appropriated and turned into something else. Something almost unrecognizable and some could argue- soulless.

At the same time that we are reclaiming our music in larger numbers, I'm experiencing a similar reclamation within myself.  A reconciliation of all these worlds that we've been socialized to believe that don't fit together. Much like the whole idea behind Awkward Black Girl, we don't all fit into boxes and do what we're "supposed to". I learned that early on. But truly respecting and honoring my differences came a little later, once the shame dissipated. I really appreciate the Afro-punk website and other people doing similar work. Those who are trying to keep us informed about black/brown folks who are creating awesome music...awesome art...awesome films...Those who are branching out and showing us all another image of who we are and can be, like Q-Roc.TV. I seriously can't wait til everything is in place. That network is going to be a's going to bring all us brown queers and allies together. It's something I wish I would have had when I was growing up. But, it's never too late! I'm sure I'll appreciate more, now that I know more about my artistic roots and heritage because networks like these can be hard to come by.

Our Predecessors and Where we came from
For years the Audre Lorde Project (ALP) and Allgo and many, many other POC LGBT/queer organizations have existed. I think that right now we're witnessing a breaking away from tradition but, at the same time, a keeping of the spirit of this tradition. We're no longer trying to form non-profits and seeking 501(c)3s. We're just doing kickstarter campaigns and going ahead with our projects, unfettered by government rules, regulations and funding. I see POC supporting each other a lot more in separate projects and coming together as collectives as well. This is the future, folks. It can't happen any other way. We have to support each other. Whether it's potlucks and community gardens, or coming together to form networks and organizations that support our communities, or starting new communities where we help build sustainable houses and live off the land. Or maybe some of us stay in urban centers but help with policy change and community support there.

Not a revival- a Retrieval
We as POC, are no longer being bamboozled and buying into the assimilationist "American Dream." This western culture that we've been forced to take on is not our culture. It is oppressive and has led to additional suffering. Our diets have deteriorated, our way of life has deteriorated, the way we interact with one another has deteriorated. The colonists tried to dig up our roots and tried to destroy us, but our roots run deep and are very strong. What we are seeing is the spirit and guidance of our ancestors calling us back to our roots and reminding us to dig deep into that reservoir to discover our strength. As we continue with our self-discovery and to work on who we are individually, we also discover how to improve our relationships and how to act/respond/build collectively. As we support each other, we become less and less dependent on the dominant (read:white) culture and begin reflecting on where we came from and how we can continue advancing together. We are reclaiming those parts of  the core of our collective community that have been trampled on and lost due to acculturation. You can call this movement not a renaissance,or rebirth/revival, but more of a (Soul)Retrieval.

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