Letters To My Daughters: Black Art As Revolution
Our art gets to inspire — and be inspired by — cultural and political shifts
I was on my second to last glass of whiskey. The hum of the ceiling fan gently cooed in my ears. I rocked you to sleep, slowly and silently, while Daniel Kaluuya, as Fred Hampton, finished the speech of a lifetime. Sweating and yelling to an engaged room of extras, he proclaimed, “I am a revolutionary!”
During that scene in Judas and the Black Messiah, I was a revolutionary, too. We all were as we took in the stained glass space of the 1969 Olivet Church. It’s where Hampton laid the groundwork for many of the black and white clips played during HBCU homecomings and Black History Month across the country. We watched Lakeith Stanfield and the entire cast from our sofas and safety nets as they embodied real-life humans who experienced deaths and suicides. We watched Dominique Fishback valiantly live in the skin of Akua Njeri, poet, activist, and chairperson of the December 4th Committee.
Judas and the Black Messiah felt like church, like a Panther meeting. That kind of dedication to artistry shows how art has the potential to push how we engage with our history and politics. It is no small feat. A Black actor who uses art to straddle the lines between performance and boots-to-the-ground activism creates magic that few attempt or achieve.
We can look to the pantheon of Black artists who have dedicated their time and resources to create art for revolutionary consumption, a tide to shift the consumer from a capitalist mindset to a revolutionary platform. We can rattle off the names: Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Kehinde Wiley, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Kiese Laymon, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kendrick Lamar, and countless others. Whether Spike Lee’s School Daze complexion wars against the backdrop of a Go-go score, or Jonathan Majors, Wunmi Mosaku, and Jurnee Smollett in the heat of Jim Crow America in Lovecraft Country, Black art has been our means of salvation and survival. We use it as morse code to speak to our communities and ancestral energy through words, screens, paint brushes, drum beats, and twerk sessions.
One could argue that every piece of Black art is revolutionary — Lil’ Baby’s My Turn, Jay-Z’s 4:44, Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales. Each is an example of what Blackness can do when the hinges are no longer attached, when political correctness is no longer an obstacle to our success. It’s a success determined by us sans white gatekeepers. Our mere existence on a page, on a canvas, in a classroom or a boardroom is art, like LeBron in the fourth quarter or Naomi Osaka at the Australian Open.
Our art in the face of police brutality, redlining, assassination attempts, and microaggressions is a revolution.
It’s not only meant to tell the stories white people neglect; it’s what we wish to see depicted for our sanity. Black art lives counter to the narrative we’ve been fed and sold. Our art has always been revolutionary. From Paul Robeson to Billie Holliday, our art has not only spoken to what it is but also to the possibilities of what could be. From James Brown shouting we are both Black and proud, to Public Enemy shouting Fight the Power through a bullhorn in Bedstuy, our approach to art has been a powder keg for many a movement, many a movie. It has always been, and it always will be.
If you, my daughters, make art, I hope it is your truth. I hope it pulses in your veins. But even if it is just a new Tik Tok dance or a collage of all the Black women before you were born, your art will be revolutionary. Simply because you are Black and express your freedom to create in a space that feels safe to you makes it so. That will always be your protest.