Antiracist Activism for Teachers and Students/Arts/Artism
There are several ways to combat racism; one of those ways is through the arts. Using various methods of research we explored distinct areas of antiracist activism through the arts. We explored the people who are involved in antiracist activism and how they utilize the arts in their antiracist efforts. Though ‘The Arts’ encompasses a broad range of mediums and forms of expression, we looked more specifically at children's literature, theatre, visual arts and film.
Theatre of The Oppressed (TO) and Anti-Racist Activism
Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) is an international school of theatre, which means it is performed all over the world. It was founded by Augusto Boal in 1971 and is known for addressing oppressive political and social issues in communities (beliefs, laws, attitudes and actions). It was first used in Brazil and other South American countries to create dialogue between Indigenous populations and Spanish decedents. Most importantly, TO involves the work of both actors and non-actors; although we are not literally on stage we perform acts everyday. “We perform the play of breakfast, the scene of going to work, the act of working” and the list continues (Boal, 2002, 11). Thus, whenever racist acts are committed, passive or aggressive, they are apart of a larger rehearsal and play. Racism can be undone in the same way; through the use of theatre. To better understand how TO can be used to tackle racism we will examine Boal’s early contributions, well-known branches of TO, and how it can be applied in the classroom.
Augusto Boal first began using T.O in Brazil, his place of origin. In Brazil he used theatre to examine the oppression faced by working class Brazilians, their lack of political and economic power, and repression under the dictatorship of Brazil. His first development and working professional theatre was the “Teatro Arena.” Here Boal produced plays written both by new Brazilian authors and classical playwrights to see how they could be applied to Brazilian realities. This practice, applying contemporary Brazilian matters to classical plays, was used to help people acquire better understanding of their problems and how they may relate to larger issues within society. At this time, Boal also created “Newspaper Theatre”, which involves transforming newspaper items into dramatic performance. This form of theatre in particular increased the knowledge and popularity of TO.
Forum theatre is another popular forms of TO. It is useful because it gives voices to the voiceless and moves the marginalized to the center. This is true whether the issues concerns classism, sexism and in this case racism. Forum Theatre allows all members of an audience, usually the community, to participate and be heard. Thus, everyone has a fair chance to talk and present art. First the actors present a contemporary issue on stage. Afterwards they perform the piece again allowing spect-actor or audience participation. Spect-actors are encouraged to both propose solutions and become active participants in the scene by taking an actor’s place. Such freedom allows for roles of power to be examined. For instance, you may have a working class girl playing the role of a lawyer or mayor. This type of theatre was originally set in the middle of towns so that all community members could be apart of the process. As one can imagine forum theatre often went longer than expected, which suggests that solutions to end inequalities are works in progress which need ongoing reinforcement.
“Newspaper Theatre” and “Forum Theatre” have been used to look at current issues in society in a number of ways, especially those pertaining to racism. In particular, a group of students at Hampshire College used TO to construct an imporov theatre piece, “Unpacking”, that addressed issues of racism on campus. Racism was depicted in a number of ways such as white students singling out student of colors during a discussion of race and a speech given by our president advocating colorblindness. Students in the play were both white and black, which further depicted race matters on campus. Because of it’s relevance to Hampshire’s climate (86% white) it suddenly made white students in the audience both conscientious and more conscientious about race. When asked how they created the final product most of the cast talked about their personal experiences and realizations; recent and past acts of hate crimes and profiling in the classroom. In addition, they discussed TO games, gamesercises, which will be discussed in the up and coming paragraph.
Gamersercises is what Boal calls “a fair proportion of exercise in the games and a fair proportion of game in the exercises” (Boal, 2002, 48). Thus, TO includes a lot of games that are used to warm-up its participants. They are usually physical and have the intention of getting people emotionally involved. An example of a gamesercise is Columbian Hypnosis characterized by an actor (hypnotizer) leading another actor (hypnotized) around with the palm of their hand. The person hypnotized must use their face to follow the hypnotizer’s hand and cannot break their initial distance (between 20 and 40 centimeters). Like Columbian Hypnosis all TO gamesercices require teamwork, and there is never anyone working alone. This dynamic mirrors life and struggle, since there is always someone helping you live and someone causing you to struggle (oppressed and an oppressed, and the oppressed and the oppressor). You are never working alone.
Gamersercises are really important because they set up a safe space for actors and raise the comfort bar for non-actors. Furthermore, it gives all people an equal chance to be in control of the situation whether they’re black, white, shy, poor, male or female. These types of exercises can even be used with children. In fact, many of them are renditions of children games and involve a lot of play. Columbian Hypnosis can be safely done as long as rules are explained and the children are in an area with very few things to bump into. Afterwards students can talk about how they felt to be in power while hypnotizing their peers and while they were the person with less power being hypnotized. Musical Chairs is also used as a gamesercise. This game involves playing music while actors march around chairs. For this to be successful there must be one chair less than the actual members playing so that someone is eliminated each round. Whenever the music stops actors must find a seat. If a person doesn’t get a seat they’re eliminated, a chair is removed, and the game continues until there is a winner. This game in particular is a great way to talk about inclusion and exclusion, which can pave the way for a larger discussion about racism.
A recent graduate student, Juana Mendoza Claudio, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst looked at how TO techniques could be used with bilingual students in Transitional Bilingual Education Programs. Through this work she hoped to counter mainstreaming by finding a way to help bilingual students embrace their differences while in school. Most of Claudio’s (2002) work is qualitative and exists in the form of detailed journal recordings that are both her own and the students. She used several of Boal’s gamesercises such as Blind/Guide, which is similar to “Columbian Hypnosis” except that the person hypnotized is blindfolded and “This is not a stick”, where the children took turns transforming a stick into another representation like a brush or a pencil (Claudio, 2002, 70-71). Many of these exercises resulted in cultural realizations and a deeper understanding of who they were as Latinos and their individual cultures. For instance, students often noticed that certain words were different in Spanish speaking countries which better shaped who they were as individuals rather than the bilingual group they were tracked as in school (Bolivia, Puerto Rico, Chile). Furthermore, TO helped the students take control of their learning by choosing topics and creating the scenes. This type of empowerment can also be seen in Amherst’s local youth group, Project 2050, which also uses TO to combat racism.
Antiracist Activism through Visual Arts
When thinking or learning about the visual arts, people’s minds usually jump to thoughts of paintings or drawings, mostly of those created by white males. However, visual art encompasses a wide range of mediums such as street art, graffiti, graphic design, murals, printmaking, painting, drawing, sculpture, photography and cartoons. Anti-racist visual artists often use a variety of these materials as an outlet to combat the white haze that encompasses visual art and even our society. Anti-racist artists have been in our society for quite some time and yet they are not as well known or spoken of when learning about art. This article will explore the lives of a few anti-racist artists as they work, or have worked, to speak out about issues of racism, oppression, power struggles and every day issues that get swept under the rug. These artists are only a few contemporary ones; many artists before them and currently have created work dealing with similar issues. The article also explores mostly female artists to provide an alternative perspective on visual arts, a move away from the predominately white, male Eurocentric perspective.
Keith Knight (born 1966) Born and raised in the Boston area, Keith Knight was “weaned on a steady diet of Star Wars, hip-hop, racism and Warner Bros. cartoons” (“Bio: Cartoonist”). He started drawing in elementary school and soon developed his trademark cartooning style of underground comics. When asked about his work he stated, “You’re totally influenced by your surroundings and Boston’s known as a pretty racist place, though you don’t really realize it when you’re growing up there” (McGovern).
Knight is “part of a new generation of talented young African-American artists who infuse their work with urgency, edge, humor, satire, politics and race” (“Bio: Cartoonist”). Using his humor, he brings awareness to issues of race, diversity, media, youth and student empowerment, the corporate corrosion of creativity and other contemporary issues (“Fear of a Black”). As a means of addressing these issues, Knight created the K Chronicles, a weekly comic strip, and (th)ink a single-panel piece that tackles issues effecting communities of color. His work has appeared in places such as Salon.com, ESPN the Magazine, the Funny Times, World War 3 Illustrated, L.A. Weekly, and MAD Magazine. In 2007 he won the Harvey Award and the 2006 & 2007 Glyph Awards for Best Comic Strip. His comic art has appeared in museums and galleries all over, from California to France. Knight is also the author of three books, Fear of a Black Marker, Dances with Sheep and his latest, What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been (“Fear of a Black”).
Keith Knight continues to actively promote antiracism through whatever means; whether he is drawing another poignant cartoon, performing in his hip-hop band, the Marginal Prophets or writing a book.
Below are some specific examples of his work: http://web.archive.org/web/20070626081604/http://www.salon.com/comics/knig/2007/06/20/knig/ http://web.archive.org/web/20080306020053/http://www.salon.com/comics/knig/2008/03/05/knig/ http://web.archive.org/web/20080308100348/http://www.salon.com/comics/knig/2007/09/26/knig/ Some of his comics can be viewed at: http://www.buzzle.com/authors.asp?author=243
Yolanda Lopez (born 1942) Yolanda Lopez is a talented Chicana muralist, painter, printmaker, educator, and film producer. Her art work focuses mostly on the lives of Mexican American women, challenging the ethnic stereotypes associated with them. Lopez argues that it is “crucial that we systematically explore the cultural mis-definition of Mexicans and Latin Americans that is presented in the media” (Guerena & Chatman). She views her art as a tool for political and social change, labeling herself as an “artistic provocateur” (“Women Artists”).
Lopez is most famous for her Virgin of Guadalupe series of paintings (1975–78) in which she transformed the “beloved icon to celebrate ordinary Mexican and Mexican American women as hardworking, assertive, and vibrant” (Davalos). Through whatever means possible, curating an exhibition, producing films, painting murals, teaching art in studios or universities, Lopez has strived to be and succeeded in becoming an antiracist artist.
Emma Amos (born 1938) Through the use of paintings, prints and weavings, Emma Amos has explored political and social issues of Black life. Amos’ work is strongly influenced by her idea that as an African American woman, art is fundamentally “a political act” (“Women Artists”).
When recounting growing up in the South, Amos said, “images come to me of words like sass and back talk that describe the attitudes of people who actively resisted oppression. My work has often taken shots at assumptions about skin color and the privileges of power and of whiteness” (Amos). Through her work she challenges audiences to consider how ideas about race, sex and identity are constructed through images. Her works “expose the ways in which images of blackness and non-western cultural forms have been historically appropriated by white artists” (“Emma Amos”). As Amos stated, her paintings serve to “dislodge, question, and tweak prejudices, rules, and notions relating to art and who makes it, poses for it, shows it, and buys it. The work reflects my investigations into the otherness often seen by white male artists, along with the notion of desire, the dark body versus the white body, racism, and my wish to provoke more thoughtful ways of thinking and seeing” (Amos).
Amos’ work has been internationally exhibited and she is currently a Professor at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University.
Some of her paintings can be viewed at: http://emmaamos.com/category/works/painting/
Faith Ringgold (born 1930) Using painting, storytelling and most famously story quilts, Faith Ringgold has proved to be an influential female African American artist. Ringgold was familiar with the quilt-making tradition, influenced by weaving done by men in Africa, for warmth, preserving memories and events, storytelling, and even as "message boards" for the Underground Railroad to guide slaves on their way north (“Artist Profile”).
Ringgold initially painted in oils reflecting the turmoil and change of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. During this time she worked as an activist for social change for women and blacks. She focused in on the American art museum system, “which often omitted African-Americans and women from its exhibitions on a de facto basis” (“Artist Profile”). In 1967, Ringgold created a series entitled, The American People, which addressed racial conflict and discrimination. And in 1972, she helped found the Women Students and Artists for Black Liberation so that African American art exhibitions would equally represent both men and women (“African American”).
Ringgold became most famous for her use of art in a medium formerly referred to as "woman's work" (textiles, sewn fabric, weaving, quilting, embroidery). She transformed this ‘craft’ into art work that explores the serious issues of society (“Artist Profile”). Ringgold has exhibited in major museums in the USA, Europe, South America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Her first book, Tar Beach was a Caldecott Honor Book and winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration. She has written and illustrated eleven children's books, received more than 75 awards, fellowships, citations and honors (Ringgold). Faith Ringgold continues to inspire, challenge and create, urging people to follow their dreams and overcome obstacles with an unstoppable spirit.
Khalil Bendib (born 1957) Khalil Bendib is an award winning cartoonist and “arguably the most visible Muslim Arab fine artist working today in the USA” (“Studio”). Born during the Algerian revolution, Bendib grew up in Morocco and Algeria and came to California at age 20. Bendib worked both as a cartoonist and a fine artist using ceramics, sculptures, and paintings in California.
After working at Gannett Newspapers for eight years, he resigned due to his feelings that his work was unnecessarily censored. Bendib now works independently, exploring “potentially explosive issues avoided by other cartoonists, such as racial injustice, labor and class struggles, U.S. imperialism, environmental degradation, the scapegoating of Muslims and Arabs, and the complicity of our Orwellian media” (“America’s Most Wanted”). His work has been published in numerous newspapers across America as well as The Black Commentator and other online publications. Khalil provides a “fresh, non-Eurocentric perspective and a unique voice not usually found in our large, corporate media” (“The Book”). Khalil Bendib continues to “give a voice to the voiceless” and work hard to speak out on important issues through his antiracist art.
View his work at: http://www.studiobendib.com/inside.html
Though only a few artists have been addressed, it is important to be aware of the people in our society (both past and present) who have used their creative voices to speak out on issues of inequality. These artists could be used as sources of inspiration or for a new perspective other than the Eurocentric one that so dominates the visual arts culture.
Haile Gerima, Sankofa and Independent Filmmaking
In his career as both a professor and filmmaker, Gerima has been an activist for a whole host of issues, ranging from third world studies to racism and African American history. Born in Gondar, Ethiopia, Gerima immigrated to the US in 1968. Best put in his own words, initially, “I wanted to work in theatre-It never occurred to me I could be a filmmaker because I was raised on Hollywood movies that pacified me to be subservient.” In an attempt to break both break from this mold, and to attack the dominant narrative, Gerima became involved in film in the tumultuous times of the late 60s and early 70s. It was a time when African Americans were involved in the civil rights struggle in America, and many African nations were in the midst of independence movements themselves. This duality, between the African diaspora and Africa itself, is a crucial theme in Gerima's work. By looking at lives and struggles of the diaspora, with their roots in Africa, Gerima internationalizes and unifies the diaspora's world-wide struggle. Moreover, this allows for Gerima to use history as a medium to expose the connections that create unity and a shared direction.
His most famous film, Sankofa, is about slavery, and more specifically, about a slave rebellion in the Caribbean. This film plays directly into the aforementioned theme of Gerima's films. The film takes place in an unknown island in the Caribbean for a reason; it could have been anyone in the diaspora's former family, and if it wasn't, it represents a struggle that many families can locate in their own histories. The film takes an afro-centric perspective, like all of Gerima's films, with a stress on how history is connected to today. The film starts out with a female model on a beach on the west coast of Africa. Gerima uses this female character, who appears to have forgotten her roots, as a tool to explore the past. Suddenly, the character steps back in time, she remains in the same place, but it is roughly 200 years earlier when enslaved Africans were being shipped from the same beach to plantations across the Atlantic. From this point on in the story, the main character takes a brutal and revealing trip back through history, as Gerima connects the past to the present. While the film contains many themes dealing with the institution of slavery, including the role of religion, skin tone, sexuality, rape, language, family, and identity, the film centers around empowerment of the enslaved peoples through insurrection. Despite being deemed “too controversial” and struggling to find funding, Gerima took 9 years to raise the money from the diaspora community and made his award-winning film. Refusing to buckle to the Hollywood stereotypical mold, which Gerima states as embodying “cultural genocide,” Gerima has mastered the art of making powerful low-budget films. In addition to being a Professor at Howard, Gerima and his wife have opened a book store, film studio, and coffee shop complex to create a space for the community to come together and have critical thought.
Gerima has intentionally remained an independent filmmaker so he can control the message and delivery of his films. He provides an excellent example of a life of anti-racist activism through the medium of film, the classroom, and the community. By striving to unify the diaspora community and bring real issues to the fore, Gerima embodies the spirit of pan-African liberation. Furthermore, all of Gerima's films attack the dominant narrative, expose reality, and create stories that both empower audiences and make them ask for more. His work and his life story stand as excellent examples of how to out-maneuver and attack racist institutions and racist narratives. Gerima continues to give back to the diaspora community, and as a result, the diaspora keeps Gerima's independent direction going. This relationship in itself is indicative of the power and unifying nature of Gerima's life work. This piece focuses on the life and work of Gerima, but, his work and desire to remain an independent filmmaker speaks to the wider community of African American filmmakers and the struggles they endure. In turn, Gerima's perseverance and the power of his work portrays both the need for afro-centric films, and the trials that must be overcome to realize these goals.
Antiracist Activism in Children's Literature
Antiracism in literature can be a powerful thing. In the field of education it is important for young children to be exposed to what antiracism is, how it works, and how they can be active. One of the ways of introducing this topic is through children’s picture books. It is a simple but effective way in getting a message across. Reading begets knowledge and by introducing children to how our world in diverse through children’s literature is a tool in teaching youth how to become actively antiracist. Laura Atkins, a children’s literature specialist says that “books can share values. Some people are threatened by difference/diversity in thinking that it is leading towards fragmentation. We have to? see it as an opportunity to show what unites as well as what differentiates.” In order to celebrate difference and open dialogue, we must look at how there are different people in the world with different culture and experiences, and how that makes our world better.
Children’s picture books such as “Nappy Hair”, “Black, White, Just Right!”, “It’s Test Day, Tiger Turcotte” and “The Skin I’m In: A First Look at Racism” are all fantastic books that explores multiculturalism, put an emphasis on difference but sameness, and celebrates the multiracial society that we live in. Along with the text, illustrations are just as important. Presenting visuals for children helps them to recognize difference and accept that not everyone looks like them, and at the same time helping them to understand that it is okay for that difference to exist because there are qualities that we all share. According Eliza T. Dresang, Associate Professor at Florida State University, to create authentic multicultural literature and images that can be useful in educating children it is important to include things that are “based on facts, reproduces essential features of an origin, and that are true to the creator's own cultural personality, spirit, or character.” With these things in mind, it is important to remember that authenticity for children creates an open space for children to express themselves and be comfortable to speak up and ask questions.
Anti-racism can be done in a number of ways, especially through the arts. Above we have highlighted four ways: theatre, visual arts, film and children's literature in which educators, parents, students and the larger community can be anti-racist. Finally, we hope that when we (as educators) think about education we embrace anti-racist methods because of their long lasting, positive implications for the world we live in.
- Boal, Augusto. 2002. “Games for actors and non-actors” Routledge. New York, NY 10001.
- Claudio Mendoza, Juana. 2002. “The Application of Theatre of The Oppressed Techniques in Elementary Education Theory and Practice: A Constructivist Approach. Graduate school of the University of Massachussets Amherst.
- Amos, Emma. Artist’s Statement. April 19, 2008, from http://emmaamos.com/abo-ut/statement/
- Black Filmmakers, "Haile Gerima Page," May 1, 2008, from http://www.blackfilmmakers.net/gerimabio.html
- Davalos, M., Karen.(2008). Yolanda Lopez. April 14, 2008, from http://www.upress.u-mn.edu/Books/D/davalos_yolanda.html
- Ethiopian Politics Blog, "A moment with Haile Gerima," May 1, 2008, from http://ethiopianpolitics.blogspot.com/2008/02/ethiopia-moment-withhaile-gerima.html
- Guerena, Salvador, & Chatman, Todd. (1999). Guide to the Lopez, Yolanda M. Papers. April 29, 2008, from http://cemaweb.library.ucsb.edu/lopez_toc.html
- McGovern, Leo (2006). Keith Knight. Antigravity, 3 (8). April 28, 2008 from https://antigravitymagazine.sslpowered.com/antigravity_vol3_issue8.pdf
- Ringgold, Faith (2002). May I Introduce Myself? April 29, 2008, from http://www.faithri-nggold.com/ringgold/bio.htm
- African American World: Arts & Culture. April 27, 2008, from http://www.pbs.org/w-net/aaworld/arts/ringgold.html
- America's Most Wanted Comedian and Political Cartoonist. April 20, 2008, from http://www.speakoutnow.org/userdata_display.php?modin=50&uid=2749
- Artist Profile: Faith Ringgold. April 27, 2008, from http://www.ndoylefineart.com/ringg-old.html
- Bio: Cartoonist, Rapper, and Multimedia Artist Keith Knight. May 1, 2008, from http://www.kchronicles.com/bio.shtml
- “Fear of a Black Marker" Underground Cartooning and Activism. April 20, 2008, from http://www.speakoutnow.org/userdata_display.php?modin=50&uid=70
- Emma Amos: Paintings and Prints. April 26, 2008, from http://www.antioch-college.edu/herndon/html/amos.html
- Studio Bendib: Biography. April 30, 2008, from http://www.studiobendib.com/bio.html
- Women Artists 1960–Present. April 20, 2008, from http://www.csupomona.edu/~pli-n/women2/part3.html
- The Book: Biography of Khalil Bendib. May 1, 2008, from http://www.bendib.com/bo-ok/biography.html