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We Are All Illegal

28 Mar
Image from obeygiant.com.  Print designed by Shepard Fairey and Ernesto Yerena.

Image from obeygiant.com. Print designed by Shepard Fairey and Ernesto Yerena.

 

My Jewish great-grandparents left Germany and Eastern Europe 100 years ago in search of a better life, which makes me no more “American” than people who leave Mexico today in search of a better life. 

A front page story in Sunday’s New York Times, reports that 300 immigrants are now held in solitary confinement—for infractions such allegedly arguing with a guard or because they were gay—at the 50 largest detention facilities overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 

“Detainees in solitary are routinely kept alone for 22 to 23 hours per day sometimes in windowless 6-foot-by-13-foot cells… Solitary confinement is widely viewed as the most dangerous way to detain people, and roughly half of prison suicides occur when people are segregated in this way,” reports the Times

For those that are proponents of immigrant rights, this news is sickening although not surprising; anti-immigrant officials like Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio have been making brutal human rights violations against immigrants for years.

What is surprising is how little Obama supporters seem to care that deportations have increased at record numbers under his administration, and that immigration detention is up 85% since 2005—or that there are more than six million people under correctional supervision in the United States, including more black men than were in slavery in 1850. 

Why do we remain silent as the prison population grows exponentially in the interest of corporate profit, and while ICE tortures immigrants?  What does that say about us as a country?  If ICE were running the Ellis Island “border crossing” these days, I’d be sitting in a 6-foot cage or getting deported back to Eastern Europe, lost from my family. 

Why do we look the other way when someone who is undocumented is mistreated, why do we ignore their human rights, as if holding a piece a paper that says you’re from the United States of America—which basically means you are a citizen of a land that annihilated a civilization of native people to make you a citizen—makes you anymore “American,” or gives you any more human rights than someone to who came to this land to make a better life for themselves and their family, and is cooking your ass dinner in the back of a restaurant in Washington, New York, San Francisco, or Phoenix?

The anti-immigrant supporters in Congress and ICE officials and Department of Homeland Security officials are all just as immigrant, just as undocumented, just as illegal, just as different, just as crazy, just as solitary confineable as I am, or you are, or the rest of us are.  

Human rights are human rights.  There is no difference between us and them.  So get them, get us, out of confinement. 

-Smiley Poswolsky

Revisiting The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity by James Baldwin

15 Mar
Photo by Allan Warren, Wikipedia Commons.

Baldwin with Shakespeare, London, 1969.  Photo by Allan Warren, Wikipedia Commons.

A few moths ago, after listening to me lament about how difficult it is to sit down and actually write every day, my sister gave me some James Baldwin to read, and it calmed my soul.  I keep returning to one essay in particular, The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity, which Baldwin delivered as a speech at the Community Church in New York City in 1962.  The complete text does not seem to exist online, which is a shame, but it can be found in the collection, The Cross of Redemption, and is essential reading.  

To give you, the reader, the writer, the artist, the social changemaker, a little taste of Baldwin’s fierce tongue, and his ability to spit the truth from the heart—the raw with the real—the brutal with the tender—I’ve included some of my favorite excerpts below. 

What makes this speech so powerful is that it puts forth Baldwin’s personal manifesto, his reason for being, which any writer can relate to.  Being an artist entails a total risk of everything; integrity is the ability to stay true to one’s calling, one’s calling is the very essence of who they are, and this is not something you can turn on and off.  It’s not something that hangs around for the weekend or the summer or for the extent of a hook-up or a relationship or a friendship or even a marriage or while your kids are growing up—you’re calling is you—it is with you forever

And with this great responsibility, this great purpose to do your art, to do the work you were meant to do­—whether that’s to write, to paint, to design, to make movies, to create, to teach, to help, to give, to fight for social change—comes an equally if not more important obligation to practice humility.  You have to respect your craft, to learn its power, as well as respect its ability to cause personal pain and torment.  You have to be humble enough not to let your calling, your art, destroy you, because it can, because in almost all likelihood, will.  

***

Excerpts from The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity by James Baldwin

…The first thing an artist finds out when he is very, very young (when I say “young” I mean before he is fifteen, that is to say, before, properly speaking, he or she can walk or talk, before he or she has had enough experience to begin to assess his or her experience)—and what occurs in this hypothetical artist’s life is a kind of silence—the first thing he finds out is that for reasons he cannot explain to himself or others, he does not belong anywhere.  Maybe you’re on the football team, maybe you’re a runner, maybe you belong to a church, you certainly belong to a family; and abruptly, in other people’s eyes—this is very important—you begin to discover that you are moving and you can’t stop this movement to what looks like the edge of the world.  Now what is crucial, and one begins to understand it much, much later, is that if you were this hypothetical artist, if you were in fact the dreamer that everybody says you are, if in fact you were wrong not to settle for the things that you cannot for some mysterious reason settle for, if this were so, the testimony in the eyes of other people would not exist.  The crime of which you discover slowly you are guilty is not so much that you are aware, which is bad enough, but that other people see that you are and cannot bear to watch it, because it testifies to the fact that they are not…

…You walk into a room what somebody says, “What do you do?” And you say, “I write.”  And they say, “Yeah, but what do you do?”  And you wonder, what do you do? And what’s it for?  Why don’t you get a job?  And somehow you can’t, and finally you learn this is in the most terrible way, because you try.  You’re in the position of someone on the edge and it’s cold in the field, and there’s a house over there, and there’s fire in the house, and food and everything you need, everything you want, and you make all kinds of efforts to get into the house.  And they would let you in; they would let you in.  They’re not being cruel.  They recognize you as you come to the door, and they can’t let you in.  You get in, let us say, for five minutes, and you can’t stay…

…The trouble is that although the artist can do it, the price that he has to pay himself and that you, the audience, must also pay, is a willingness to give up everything, to realize that although you spent twenty-seven years acquiring this house, this furniture, this position, although you spent forty years raising this child, these children, nothing, none of it belongs to you.  You can only have it by letting it go.  You can only take if you prepared to give, and giving is not an investment.  It is not a day at the bargain counter.  It is a total risk of everything, of you and who you think you are, who you think you’d like to be, where you think you’d like to go—everything, and this forever, forever…

…But then one has got to understand—that is, I and all my tribe (I mean artists now)—that it is hard for me.  If I spend weeks and months avoiding my typewriter—and I do, sharpening pencils, trying to avoid going where I know I’ve got to go—then one has got to use this to learn humility.  After all, there is kind of a saving egotism too, a cruel and dangerous but also saving egotism, about the artist’s condition, which is this:  I know that if I survive it, when the tears have stopped flowing or when the blood had dried, when the storm has settled, I do have a typewriter that is my torment but is also my work.  If I can survive it, I can always go back there, and if I’ve not turned into a total liar, then I can use it and prepare myself in this way for the next inevitable and possibly fatal disaster.  But if I find that hard to do—and I have a weapon which most people don’t have—then one must understand how hard it is for almost anybody else to do it all… 

***

So if it was so hard for James Baldwin to write—and yes, he had a weapon most writers can only dream of—how the hell are we supposed to do it?  Because we have to, or have to at least try.  As artists, we have to be true to ourselves; we have to ignore the voices telling us to stop and “get a real job,” we have to ignore the voice inside our own head that tells us every day to go out and “get a real job.” 

We have to continue to put ourselves out there, we have to continue to make courageous acts—through each blog post, each project, each show, each meeting, each event, each painting, each drawing, each piece of work, each and every day—we have to continue to risk everything—“and this, forever, forever.” 

When you have a moment, read the whole speech, which, true to its writer, switches to the subject of racial justice, which in the aftermath of the police shooting of Kimani Gray last Saturday in Brooklyn—yet another black teenager shot (7 times from 11 shots) and killed by the police, is just as relevant today as when delivered in 1962. 

In the end, Baldwin looks beyond the world of the individual artist, arguing that our collective integrity—our civilization as a whole, our humanity—is fundamentally broken and has failed, when we lack equality for our fellow man.    

Daily Smiley: May Day

1 May

“The country is in deep trouble. We’ve forgotten that a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. We need the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice. In many instances we will be stepping out on nothing, and just hoping to land on something. But that’s the struggle. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.”  

Dr. Cornel West, September 27, 2011. 

Happy May Day, everyone.  Let’s leave the world better than we found it.

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