"Hope (tm)" in Arts Rising, an arts equity zine in Baltimore

Hope

Ailish Hopper

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” --- Zora Neal Hurston

 

I grew up in Washington DC, which was then a majority-black city, and is a segregated city, and most of the social settings I’ve been in have either been all-black or all-white. Ok, many were “mostly-“ one or the other, but even those “mixed” spaces were often dominated, often tilted in the same either-or. I remember noticing that figuring out what kind of place I was in had very little to do with a headcount (“Let’s see, there’s 14 white folk, and 9 black folk, so…”), and a lot to do with noticing who, in that place, Had Their Say.

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The current show at the American Visionary Art Museum, “The Big Hope Show,” is in some ways another example of the museum’s celebration of the creativity and agency that other art institutions might not even recognize as art. But it’s also, given the theme, a chance to reflect on hope itself. The exhibits, and quotes about hope, are unabashedly optimistic; they acknowledge pain and encourage us to make something of it; they acknowledge the sometimes “outsider” quality of hope itself, given how many people prefer a more cynical view, calling it “the hope dope.” Meaning, It’s a Crutch. Also meaning: It’s a Trap.

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There is an exhibit in The Big Hope Show by artist Jackie Sumell, a white woman, about Herman Wallace, a falsely imprisoned member of the Black Panthers, and one of the so-called Angola 3. Wallace spent nearly four decades in prison, in solitary for the majority of it, for a crime he was finally cleared of three days before he died. Sumell asked Wallace, in one of her letters, what sort of house he would live in, were he on the outside, and, over the years, he imagined, and she documented it. The resulting work is described as a “collaboration.” And as is true of any collaboration, because they mix, it’s hard even to say, when we are in there with the art, whose voice(s) speak.

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Hope is not just an emotion; to many people, it’s a stance. A choice. Critics point out that hope can be used to keep one from being able to fight against the very circumstances that we “hope” to get over. They are skeptical of the hope, and other meaningful aspirations (like “community”), that can get used, even if for the kindest reasons, to advance white supremacist agendas, and not the agendas of people without institutional power, who are too often people of color.

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On an exhibit wall is a list of facts about the prison-industrial complex, compiled by AVAM Director Rebecca Hoffberger, and the explicit curatorial agenda, and social justice stand, is clear. But, what is happening between the lines? Given how rarely white artists and curators get race right, it’s fair to wonder a number of things, all of which are common not only to artistic collaborations, but many other kinds; not just across race, but across other power dynamics. It’s fair to ask, how free did Wallace feel to ever critique or disagree, especially given the urgent need he may have had for human contact, or, how accurately did Sumell represent Wallace’s ideas, or their work together. Etc. We can’t know the answers. And my guess is that, when different people look at the exhibit, it acts as a racial-hope (or -exhaustion-suspicion) litmus test. If you find Sumell’s piece hopeful, you may likely see a lot of other places that way, too. And, if you don’t see Sumell’s piece as hopeful, you may likely view other so-called collaborations (like institution and community “partnerships”) in a similar vein.

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Verbs: “targeted population” “giving voice”

Nouns: “innovation” “choice”

Pronouns: “we” “ours”

“Inclusion” is better than “diversity,” but it still doesn’t actually shift who is Having Their Say, because the subject of the sentence still hasn’t changed. What institutions need is re-centering. New subject-ing.

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We are not the only society to contemplate just social structures in the wake of one group oppressing another. And, like in so many other places, we can see, again and again, power just changing its masks. In South Africa a few days before my writing this, a group of black protesters took to a rugby field at University of Free State to protest labor conditions, and were rushed by a group of white Afrikaners. A videotape of the fights have been forwarded on facebook by some white South Africans, many of whom point out the mightiness of the Afrikaners, and how patient they’ve been, with “these monkeys.”

This is after Nelson Mandela, one of the world’s most famous political prisoners, was released. After we saw him rule, a free man, as his country’s president. This is after the most well-known truth and reconciliation process in the world. After Desmond Tutu: “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness.”

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Tanisha Edwards, 37. Miriam Carey, 34. Yvette Smith, 47. Natasha McKenna, 37. Rekia Boyd, 22. Mya Hall, 27. Shelly Frey, 27. Darnisha Harris, 17. Malissa Williams, 30. Alesia Thomas, 35. Shantel Davis, 23. Sherese Francis, 29. Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 7. Tarika Wilson, 26. Kathryn Johnson, 92. Alberta Spruill, 57. Kenra James, 21. Sandra Bland, 28.

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I feel least hopeful when I am thrown against a hopeful™ background.

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Institutions don’t only use Hope™; more recently we’ve seen the rise of Innovation™. In fact, we have a mayoral candidate right now who is running as an innovator based on the money that he’s given other people for their innovations. Predominantly-white institutions gain social capital from the associations and ideas that, often, people of color bring, via being hired to speak or perform, or be “fellows,” etc. So that “innovation”---a word you pretty much only hear administrators use--- becomes another resource, which institutions (especially majority-white ones) use to extract from communities, and benefit from. That is not to say that such actions are not also sincere and heartfelt, on the part of the individuals. But institutional rhetoric needs to be acknowledged for the hidden economy that it is: money is not the only currency of power. Systems also run on social capital. Who has the juice.

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To deal with Hope™ is to see more clearly all the realities of power and elitism, as well as race. We have innumerable PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions) that, rather than asking folk of color to be on their boards---thus, possibly sharing institutional power--- offer them low-level public-facing positions, or participation in “listening sessions.” We have a few permissible race conversations, which we thus have over and over, like the talk about the school-to-prison-pipeline, or segregation in housing. We do not have the race conversations, except with like-minded people behind closed doors, that involve actual names and actions, like the folk of color inside institutions who are resented for not bringing other folk in; or about a single black sorority that some see as practically running BCPS; or about white allies, like me perhaps, who can be overly strident, or get in the way of people of color doing similar things. We have a black millionaire who gave 500K to the orchestra---on the condition that it be matched only by other black people; meanwhile black small-business entrepreneurs complain that they can’t get a meeting with them. We have a white foundation president who makes 300K per year, who only sees some folk of color as having “impactful” ideas, even though the measuring stick they are using was made far from the communities they’re trying to serve.

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Also on the exhibit wall are statements by Sumell and Wallace, from Sumell’s book about the project. There are no pictures of them but, inserted into Wallace’s part, there is one of Anita Roddick, activist and founder of the cosmetic company, The Body Shop, who is importantly thanked in Wallace’s piece. Beneath the photo is a museum statement gratefully acknowledging her activism, which includes being a benefactor of AVAM. And I can understand the thinking, if you trust the bonds that Sumell and Wallace have, and/or any predominantly white institution, and so can assume that the gratitude will be foregrounded in a viewer, and not the positions that they each have in this system that, for now at least, white supremacy controls. Wallace’s gratitude can be incredibly sincere, and Roddick can be understandably admired for her work for the Angola 3 and other political prisoners or prisoners in long-term solitary. But both are also characters in a much larger Story, which depicts Wallace as not just grateful, but black and powerless, and Roddick as not just kind, but white and beyond doubt. These are, of course, fictions. But they also, sadly, still run the show in too many places. And so, for me, the placement of the photo brought that question up again: who is Having Their Say?

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In some ways, a “woke” or activist white person is the most dangerous of all. Any race literacy makes it seem like we might be the strongest friend to efforts by POC---but our still-existent race pass means, likewise, we risk being the worst betrayers. And in any moment we forget that we still have that whiteness pass…whiteness wins. As others have said, it’s a process. I would like to say that that never happens to me. But, that would be a lie. As more and more white folk begin to actually need to stand in our just-selves, not just our “white” selves, we start to genuinely need just-realities--- unlike the one we live in now--- in which to breathe. But, we can still be in the way.

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If hope needed a theme song, I’d probably pick, “Zoom,” by The Commodores: I want to go/ somewhere// Where my mind/ Is fresh and clear. // And I’ll/ find the love // That I long to see. Where// Everybody can be

What they want to be

I need hope, love, community….but I grapple seriously with how we can contribute to those things, if we are not real (not Real ™) about racism, elitism, and power. For me, the difference between real hope and Hope™ is that only one of them holds my own, our own, vulnerability. Which is also maybe to say, that it is honest. I am most tempted to lie when I am speaking something that is more like what I wish was true, than is actually true. Often, I do it to console myself, or others. But I don’t want consolation. I want transformation. I want the Whole Damn Thing.