Reflection at the end of week 1: Summer 2017
It’s been a week since Arielle and I arrived in Helena. It’s been a full week of settling into the Bell house on Beech Street, meeting up with our partners, long drives up and down routes 44 and 49, and trips to Walmart for supplies. To start the new week, we were interviewed by Jarvis L. Smith on his radio show, The Mid-Morning Conversation on the radio station, Delta Force 3. Jarvis asked us a handful of questions that I am going to reflect on in this post.
We talked about many things in that hour. We talked about our backgrounds, the power of satire, Arielle’s work on the Love Balm Project, Colombian stereotypes and Jarvis’ struggle to pronounce my last name. Mixed in throughout that hour were these questions –
- What is Remember 2019?
- What is the power of art in this work?
- What are we doing this summer?
- Why are we here?
As I am coming to recognize it – Remember 2019 is a call.
It is a call that I heard during Bryan Stevenson’s lecture at the CDF Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy back in the summer of 2015. Among other things, he said that we must address the challenges facing our communities and the policies that create mass incarceration by changing our cultural narrative.
“Mass incarceration was created by the politics of fear and anger. We’ve got a country that’s been preached to, to be afraid and to be angry and when people are afraid and angry they will do destructive things, they’ll do abusive things, they’ll do oppressive things. And so we actually need a communion of people to stand up and to say, we are not afraid. We’re not afraid. And it’s in that articulation that we begin to change the narrative. We’ve got to change the narrative about race.”
He explained that our policies are influenced by our inherited narratives of racial difference. In order to change the narrative, his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative has set out to create markers and monuments at every lynching site in America. He said that if we don’t start confronting the history of terrorism in this country then, “we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to this continued narrative of racial difference.”
Our work begins with a call to change the narrative. And according to Bryan Stevenson and EJI, changing the narrative begins with formalizing a space for memory, reflection, and grieving that can help our communities recover from this traumatic history of mass violence.
A space to remember. A space to re-member.
I like to pull this word apart and imagine re-membering as a re-union; a reunion of members. In this way, it is an act of gathering people as much as it is a gathering of memories. Both of these understandings relate to time differently as well. One recalls the past and the other calls forth into the future.
We will re-member in 2019 because we remember what happened in Phillips County back in 1919 and remembering what happened then is a direct attempt at changing our cultural narrative today. Our lives today are deeply influenced by the events of the late summer and fall of 1919. Our lives are influenced by those that were disposed of, displaced and terrorized. Our lives are influenced by the way those events were recorded, the cases were tried, and the policies that were enacted in response. The fact that our cultural narrative continues to mis-member this act of racial terror perpetuates the dis-membering of our community through the false narrative of racial difference.
Remember 2019 is a call to gather with the folks of Phillips County and elsewhere and create a space in time where we can unearth our memories, listen to our reflections, move through our grief, and amplify a new cultural narrative.
The outcome of Remember2019 will be a work of art.
Now, by work of art I’m not simply implying that the outcome will be a mural, or an album, or a book, or a play, or a film (although it can be one or all of those things). In my opinion, the standard for naming art exists in our experience of it. An event or artifact is not art unless it animates us. Art must move us to action. Art lingers in us – it disturbs, engulfs, and enlivens us. A work of art expands or contracts our experience of time and place. Art awakens our imagination and shapes our meaning. Our cultural narrative is comprised of artistic expressions from our past and present. We are surrounded by those expressions and their markers define our physical, emotional, psychological, political and social boundaries.
A work of art is irrefutable. Art can move a communion of people to stand and say, we are not afraid.
We need works of art that transform our cultural narrative of racial difference.
Remember 2019 started with a call and was followed by an initial visit to Phillips County during the summer of 2016 where we met with community leaders to share our thoughts and to hear their questions and concerns about the upcoming centennial and our project. This summer, we return to see if we can build trusting relationships with these and other community leaders and then consider if we can join the community of people that are already working on standing together to change their cultural narrative. Together, we will determine the content and the form through which we will craft our artistic offering.
In order to build a relationship, we have currently committed to 3 different projects over the course of this summer.
Project #1: Visiting Elaine Heroes – July 3-7. This project is a partnership with the Elaine Legacy Center. It is a weeklong workshop for 30 – 40 youth (5+ years of age) from Elaine, Arkansas, where they name and celebrate their local heroes. The students will not just consider the historically recognized heroes of Elaine, like Richard Wright, they will also reflect on their contemporary and personal heroes. The students will tell stories, create songs, play games and practice affirming rituals. The workshop runs from 12-3pm and ends with lunch provided by the Waves of Prayer feeding program.
Project #2: Visiting Helena West-Helena Heroes – July 10-14. This project is a partnership with The Boys and Girls Club of Phillips County. Similar to our workshop in Elaine, this workshop will also focus on local heroes. We will work with 30-40 youth between 6-11 years of age from 1:30-3:30pm.
Project #3: A Story Sharing about Phillips County – July 30th. This project will include the reading of Christina Ham’s Scapegoat, a play that stretches between the histories of the 1919 mass lynching in Phillips County and the present day. After the reading, the audience will gather to partake in a story circle where they will share their own stories about Phillips County, both past, and present.
Aside from these projects we are also meeting with folks to listen to their oral histories, attending cookouts, participating in prayer retreats, attending cultural events, learning about the various industries in the county, and spending time processing our biases and discerning our next steps.
The work of changing the cultural narrative is already happening in Phillips County. Specifically, there are various organizations committed to creating a series of events that will memorialize the mass lynching during the centennial. Generally, there are many individuals committed to healing the physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, social and cultural body of Phillips County.
So I am not here because there is a lack of commitment to this work. I am also not here to appropriate the history of Phillips County in order to turn it into a lucrative product for popular culture.
I am here because this is also my cultural and political history. I am here because I am working on uprooting the narrative of racial difference that has a hold of me and my community. I am here because it isn’t enough to name the problem from a distance– we’ve got to get close to it and face it and see it for what it is and say we are not afraid, this is not our truth, our past must not be erased, we are capable of more than this hate, no one is disposable, and we are all immeasurably worthy and divine.