“How are we going to respond?” goes the challenge vocalized by poet Amanda Johnston to her fellow African-American artists. The line between art and protest has grown increasingly blurred in the week following the Saint Louis County Grand Jury’s decision not to indict the officer who shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown on August 9 in Ferguson, Missouri. A group of black activist artists has taken the call to respond as a challenge directly to their art.
This call was answered by a community of demonstrators, poets, musicians, street and performance artists greater than Johnston could have imagined. The result is some of the most tragic, haunting, and powerful art in the country.
The community of poets has responded through the Black Poets Speak Out movement, which has featured over 200 poets reading their original poetry alongside the work of poets such as Langston Hughes and Audre Lorde, whose works on the civil rights movements of the 20th century maintain a tragic relevance today.
“Poetry can and has been used to fight, celebrate, heal, to love, to bury, to resurrect, start wars, end wars, keep the fires burning. It’s not a question of how, but who? Who amongst the poets will write bravely and dangerously in ways that draw in and motivate people through language that speaks to the common man and still says something unsaid?”
The amplification of voices through art is made incredibly clear through the work of musicians doubling as activist leaders in the communities most effected by the past month’s escalation in tensions. We have already wrote on what Ferguson means for the future of the protest song, with songs recorded and made viral by activist artists in the days immediately following Michael Brown’s shooting, and the role that they have taken as leaders of the ensuing demonstrations.
It is in the protests themselves that what is perhaps the most hauntingly powerful art has surfaced.
— Athena Jones (@AthenaCNN) December 6, 2014
Starting in New York and spreading quickly around the country, demonstrators have been staging “die-ins”, in which protestors take a pause from active demonstrations to lay in deathly silence, under the movement’s simple and direct slogan “Black Lives Matter”. In New York, a group of protestors staged a die-in carrying their own coffins across the Brooklyn Bridge, stopping traffic.
Video from a die-in at New York’s Grand Central Terminal is below: “I can’t breathe,” the last words of Eric Garner, killed by a chokehold from an NYPD officer, have become another slogan for protestors, powerfully demonstrating the vulnerability of black Americans.
These words, in addition to encountering a viral spread on social media, have been used as another rallying cry of demonstrators, who have brought them into the public eye by protesting under signs bearing the declaration of helplessness, and projecting them onto public buildings.
These protests, together with die-ins nationwide, have provided shocking images of the vulnerability faced by members of America’s black communities. Demonstrators, forced by events in Ferguson and New York to come to terms with the fragility of their lives, are making the public aware of the uncomfortable truth of a country whose institutions do not live up to their assertion that Black Lives Matter.
The vulnerability of black Americans was made profoundly clear through a street art installation in Ferguson, in which local artist Damon Davis photographed the hands of 70 Ferguson natives raised in the yielding gesture which protestors say is the last that Michael Brown ever made.
Where most Ferguson businesses were covered in wooden boards, Davis’ photographs now cover the Saint Louis suburb’s buildings with what is at once a declaration of solidarity, support, and resilience.
More street art promoting peace has appeared on the boards of Ferguson buildings, with Ferguson- and Eric Garner-related art appearing around the country.
— MicheMedia (@MicheMedia) December 7, 2014
The work of the activist artists, though varying, share their commitment to the truth, however uncomfortable and haunting it and its implications may be. It is only through giving voice to the truth that lasting, meaningful change can be enacted.