Read Eric’s first letter, written in November 2016, published earlier in this series.
To my collaborators, colleagues, and friends; past, present, and future; near, far, and all over: hi.
It’s September 2018 and I’m writing you from Minneapolis with so much love, well wishes, and fond memories of the beautiful things and times we co-created. I did not have the language or comprehensive understanding of my own experience to articulate my exit from the arts in 2016, but I do now and I’d like to share.
For the first few months of my sabbatical, I was wrapped up in the idea that art being situated in late advanced capitalist society was at the core of my issues. After all, I was broke, and the narratives I had been fed all my life were that if I worked hard, everything else would work out. If there’s one thing I understood clearly about my career is that I worked very hard under exploitative conditions for many years, so addressing that seemed a logical place to start. Next, I moved towards minimizing my consumption to bring clarity and intention to my transactions. I felt I needed to simplify my life in the most radical of terms. I had been thinking a lot about food and farming and family history, and received an unprompted message from a friend about joining her on the farm she’d be moving to in the spring of ’17. It felt like a sign, so I took the leap.
My plan was to reconnect with land over the season, make space to heal, learn some farming skills, explore a life of minimal participation in capitalism, and then go to New Zealand and skip the winter months. If I enjoyed agriculture there’d be plenty of opportunities, and if I didn’t I had plenty other skills on which to fall back. Classic Lucy scheme. I moved to the farm in April, and before long a seemingly familiar set of patterns had emerged. I wasn’t seen. I was undervalued. Microaggressions were aplenty. My body was literally breaking as a direct result of the work. I also came to learn that it wasn’t just a farm—it was a former plantation where the current occupiers, who’d been there for over 50 years, had done little to acknowledge that reality. It was in this place that I began to really see how deeply ingrained the myth of whiteness was embedded in many liberal-minded European Americans. In this realization I knew that I needed to engage in a deeper praxis of my values that was in conversation with the many nodes of systematic oppression, and the farm wasn’t the place.
Alongside this journey leading to and from the farm, I began to mine my memory and archives to return to the root of how I became an artist in the first place. Coming from a family of storytellers was an easy place to start, but how did a little queer black boy in Kansas end up falling in love with performance in the first place? I remember how naturally I took to improvisation in high school. I could say whatever I wanted as long as I had the acuity to place it within a legible framework. I remember making big choices and people noticing. I remember that being celebrated for my creativity and strangeness made me feel like I had value, that I had something to offer people that was unique. In the beginning, art created a space where I felt free and useful.
Someplace in my early career, I mistook the advancement of my liberation for the viewers’. In my creative practice, the power of ideas had truly transformed me in many ways. A new idea could change how I moved through the world, what I would do with my time, what I cared about, ate, read, said, or did. I internalized this narrative and began to center my practice on transformative justice and black liberation. As my practice advanced, I started getting a creeping feeling that I wasn’t reaching the people that I intended to. The monochromatic demographics of US theatre audiences are a well-documented fact, but what was coming into sharper contrast was that as largely practiced, theatre is a colonial form situated squarely in white-centered modes and sensibilities.
Sure, one can challenge and change a form, but not its history. As a queer person descended from the African diaspora, the majority of what I have learned about my people I’ve had to learn on my own. I spent so much time and energy creating experimental forms because I was searching for something true about myself. We are told we live in a diverse and equitable society, but that’s simply not true—from the land on which we stand, to the blood in our veins, to the idea that we each deserve what we have inherited. The indoctrination happened in elementary school, happened in grad school, and will continue to happen until it is intentionally stopped.
I’m not writing to express that I feel like the art field is alone when I call out some of its sickness. My time on the farm led to a major awakening in my consciousness, as did my time organizing at a Minneapolis non-profit over the last year. The problems and patterns I speak of exist personally, interpersonally, institutionally, and systematically. Just as I have been on a journey to name these oppressions as they exist in the world, I have been in a deep and painful process of examining and undoing my complicity in patriarchal, white-supremacist, heteronormative, capitalist patterning. These ideas are not abstract concepts that are more of a problem for “those other people over there.” These patterns live in all of us and it is our responsibility to own them and unlearn them.
It’s this tension, this realization that was building in me in 2016, as our country again descended into a time where European Americans would intentionally and subconsciously uphold the myth of whiteness and fail to care about more than what serves them ultimately. In 2016, I took a hard look at what my values were. I quickly realized that my career as an artist was not in alignment, and my body and mind could no longer stand the dissonance. In retrospect, I can see how I was in fact perpetuating and enabling white supremacy to function through tokenism, through turning a blind eye to casual cultural appropriation, and by creating work that was never intended to be seen by black viewers or anyone with a viewpoint outside of the white gaze.
It had been a painful time and difficult time, because I had few tools or resources to help me navigate my journey and too few allies who supported me unconditionally. I don’t resent the people who have been less than supportive and/or skeptical about my choices, because I now understand the power these narratives have in our lives. I’m still in a process of trying to understand how to be my best and fullest self in this complex world. I’m a creative. I’m an intellectual. I’m of the Fulani people and the Tsogo people. I am queer as fuck. I want to make impacts in the material realm. I want to advance my own liberation and those I share community with.
I’m not suggesting that we should all be social workers, but I suppose I’m pondering what the role of artist/creative would look like with a more intentional effort to directly impact the world, rather than the tertiary routes we are assigned and happily accept. Or what of artistic practice can be redeemed if we understand many of the trappings and structures to be flawed? I believe that creative people are incredibly powerful, and I hope more and more will do the inner work required to advance collective liberation, but what I’ve come to realize is that I have no interest in being in proximity to art as it exists in the conventional sense. Here in Minneapolis, I’m now working on creative projects centered on collective economics and ownership, community development, reclaiming root cultures especially in regards to displaced peoples, building urban-rural pathways for QTPOC, popular education to develop critical consciousness, community-level reparations, and black joy.
For some, perhaps this will seem like an ending or closure. I totally respect and support that. Fade back as needed. Thank you for your service. For others, this is just the opening of the next chapter and an invitation to co-creating whatever is next. I’m sure that some of what I’m looking for is already unfolding beautifully in the world, and I would love to know about it. How are you leveraging the capital for more than just beautiful things? How are we moving beyond hard conversations and into difficult actions? Please share the resources and opportunities that you think I should know about.
Please feel free to respond, call, drop by, send a letter, share with a friend, or do something in the world that I’ll never know anything about. I’m situated here in Minneapolis for the foreseeable future. I’ll be in LA for a conference in November and Kansas sometime this winter. Looking forward to more.
Freelance Creative & Cultural Producer