Black Artist Manifesto

(c) Matt Small

 You know, it's not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself.
James A. Baldwin

I don’t know if I can pinpoint a day I decided to do what I love.  It was more of a collection of days.  A collection of events.  It was a collection of circumstances that removed the price tag from my life.  Love, loss, my penchant for natural hair… whatever it was, I changed. As I basked beneath the ambient light of my dull, gray cubicle and watched as the heavy arms of the clock made its painstaking journey from nine to five o’clock… somewhere between wishing the day away and forcing my heart to care about what my mind did, I realized what I was doing wasn’t working.  I couldn’t survive off the promise of happiness at the end of my journey.  I needed to be happy now.
For me, this commitment meant a torch lit path to the journey of a writer.   A writer since I was six, words have always been my shit.  I love the way they look, sound, and feel.  Words have the power to lift you up and just as easily snap you apart.  Crafting words, creating universes, weaving together stories and creating paper-life is an orgasm for my soul.  Simply put, I love writing.  My chemistry would have it no other way.
I am an artist. 
I am also black. 
I’ve always been black.  Always will be.  When I was born, the doctor put black on my birth certificate and it kind of stuck.  My curls are tight, my skin actually does resemble chocolate and when I stare at it long enough under the light, it has subtle highlights of red and gold.  This has been a reality for me for as long as I remember, and it has always been okay.  In fact, more than okay.  I am proud of my heritage, the advancements of my people, and I escaped any life-threatening color issues by being raised in a family that always made me feel beautiful. 

However, in this society, when I enter a room, being black speaks louder than anything else about me.  My humanity, my individuality, my personal past and present aren’t even close seconds.  The label brings with it a litany of expectations and beliefs about me that often stifle the freedom inherit in being an artist.  As a black artist, I am expected to be sitting on an urban hood story, burdened by the enslavement of my ancestors, and sure enough fighting to survive poverty and incarceration due to the vestiges of colonialism and white privilege.  My heart must constantly ache to tell, see and experience this story again and again.  I am a consummate victim. I am fighting for equality. I am using my art for strength. The labels carry some truth. One must never underestimate the black experience in this county.  I don’t buy into post-racialism, and I likely never will.  However, a constant focus on societal labels that define us can cheapen the experience of our soul and thus detract truth from that which is so beautiful about being an artist.  We have complex, diverse experiences, likes, dislikes, loves and heartaches that have nothing to do with our identity as black folks, but no matter how hard we try to prove it, that pesky blackness seems to get on everything.

Here’s an example: 

As I am sure most of you heard, USAToday published an article this weekend citing the shocking success of The Best Man Holiday as a “race-themed” movie. Black Twitter was ablaze with rage, including myself.  There were no slaves in the movie.  No maids.  No butlers.  No sad colored people considering suicide and flinging babies out of windows.  How could a movie about eight friends dealing with love, success, and loss be “race-themed?” I found myself replaying the movie in my head.  Had they discussed being black?  Was “the man” hovering over all of their achievements, holding the friends down and sending them to jail? Had Morris Chestnut accidentally spilled blackness when he took off his shirt and suddenly it was all over everyone in the movie?  Why couldn’t these phenomenal actors be recognized for their multilayered performances outside of their identity as black?  Why did mere blackness make race a theme?  “It’s just a movie,” black twitter cried.  “Call it a movie.  Listen to the story.  See the tears.  Hear the laughter.  Recognize the humanity.  We are people too.  We are just like you.  We are just like you.” And so goes the plight of the black artist.

If we are honest, we’d realize a white run society isn’t the sole defendant in this indictment.  We have perpetuated the line in the sand just as readily as good old Scott Bowles at USA Today.  For example, I was having a “race-themed” evening with my husband recently.  We were watching Kevin Hart’s Real Husbands of Hollywood, and Chris Rock made a guest appearance.  True to the self-deprecating nature of the show, Rock was belittling Kevin Hart’s fame in a series of jokes:  Rock can leave a restaurant without paying, Hart couldn’t.  A perfect stranger would give Rock their car if he needed, Hart couldn’t.  It culminated in Rock saying to Hart, “I’m famous.  You’re more “black” famous.”  My husband and I laughed.  I mean, who wouldn’t?  But suddenly, in the middle of my laughter, I looked over at my black husband and down at my clapping black hands (because we all know black people do the “clap laugh”) and wondered, why is my affection, my dollars and my support less than?  I've been riding with Rock since he was Pookie in New Jack City and the mailroom guy in Boomerang.  Well before he "arrived" as Marty, the zebra in MadagascarYou would never hear Seinfeld say to Seth Rogen, “I’m famous.  You’re more white famous?”  What would that even mean, right? White famous is famous.  I thought a lot about Chris Rock’s words during the whole Twitter/USA Today debacle and my own struggles with identity as a black artist.  In the past two years that I have pursued writing professionally, I have grown to resent the label.  I found myself shouting to whomever would listen, “I am more. I have mainstream appeal. My white friends like my work, too.  If you just give me a read, you’ll realize, I can crossover.  I am just like you.”

Except I’m not.

And that’s okay.

It’s not to say that I fully embrace the stereotypes and expectations of being a black artist.  My art is informed by my humanity first, and that may not always fit into a box of what society expects black to be.  My husband and I have nights were we rock out to Radiohead, drink red wine and eat hummus and pita chips which, by definition, may not be expected of a black married couple.  However, maybe I’m not the only black person that doesn’t fit into a box.  Maybe I am not alone in my belief that we are multilayered, multifaceted individuals living a human experience that is sometimes, but not always informed by our blackness.  It seems as though a part of this collective cry for the recognition of our humanity from the white community stems from the belief that our uniqueness is an exception to the black rule.  I’m special, right?  I have advanced degrees.  I shop at Whole Foods.  I read words.   I’ve never knocked a bitch out (which, according to television, most black women can’t help but do).  I am different from those other black people.  You know the ones.  Sweet Brown.  The stars of most black reality television.  Kayne West.  That fried chicken-selling lady from the Popeye’s commercial.  If you are a black person who has ever articulated an intelligent thought, it has likely been ingrained in you that you are some kind of exception.  You are black and attractive? Rare.  Black and well-spoken? Even rarer.  Black with money in the bank? Holy shit! Are you even real?  Remember that Chris Rock comedy special back in the day where he drew a line in the sand between black people and ni$$as?  Remember the joke?  “I love black people, but I hate ni$$as… Ni$$as will break in your house… Ni$$as don’t read… Ni$$as sing welfare carols.”  I remember watching that special years ago and laughing, thinking, thank God no ni$$as went to see this Chris Rock show because surely they would find this joke offensive...

It’s this distinction that leads perfectly decent black people to work tirelessly to convince couldn’t-care-less white people that we are “just like them.” Remember the whole, “Stuff Educated Black People Like” phenomenon?  From the way we wear our hair, to the way we walk, to the way we dress, to whom we love, we are becoming a walking, talking, neon-blazing billboard chanting, “I am just like you! I am just like you! I am just like you!” Play the token long enough, and you actually start to believe you are an exception. 

The USA Today article cited Think Like a Man12 Years a Slave, The Butler and Best Man Holiday as part of a growing trend of race-themed diverse films that were breaking box-office barriers.  Proof that maybe, just maybe, black people enjoy seeing themselves on screen.  That maybe, just maybe, there was buying power in black and brown communities that didn’t need the white stamp of approval.  That maybe… MAYBE… being “black famous” actually meant something.  That maybe, just maybe, black people see themselves as multilayered and mutli-faceted and are interested in seeing and telling human stories, outside of everything we were taught black meant. 

That maybe there are no ni$$as.

As an artist joining in the collective cry for The Best Man Holiday to just be considered a movie about humanity first that just happens to have black actors, the question becomes will mainstream white appreciation always be necessary to validate my art? Does my ability to have non-black and brown people rock with me make me matter more?  Considering the twitter-rage, the box office performance of The Best Man Holiday and even the performance of Scandal, I am learning that the answer is no.  Being black famous matters.  Our money matters.  We matter.  Our humanity has never been the exception. 

It's the rule.   

Love and Light,


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