Since Martin [LutherKing]’s death, in Memphis, and that tremendous day in Atlanta, something has altered in me, something has gone away. Perhaps even more than the death itself, the manner of his death has forced me into a judgment concerning human life and human beings which I have always been reluctant to make—indeed, I can see that a great deal of what the knowledgeable would call my lifestyle is dictated by this reluctance. Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet, every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become. This is not very different from the act of faith demanded by all those marches and petitions while Martin was still alive. One could scarcely be deluded by Americans anymore, one scarcely dared expect anything from the great, vast, blank generality; and yet one was compelled to demand of Americans—and for their sakes, after all—a generosity, a clarity, and a nobility which they did not dream of demanding of themselves. Part of the error was irreducible, in that the marchers and petitioners were forced to suppose the existence of an entity which, when the chips were down, could not be located—i.e., there are no American people yet: but to this speculation (or desperate hope) we shall presently return. Perhaps, however, the moral of the story (and the hope of the world) lies in what one demands, not of others, but of oneself. However that may be, the failure and the betrayal are in the record book forever, and sum up, and condemn, forever, those descendants of a barbarous Europe who arbitrarily and arrogantly reserve the right to call themselves Americans.
The mind is a strange and terrible vehicle, moving according to rigorous rules of its own; and my own mind, after I had left Atlanta, began to move backward in time, to places, people, and events I thought I had forgotten. Sorrow drove it there, I think, sorrow, and a certain kind of bewilderment, triggered, perhaps, by something which happened to me in connection with Martin’s funeral.
When Martin was murdered, I was based in Hollywood, working—working, in fact, on the screen version of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. This was a difficult assignment, since I had known Malcolm, after all, crossed swords with him, worked with him, and held him in that great esteem which is not easily distinguishable, if it is distinguishable at all, from love. (The Hollywood gig did not work out because I did not wish to be a party to a second assassination: but we will also return to Hollywood, presently.)
Very shortly before his death, I had to appear with Martin at Carnegie Hall, in New York. Having been on the Coast so long, I had nothing suitable to wear for my Carnegie Hall gig, and so I rushed out, got a dark suit, got it fitted, and made my appearance. Something like two weeks later, I wore this same suit to Martin’s funeral; returned to Hollywood; presently, had to come East again, on business. I ran into Leonard Lyons one night, and I told him that I would never be able to wear that suit again. Leonard put this in his column. I went back to Hollywood.
Weeks later, either because of a Civil Rights obligation, or because of Columbia Pictures, I was back in New York. On my desk in New York were various messages—and it must be said that my sister, Gloria, who worked for me then, is extremely selective, not to say brutal, about the messages she leaves on my desk. I don’t see, simply, most of the messages I get. I couldn’t conceivably live with them. No one could—as Gloria knows. However, my best friend, black, when I had been in junior high school, when I was twelve or thirteen, had been calling and calling and calling. The guilt of the survivor is a real guilt—as I was now to discover. In a way that I may never be able to make real for my countrymen, or myself, the fact that I had “made it”—that is, had been seen on television, and at Sardi’s, could (presumably!) sign a check anywhere in the world, could, in short, for the length of an entrance, a dinner, or a drink, intimidate headwaiters by the use of a name which had not been mine when I was born and which love had compelled me to make my own–meant that I had betrayed the people who had produced me. Nothing could be more unutterably paradoxical: to have thrown in your lap what you never dreamed of getting, and, in sober, bitter truth, could never have dreamed of having, and that at the price of an assumed betrayal of your brothers and your sisters! One is always disproving the accusation in action as futile as it is inevitable. — James Baldwin, fromNo Name in theStreet*
Join Darryl Pinckney for a “close reading of Baldwin’s beautiful, blistering memoir of the events that forged his consciousness of race and identity—growing up in Harlem, the murders of MartinLuther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, his long residence in France, his fateful decision to retum to the American South”—presented by the Library of America.
I feel lucky and blessed that I’m serving in Congress. But there are forces today trying to take us back to another time and another dark period. We’ve come so far, we’ve made so much progress. But as a nation, as a people, we’re not quite there yet. We have miles to go. — Rep. John Lewis, (D) Georgia
As someone who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma and Washington D.C., Congressman Lewis—who has represented Georgia’s 5th District since 1987—knows the necessity of participating in the franchise. He spent the 1970s going door to door registering future Black voters and viscerally understands—in our current summer of reckoning—the existential challenges facing our country leading up to the November elections.
JOHN LEWIS—GOOD TROUBLE, Dawn Porter’s documentary on the life and work of the civil rights activist, is a testimony to the power of persistence and presence—of being there. As the late Maryland congressman Elijah Cummings confirms in the film, “The reason [Lewis is] effective as a leader is because he’s lived it.”
Streaming now on multiple platforms. See links below for details.
The whole MANIFESTOS series is created this way: I put manifestos that I come across in a research file. And then I translate the text of each manifesto into musical notation. All the letters of the alphabet from A to G are converted directly into musical notation. So if the letter A pops up, then that’s translated into the note A. I also translate H as B flat, which is part of a Baroque tradition… All of the letters that are not notes becoming resting silent beats…
The whole idea, of course, is that the music is not produced subjectively. It’s produced following the system. The uncanny thing is that sound is subjectively realized. That happens because of the notational system; it’s a diatonic scale. The notational system is intuitive to anybody familiar with Western music… The listener finds the music meaningful regarding content and representation but fully understands there is no intention to produce meaning, or that the music is an expression of the artist… Whoever’s listening is making the meaning, because we’ve been trained to make those links. In other words, our cultural learning is producing our comprehension of the sound. That’s crucial to all my work. I’m arguing that the idea of the subjective imagination is an ideology, it’s not a fact. — Charles Gaines*
In conjunction with the exhibition CHARLES GAINES—PALM TREES AND OTHER WORKS, the artist’sMANIFESTOS 3—”a multimedia installation that functions as a systematic transliteration of two revolutionary manifestos into musical notation”—will be performed by pianist RichardValitutto at Hauser and Wirth in Los Angeles.
An interpretation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 speech at Newcastle University and James Baldwin’s 1957 essay “Princes and Powers”—a report from the famous 1956 Sorbonne conference of black writers—this MANIFESTOS 3 premiere will be followed by a conversation with Gaines and a book signing of the artist’s current exhibitioncatalog.
Helen Molesworth will be teaching a class at UCLA this fall. Last month she gave the commencement address at the university’s School of the Arts andArchitecture:
“Thank you. Thank you, Dean [Brett] Steele, for the invitation to speak today to the UCLA faculty and staff, to the families and friends of the students gathered here today. I know it sounds cliché, but it really is an honor to stand before you this afternoon. First things first, I want to offer the graduating class of 2018 of the School of Arts and Architecture some big-time congratulations. The word “congratulations” has two Latin roots. The first is to wish joy, and the second is to be together. It gives me such pleasure to be together today with you and wish you joy. Congratulations.
“The task of the commencement speaker is to send you into the world with some pearls of wisdom before you start your so-called real life. But I confess, I wonder what knowledge I possess that could be useful for you, you for whom the Internet always existed, you for whom gay marriage and marijuana are legal. Neither were legal when I was in college—[I was] pretty much a petty criminal by the time of my graduation. You who witnessed the first black president as an everyday reality rather than an impossible dream, you who saw the Twin Towers fall as children. What can I possibly say to equip you not for the journey you are about to begin, but the journey that you are already on?
“I’ve decided to tell you how hopeful I am about the future, and one of the reasons I am hopeful is because of your generation. You guys have come of age against an extraordinary backdrop of actual and symbolic change. From the two-term Obama presidency that shaped your sense of political possibility, to new ideas in the workplace symbolized by the Me Too and Time’s Up movements, to your generation’s acceptance of trans identities, to the bravery of those of you with DACA status, to your support of the water protectors at Standing Rock, to new ideas about race and power exemplified by Black Lives Matter. And now there are those following in your footsteps. High school students across the country, led by their peers from Parkland, calling for an end to gun violence. These are huge advances in the realm of everyday life, and you have already helped to shape these changes.
“But, even though I am hopeful, it would be foolish not to mention how spectacularly messed up the world is at the moment. Both here and abroad, democracy finds itself imperiled by the all-too-familiar wins of authoritarianism and nationalism. In our country, the difficult task of democracy is under enormous pressure from a newer threat, an increasingly powerful oligarchy that has concentrated more money in the hands of fewer individuals than the feudal period. This oligarchy has inserted its values of profit and their inherent belief in money and wealth as the ultimate metrics of success into democracy’s most fundamental institutions: the press, scientific research, concert halls, the university, museums, all institutions that were previously believed to stand apart from the forces of the market. The worlds of culture and art, the worlds you are poised to enter, are striated with the pressure of these moneyed forces in ways we have never before encountered.
“And yet, I find these times as joyful as they are scary. One reason for my joy is my ability to address you, the next generation of artists and cultural thinkers, as the folks who have as the bedrock of your pedagogical experience the crit. The crit, for those of you in the back rows who may be unfamiliar with the term, is short for the word “critique.” It is a classroom exercise in which an artist shows her work to her teachers and fellow students, and everyone is at liberty to say what they think. The crit is unique to teaching in the arts, and it happens in writing, art, design, and architecture. The crit teaches students how to present their work and share their intentions and their process. Many people think that the primary value of the crit is that it teaches the student presenting her work to be as good as talking about her work as she is as making it.
“But I want to suggest that you were learning something else in the crit. You were learning how to listen. When you sat in a crit, you weren’t simply learning to wait your turn before you spoke. Some of you were learning how to listen to what was being said, as well as what wasn’t being said. You were learning to listen carefully to people’s choice of words, learning to listen for the emotional content of a statement as well as its factual one. You were learning to listen as a way to slow down the formation of your own opinion. You learned it was better to listen to what happened in the crit before you made your mind up about what you thought about the work. You were learning how to listen with compassion and ambivalence. In other words, you were learning how to listen to the complexity and the nuance of the crit itself.
“I want to be clear, not everybody learns how to do this. While you were learning to make and talk about art, you were also learning how to listen. I can think of no other time when it has been this important to be a very, very good listener. The composer John Cage suggested that listening would be our greatest virtue when he wrote his famous composition “4’33,” a piece for piano where the performer goes to the stage, walks up to the piano, lifts the lid of the piano, and sits with his hands in his lap. They sit motionless for four minutes and 33 seconds. Audiences rebelled when they first heard this piece. They were incensed that they were not being entertained by the artist. But Cage was asking the audience to listen differently. He was showing them that there is no such thing as silence. There is always sound. It is the ear that must be trained. We must learn to listen as much as we learn to speak.
“This is what Parkland High School student Emma Gonzalez did when she stood silent for four minutes before an assembly of tens of thousands of people to protest gun violence in the United States. She was refusing to lead us or entertain us with her grief. She was asking us instead to listen, to ourselves, to each other, to the situation. Those of us who have been in a crit know that one of the most interesting questions we can ask ourselves right now is, what did we hear when Emma Gonzalez stopped speaking?
“Don’t get me wrong. I know it’s actually really hard to listen. But I’m pretty convinced that it’s the only way towards change. Listening is the basis of empathy, and empathy is the only way to think our way out of the stranglehold of the debilitating and outmoded forms of thought we have inherited from our colonial past. It’s inspiring to stand in front of you today because you guys already have a leg up. Because of the crit, you guys already know that listening helps you learn, that every choice you make has meaning. You know from listening to others that meaning is not made individually, but collectively. In other words, you know how to be a citizen.
“I think your generation is the first generation to come of age when we can say that white supremacy is dying. In my entire life, I have never heard so many people from so many different walks of life be able to name and acknowledge the disaster visited upon us. I know in my heart of hearts that some of the most important voices who have helped us understand how the past has shaped us have been artists and musicians and dancers and writers and architects, for they were listening and they have been reporting back to us about what they heard.
“But the capacity to identify and name the problem is only half the battle. There will be a long and hard fight ahead. People in power have a lot to lose, for their very sense of self is bound up in fantasies of whiteness and money and power. And yet, what I hear in the daily barrage of bad news is not strength, but weakness. What I hear in this current administration’s culture of lying, bullying, hatred, and violence is not power, but a death rattle. Indeed, I think we are bearing witness to the death rattle of our colonial past, and like all deaths from toxic diseases it will not be an easy or a graceful one. The patient is fighting the diagnosis, fighting the reality of our country’s new demographics, new demographics so beautifully on display here today.
“Yet I believe Martin Luther King when he said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends ever so slightly toward justice. We are on the downward slope of that long arc now. Now is the time to consider listening an active skill rather than a passive activity. Now is the time to listen to those who have not been in power. Now is the time to listen to the myriad ways people talk, think, and feel. Now is the time we make sure to listen to the words, the feelings, and the silences of the many, rather than the few. Can you imagine what our lives would be like if we had listened to Native peoples, if we had listened to the centuries of women denied formal education, if we were listening to the migrants crossing our borders?
“Now is the time for the artists who founded Black Lives Matter, for the artists who founded Time’s Up, for the young drama students at Parkland, and you guys, the assembled artists sitting before me today, to bring your very special listening skills to bear on this extraordinary time of change. I selfishly cannot wait to reap the benefits of how your generation will listen, and my faith in your ability to listen brings me back to my congratulations, to this act of gathering and wishing one another well, for being together and expressing our thoughts and feelings is what art is all about, and it is also the imperative work of democracy itself.
“All right. I looked up lots of graduation speeches on the web, and you’re supposed to offer some advice. So this is now the five pieces of very concrete advice I am going to offer you.
“One, we have two ears and one mouth, so technically it should be twice as easy to listen as it is to talk.
“Two, stick close to your friends over the years ahead. Look around at each other now, smile, dap your friends, kiss your lovers. Life is long, and you are all going to need each other.
“Three, make your bed. I know that that’s a very Oprah-like thing to say, and I have no idea what it has to do with white supremacy, but I also know that making your bed is one of those things that makes you a more productive person. I don’t know why that is, but you should just do it. Trust me. Make your bed.
“Four, if you are lucky enough to enjoy prosperity, remember to share it. Don’t stockpile power and money. If they come your way, redistribute them. Share the joys of your successes widely.
“And five, most of all, please remember that love remains our greatest attribute. Our capacity for love is infinite. The more love we make, the more we receive. The more we receive, the more we can give away, and so on, and so on, and so on.