“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
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.
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).