Personal Art, Public Activism
She stands before a group of 12 under fluorescent lights, her voice rising and falling in volume and conviction, open palms moving up and down and to the side — an exasperated friend telling a story.
Resita Cox tells the story of her ancestors and peers, black Americans who created poetry in the face of oppression, laid it on a beat and birthed and fed a pervasive and resilient artistic culture.
What if the crowds at Times Square were
Dancing instead of dodging?
Singing instead of yelling?
Imagine the party.
Cab horns be our bass.
I’m talking cypher circles at every corner.
This life be our tracks, our crack, our motivation to dream.
Hip-hop was born in this city.
They scribbled words on these walls.
America called it vandalism.
Well, fuck her.
This be our art.
On this Thursday evening, Cox rehearses her own poetry in the Student & Academic Services Building’s small break room in preparation for a performance with her spoken word troupe, Ebony Readers/Onyx Theatre, known as EROT. After hearing a spoken word performance during UNC’s summer camp Project Uplift, Cox made it her mission to bring her written poetry to life by auditioning for EROT during her first semester of college. Cox, now a senior journalism and political science major, is president of the group.
EROT is one of the many opportunities that provides students of color a space to use the arts for activism. And for these students, participation in the arts is a much-needed outlet — one where they can transform frustrations about complicated, distressing race relations into a poem, song or film.
From the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and from the brutal treatment of black women at the hands of police to the shooting that killed nine in Charleston, there has been no shortage of attention on race relations in the United States since 2012. After Martin’s killer was acquitted, #BlackLivesMatter was created by a group of black women, and from it, a movement by the same name.
“When Michael Brown was killed, that’s when Black Lives Matter really kicked it up a notch,” said UNC adjunct professor Pierce Freelon, who has extensively studied and taught on the Black Lives Movement.
The subsequent lack of indictment for the officer who shot Michael Brown contributed to its growth even further. Today, Black Lives Matter activists organize protests, rallies, marches, conferences, roundtable discussions, community events and political speech disruptions nationwide, and race relations continue to be at the forefront of sociopolitical discussions.
But beyond sociopolitical discussions and deeper than policy debates are the effects these events have on black individuals. Cox, who, after hearing of the July massacre that killed black churchgoers in Charleston, wrote a poem in an effort to make sense of the situation.
“I didn’t know how to feel after that,” she said.
But she knew she was afraid, angry and sad.
To sort out her feelings, she did what she knew, what she had grown to know during her years at UNC. She wrote a poem. It remains in the notebook Cox writes all of her poetry in, a collection of documents that help her not only see her feelings clearly, but also put them down on paper and get them out of the cycle of convoluted thoughts in her mind. And somewhere along the way, her spirits began to lift. It’s for this reason that Cox and her peers believe that the arts are particularly important for people of color.
To start each meeting, members of EROT, seated in a lopsided circle around four tables pushed together, share their roses and thorns — their highs and lows from the week. Most highs and lows are those of stereotypical college students: birthday parties coming up, boyfriends or girlfriends visiting town, difficult exams and GPA pressures. Madrid Smith, a lean, dark-skinned, wide-smiling sophomore from New Jersey, prizes this time with his group. For him, this sharing of roses and thorns allows the group to transcend the propriety of a club meeting and bond on a deeper level.
“It’s not like a regular club where we have meetings, and then we disperse,” Smith said. “We’re actually a family based in spoken word poetry.”
After Cox rehearses her poem, each of the others in the room takes their turn, some in pairs or trios and some alone. Meanwhile, the rest of the family snaps and nods along to the poems and offer a laugh when the performer pauses to recall an elusive line from his or her piece. The group then gives feedback on improving story arcs or performance quality.
This, the creation and subsequent rehearsal stage, is where much of the magic of performance art happens. It’s where the spoken word poets of EROT can not only hone their craft, but also share their ideas, heal through their reflections and bond with each other. During the last week of October, EROT performed its show at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for a crowd of almost 100. There, another kind of magic happened, and not just because the show featured a circus theme: the audience tuned in to the performers’ message, this time largely a critique of America’s tendency to view black issues as spectacle.
“A lot of our poems are very personal. I write about being raised in Kinston by my grandmother, and about growing up as an African-American woman,” Cox said. “And people may not know anything about this experience until they hear us (perform). So what we do very well is start that conversation.”
It is in the performance stage when political awareness, engagement and even activism are born. A vibrant arts community in Chapel Hill, where Southern history meets a liberal university, allows students and youth of color the opportunity to heal collective and individual wounds and engage with their peers to fuel activism.
Reverberations of national events can naturally be felt in Chapel Hill, too. After a summer of racially charged events, UNC students and community members of color have reignited protests against certain symbols and monuments that honor the South’s Confederate history.
There are those who call for the removal of fixtures like Silent Sam, a sculpture that memorializes those tied to the University who fought on behalf of the Confederacy, on the grounds that it glorifies slavery and the Confederacy. Some have taken to spray painting and blindfolding the statue to express their views. Others, however, believe Silent Sam is a fixture that should remain on campus as a testament to the University’s deep and complex history. And throughout the turbulent history of race relations in America, people of color have turned to the arts for healing and activism.
In Chapel Hill, EROT is one of many healing spaces for students of color. But it’s also a space where dialogue begins. Last fall, the troupe hosted a show open to the public with a focus on domestic violence awareness, in a tribute to National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. EROT president Cox said about 250 people attended, with more waiting by the entrance at the Center for Dramatic Art, hoping to catch a glimpse. The show, she said, opened the door to valuable dialogue among people who may not have been actively seeking it.
“Spoken word helps spark those conversations,” Cox said. “They (the audience) hear your personal experiences, and they leave with this idea in their head, and they’ll tell the next person who will tell the next person who will tell the next person.”
Similarly, productions and participation opportunities in university theater companies open doors to dialogue. Under the Kenan-Biddle Partnership between UNC and Duke University, the Kenan Theatre Company hosted “Me Too Monologues” in February, a production in which student-actors perform monologues submitted anonymously by students and community members. The event will take place once again in January 2016, and planning efforts are well under way.
Jerome Allen, one actor who participated in the 2015 production, recalled performing an emotional piece about coming out.
“It wasn’t just sexually, it was coming out of your shell, coming out as black, coming out as all these parts of an identity,” Allen said. “That was an incredible experience for me, to read that and feel that healing and share this person’s story.” The piece resonated with him because Allen felt that he could release emotions that, like the monologue author’s, had been trapped underneath the weight of something.
After the production, the actors and producers hosted a conversation in evolved forum theater style, asking audience members for their opinions, feelings and suggestions after the show.
Allen explained that this conversation helped to bridge the gap between the actors and audience members, providing the latter with opportunities to engage, discuss and think critically about topics presented in the production.
“That’s why it’s called ‘activist theater’ — it’s a tool for social transformation,” he said.
America called us gangsters, but
We be suppliers. Providers.
She called us monkeys when she saw us turn cardboard boxes into dance floors, but
We turned misery into cavorting.
Resourceful, my people be
Turnin’ foil into antennas, shoestrings into ribbons, shoeboxes into banks.
America called us dealers, but
We be entrepreneurs in these streets.
Like Silent Sam, the poetry Cox and her troupe perform has deep roots in Chapel Hill. Born on a tobacco plantation in Northampton County, poet George Moses Horton became the first African-American man to publish in the South and the only person to publish while living in slavery in 1829. Horton taught himself to read, composed poems in his head and recited them for students at UNC. It was on these trips to Chapel Hill selling fruit for his master that he learned to document his poems in writing, which he would later sell to students. Horton was one of the first popular writers to publicly condemn slavery.
Such “poetic protests” were the first ever written by a slave, according to Richard Walser, a contributor to the UNC project “Documenting the American South.” Horton wrote plainly that “foul oppression” should cease — and the publication of such material validated the viewpoint of many slaves.
EROT member Madrid Smith said he was amazed by Horton’s work and wished the University and town took more initiative in educating the public about such history. “It’s not something that’s really made common knowledge,” he said.
Smith is troubled by what he sees as a tendency to ignore the history and experience of his people, but he finds purpose in making that experience more well-known through poetry. “In EROT, we speak for marginalized groups, and we’re always trying to say something that’s not being made very public.”
Freelon has an encyclopedic knowledge of black musicians through the ages.
Through song, musicians like Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and John Coltrane sang of the injustices they and their people experienced during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras as people of color. For example, Freelon said that Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” was about lynching, Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” about the murder of a Civil Rights activist and Coltrane’s sorrowful “Alabama” about the 1963 church bombing that killed four girls.
“Some of that was considered very controversial then,” Freelon said. “But this kind of important stuff has been, and continues to be, the tradition of black artists.”
The oppression that people of color faced during that time, he said, may not look exactly the same today, but still exists in different forms.
In discussing more recent years, both Freelon and Smith pointed to rapper Nas as not only a key figure in hip-hop but also in healing and togetherness among communities of color. Nas’ legendary album “Illmatic” was released in 1994 in the depth of a crack epidemic that was characterized by high crime rates and mass incarceration, both of which heavily impacted black Americans. In the chorus of arguably his most famous song “Life’s a Bitch,” Nas captures the plight of the young black man at that time:
Life’s a bitch and then you die
That’s why we get high
‘Cause you never know when you’re gonna go
EROT member Smith recalled listening to Nas as a young teenager and being inspired to writing his own raps and poems. At the time, he didn’t often think deeply about the historic meaning of each line in a Nas song and why it would be so important in black communities. But he knows now, and is proof that songs like this brought people together and lifted them up, whether through bonding over a common struggle or inspiring them to do something about it.
“I would listen to Nas or Biggie or Tupac and hear what they did metaphorically, with the analogies and double entendres, the way they could make the English language carry so many varied meanings,” Smith said. “I would say, ‘Yo, that’s hot, I gotta make something better.’ And in my mind, I was always in competition with the greats.” When he arrived to UNC, his artistry transformed from writing poetry to performing spoken word with EROT.
Amongst high racial tensions in the United States today, protesters have sung popular songs by African-American artists publicly to incite hope or action, or both. Cleveland police arrested a 14-year-old black boy on a public bus, and on July 28, Black Lives Matter organizers happened to be holding a conference in the area. They crowded in the streets that afternoon, surrounding a police car in an effort to force police to release the teen. They locked arms, and as police began deploying pepper spray, the organizers broke out into song. “We gon’ be alright!” they chanted over and over, a lyric from rapper Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” Video of the activists chanting went viral. And the world was quickly reminded of how songs bring hope and change to communities of color in times of despair.
The use of hip-hop songs in protests is not unfamiliar to students of color. “The culture of hip hop and the way it evolved — it was an outcry for help, just a way to escape. My piece at the show was about that,” Cox said. “Activism tries to bring people out for change, and hip-hop does just that. That’s why this song is so important.”
Last month, when Confederate heritage supporters rallied at the controversial Silent Sam statue in Chapel Hill, counter-protestors organized near Silent Sam supporters. In the face of waving Confederate flags, began repeating a now-familiar chant: “Hey, hey, ho, ho! This racist statue’s got to go!”
“Chants are art, too. They are poetry, song and community rolled into one,” said Rashiidah Johnson, a UNC student who works with local arts non-profit organization Sacrificial Poets, which engages with youth through spoken word poetry.
You can pay for a ticket to the show, but
You didn’t create this. We
threw vulnerability over a beat
And started an entire genre of music.
Underneath the courthouse on Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street, 19-year-old Mashallah Salaan sits with her laptop, joined by her mother, a visual artist, and her brother, a self-proclaimed “tech guy,” while she reviews footage she shot for her self-produced short film. In a quiet voice, she admits that she also wrote, directed, starred in and created and performed the soundtrack for the video. Salaan speaks about the project with youthful enthusiasm, expressing shyly that she wants to keep the subject of the film a secret until she’s ready to share it in its entirety with the world.
The room she sits in is the smaller of two in the ARTVSM, short for artivism, studio and Beat Making Lab, a space for community members and particularly youth of color, to work on arts projects involving anything from emceeing to shooting video. A patterned rug, a desktop with a large monitor, turntables, lamps, a couch and moon chair, wooden desks and dozens of paintings and posters populate the cozy space, which seems to be centered around a grand depiction of Cristo Negro — the effigy of Black Christ located in Portobelo, Panama — in the larger room. With mirror shards for a crown and eyes, el Cristo Negro commands the attention of those entering the room for the first time. For regulars, his red tears and green-leaf-hair and purple-patterned robes are barely there.
The studio was born out of Freelon’s Beat Making Lab course at UNC, but in 2014 grew into a community project for young people.
“I needed to nurture the seed that’s been planted here,” Freelon said of his decision to create ARTVSM.
Soon after, ARTVSM brought youth, ages to 15 to 25, from the area together for a free, weeklong camp called BLK AGST (pronounced Black August) focusing on the black liberation movement and the arts. There, campers learned about history and social justice from the perspectives of black people, fostering a space where they could come together over frustration and sadness involving events like the Michael Brown killing and the Charleston shooting, both of which occurred in close proximity of time to the 2014 and 2015 camps, respectively.
It was the 2015 BLK AGST camp where Salaan was introduced to filmmaking. And two months later, she continues to work on the project she began at camp.
Salaan’s mother praised Freelon and ARTVSM for opening the warm, welcoming space where she and her family could come together twice a week.
“It’s so positive, it’s almost like coming to church.”
Chapel Hill-based Sacrificial Poets also offers opportunities to engage in the arts and activism space by hosting a radio show run by high school students. These students, who are recruited through high school clubs, are encouraged to present poetry and song and discuss political issues on their show, Rashiidah Johnson said. They are taught the skills to produce the show and learn to use it as an outlet for creative expression.
Youth of color, through the Sacrificial Poets’ radio show, their poetry slams and contests, ARTVSM studio and more, are thus engaged in the arts-activism realm.
But, as members of the arts community have noted, those who have access to resources like the Sacrificial Poets radio show are fortunate.
“I want to know what it looks like if we go into communities that want the arts, bring them into poetry, song, theater — what does that look like?,” Allen said. “What level of vibrancy will that bring into our community?”
Allen himself works to promote accessibility of the arts in his theater work. When he directed the play “Disgraced” this semester, he placed heavy emphasis on bringing in people of color and people of many backgrounds and viewpoints. The play told the story of post-9/11 Muslim Americans.
“It creates this amazing fluid dialogue because you have every kind of person at the table,” he said. “Not in terms of tokenizing them, but I wanted all kinds of people in the production.”
With EROT, Sacrificial Poets and other spoken word groups like the Wordsmiths; theater companies like Kenan Theatre, LAB! Theatre and Playmakers’ Theatre; and arts opportunities in radio like UNC’s WXYC, there’s no shortage of manpower to increase accessibility and advocacy for the arts.
Freelon, on the value of the arts, said it was particularly important for communities of color because their creation of art counters the sometimes-harmful depictions of African-Americans and their culture in corporate-controlled mainstream music.
“It’s our contribution to the arts world, so much of which is controlled by these old white men.” Freelon said. “This art is our voice.”
And making that voice heard — that’s activism.
Italicized lines from Resita Cox’s “Boom-Bap.”