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“A Mess of Pottage”: Insurgent Black Arts in the Age of Trump



By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | NewBlackMan (in Exile)



Tuesday, January 31, 2017.



As a young scholar about to sit down with the late Amiri Baraka,  I was inclined to side with Spike Lee in his now largely forgotten public spat with Mr. Baraka over the representation of Malcolm X in Mr. Lee’s biopic of the Black political icon.  Ninety-minutes after Mr. Baraka graciously held court with me and my colleague Gopal Burgher, esq., he had gifted me ideas of Black art that have stayed with me for almost twenty-five years, largely having to do with notions of scale and independence.


At the core of Mr. Baraka’s criticisms of Mr. Lee’s “Malcolm X” was that Mr. Lee had offered a cartoonish image of Malcolm Little, that had capitulated to the pressures of making a Hollywood film (a similar charge that Mr. Baraka later made of Manning Marable’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention).  And while I now chafe at such historical protectionism, Mr. Baraka’s notion, to paraphrase, that Lee would have been better served making a film that could be screened in community centers and basements with a dozen seats, resonates. Contemporarily, meaningful Black Art seems to be wholly tethered -- even in the era of crowdsourcing and so-called democratized digital platforms -- to economic models intended to maximize access to a fickle (and guilty mainstream), and often at the expense of communities most in need of artistic and aesthetic models of insurgency.


I recall my conversation with Mr. Baraka and the NEA/Tongues Untied controversy in response to recent news that the Trump Administration planned to eliminate the NEA and  the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) and to privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS).  Our conversation twenty years ago occurred in the backdrop of the Political Right’s assault on the Arts, in which the late Marlon Riggs’s groundbreaking film about Black male sexuality, Tongues Untied, was ground zero, as several PBS outlets refused to show the film. Late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms famously accused the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) of financing “sleaze and slime” in what aounted to $5,000 worth of support for Riggs’s film, while Pat Buchanan (who looks like a Cub Scout leader in comparison to Steve Bannon) accused the Federal Government of “investing our tax dollars in pornographic and blasphemous art too shocking to show."


While critics of the Trump plan have rightly highlighted that such cuts would amount to .016% of the Federal budget, it is clear that the proposed plan has little to do with reining in the Federal debt and has everything to do with silencing artists in a moment that demands an artistic and aesthetic insurgency.  The eradication of Federal Funding of the arts has been a fixture of Conservative Right thought for some time, witness the Heritage Foundation’s “Ten Good Reasons to Eliminate Funding for the National Endowment of the Arts,” which among other things describes the NEA as “welfare for cultural elites,” in a clear example of the “pot calling the kettle black.”


Indeed for those visual artists, storytellers, documentarians, historians, archivists, ethnomusicologists and other cultural workers, grants from the NEA and NEH -- like the $5,000 Marlon Riggs received -- could be the difference in completing projects that may have a lasting impact well into the future, as Tongues Untied exemplifies. The challenge is even moreso for those cultural workers who don’t have the support of education institutions like colleges and universities who can augment overhead costs for projects -- and of course we have to wonder how many of those institutions are going to “fall in line” with the administration.


What these new developments mean for cultural workers is that we are going to have to re-imagine the creation and circulation of our work without the support of the kinds of institutions, that admittedly we have already had fraught relationships with. And part of that reimaging is the consideration of scale -- will it be better for our work to resonate within smaller publics, instead to reaching the kind of mainstream audiences that allow for a relative sustainability of both our work and the ability to have such work support our livelihood?  


Writer Roxane Gay’s recent decision to pull her forthcoming How to be Heard from Simon & Schuster, because of the publisher’s decision to sign a book deal with White Supremacist thinker Milo Yiannopoulos is an indication of the kinds of decisions Black Cultural workers might have to consider in the near future.


Which brings me back to my conversation with Mr. Baraka, who reflected on James Weldon Johnson’s classic The Autobiography of An Ex-Coloured Man. Initially published anonymously in 1912, with its republication in 1927 with Johnson’s by-line, the book was one of the more important texts of the Harlem Renaissance period.  Mr. Baraka though, was fixated on the book’s last line in which the book’s narrator, who has chosen to racially pass for White, admits “I cannot repress the thought, that after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.” For Black Cultural workers in the early days of the Trump Regime, the “lesser part” might be the very visibility and mainstream that we all have sought.




Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of Africana Studies at Duke University, USA. Check him out at @NewBlackMan + @LeftofBlack + BookerBBBrown on the ‘Gram + and the homebase at NewBlackMan (in Exile).  


“A Mess of Pottage”: Insurgent Black Arts in the Age of Trump

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