During the Civil Rights Movement, Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, and James Baldwin responded to civil unrest with formidable, often definitive works of art. Continuing in that tradition, writers, musicians, and visual artists across the country are reacting to the spate of highly publicized killings of unarmed black people with an urgency that has yielded stellar results. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the critically acclaimed Between the World and Me, a fiery indictment of white supremacy in the form of a letter to his 15-year-old son. Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly, a sonically complex album that starts with the recurring refrain, “Every Nigga is a Star” and has netted the de facto protest song “Alright.” New York visual artist Titus Kaphur has created haunting paintings, including one depicting protestors in Ferguson, Missouri. Minnesota poet Danez Smith included his poignant “Not an Elegy to Mike Brown” in his book. This fall, three Chicago artists add their own responses to the ongoing dialogue.
Phillip B. Williams
Humboldt Park native Phillip B. Williams writes about the specter of black murder in his forthcoming book Thief in the Interior (January 12). The poet and Chicago contributor uses both 20th-century lynchings and more contemporary examples of state-sanctioned violence as themes for several poems. “While two women kissed in their house I watched/ a jury hide bullets in a Black’s boy’s body, all rigormortis/and bass line,” he writes in "Agenda.”
Part of Thief in the Interior consists of a series of poems that home in on the real-life murder of Rashawn Brazell, a young, gay black man, who was brutally murdered in Brooklyn, New York in 2005. (His body was dismembered and the crime has never been solved.) The pieces confront racism and homophobia in a multitude of creative ways, including letters written to Rashawn’s mother and a poem penned from the perspective of the duffel bag Brazell’s body was found in. The result is tragic, beautiful, and rightfully unsettling.
For avant-garde South Side saxophonist David Boykin, his piece The Lynching of (insert the Name of Any White Killer of an Unarmed Black Here) offers a chance to address “the sadness, anger, and frustration in the black community right now,” he says. “It’s a story of two lovers who are activists in the movement for black liberation and the challenges that they face.”
Arranged for a jazz quintet, a string quartet, a DJ, and two opera singers, The Lynching of is a mash-up of genres. St. Louis artist Damon Davis, whose sculptures of raised fists became one of the more indelible pieces of art in response to the Ferguson crisis, will also perform two musical numbers. (Boykin is raising funds to compensate the musicians here). "It’s important for artists to respond to their environment if they feel compelled,” says Boykin. "I feel compelled."
In Bucktown, Arc Gallery mounts I Can’t Breathe, a group exhibition named after the famous last words uttered by Eric Garner, the unarmed New York man who died in a filmed struggle with police last summer. “I was thinking about what had happened in Ferguson, and how this has been going on in the country for a long time,” says Kochanski, a Logan Square artist and the exhibition’s creator. “The videos have forced us to address our ignorance and denial and so we wanted to take a look at what is institutionalized racism mean and how can artists speak to that.”
As an all-volunteer gallery and nonprofit, Arc Gallery usually charges for submissions, but Kochanski and her other partners decided to waive the fee. “We want to have as broad a reach as possible,” Kochanski says. The result has more than 100 submissions so far in a variety of media. The group also plans to host performances in conjunction with the exhibition as well as a panel discussion. “Artists can speak in a way that doesn’t have the same didactic qualities that you might hear from people who are marching in the streets,” Kochanski says. “It’s really important that we take our anger out in a variety of different ways."
The Lynching of (Insert the Name of Any White Killer of an Unarmed Black Here) runs Nov. 5 to 8 at Links Hall, 3111 N. Western Ave.; linkshall.com; $10 to $15
I Can’t Breathe opens Dec. 4 at Arc Gallery, 2156 N. Damen Ave.; arcgallery.org; Free