On Race, Injustice, and Literary Movements

Literary and cultural movements are often borne as a response to what is occurring in the world around us. Literature and the arts in general are constantly evolving as new movements emerge and speak to the concerns of different groups of people and time periods. Often, our political and social landscape influences art, but most specifically it influences the artist. For the artist the art is often the vehicle to expression, to activism, art as James Baldwin describes “is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the complete story. You write in order to change the world─ if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.” In essence, art is the artist’s voice, particularly during times of unrest.

For example, The Harlem Renaissance was a movement that flourished in the aftermath of World War I. It grew out of the changes that had taken place in the African-American community since the abolition of slavery, as well as the expansion of communities in the North due to industrialization. Industrialization began attracting people to cities from rural areas and gave rise to a new mass cultural phenomenon in which the high level of black artistic and cultural production demanded and received mainstream recognition, where racial solidarity was equated with social progress, and where the idea of blackness became a commodity in its own right.

The Harlem Renaissance remains the period to which we attribute the development, if not the birth, of every major artistic and literary form that we now associate with African-American life and culture. This movement gave birth to literary greats Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston as well as jazz greats Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday.

If we look at the Beat Movement of the 50’s and 60’s we know that this movement sought release and enlightenment through a bohemian counterculture of sex, drugs, and Zen Buddhism. It was very representative of the emerging hippie movement of the time. Two of the most notable voices of this movement were American writers Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg who each gained fame during this period.

As we proceed further down the timeline to the ‘60s and 70s a new movement begins to emerge in the New York City neighborhoods of Loisaida, East Harlem, Williamsburg, and the South Bronx. As with all movements, literary movements take time to develop and these movements are often a reflection of their place in time. The Nuyorican Movement was no different in inspiring a new generation of artists and lovers of art. This new cultural and intellectual movement involved poets, writers, musicians and artists who identified as being Puerto Rican or of Puerto Rican descent.

The Nuyorican movement, just like its predecessors, arose as a means to validate the Puerto Rican experience in the United States, particularly for the poor and working-class who suffered from marginalization, ostracism, and discrimination. What became the Nuyorican poets’ movement was in part influenced by Beat Movement writers like Jack Kerouac, revolutionary black poets like Amiri Baraka and Puerto Rico’s oral poetry traditions. The most notable Nuyorican poets of the time included Miguel Pinero, Miguel Algarin, Sandra Maria Esteves, Jesús Papoleto Meléndez, Pedro Pietri, & Tato Laviera. Of course these names are just a few of the poets of that time and not representative of all. There are many other great poets that were a part of the Nuyorican Movement.

As we fast forward to the 21st century and find ourselves living in a post 9/11 society where not only do we have to protect ourselves from enemies abroad, but are also tackling issues of injustice as witnessed in places like Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York there is a new artistic movement of writers, poets, essayists, memoirists, spoken word artists, and performers emerging; artists who know no other way to fight back but through their words and their work. Artists who believe that they must use their voices during these times of unrest to make a difference, by any means necessary.

I recently started reading Edwidge Danticat’s, Create Dangerously, for the second time and in it she states,

The immigrant artist shares with all other artists the desire to interpret and possibly remake his or her own world. So though we may not be creating as dangerously as our forebears—though we are not risking torture, beatings, execution, though exile does not threaten us into perpetual silence—still, while we are at work bodies are littering the streets somewhere….

When our worlds are literally crumbling, we tell ourselves how right they may have been, our elders, about our passive careers as distant witnesses.

Who do we think we are?

We think we are people who risked not existing at all. People who have had a mother and father killed, weather by a government or by nature, even before we were born. Some of us think we are accidents of literacy.

I do.

In an essay in The New Yorker, Macy Halford argues that “It’s this embrace of herself as an accident in a world ruled by accidents that makes Danticat’s writing so powerful. She acknowledges that the prospect of writing about tragedies and vanished cultures is a daunting one, yet she is not daunted: she accepts that by some accident she exists and has the power to create, and so she does. And this, ultimately, is how she preserves or resurrects part of what has been lost. We create, she writes, “as though each piece of art were a stand-in for a life, a soul, a future…. We have no other choice.”

It is that very sentiment why artists/writers create art. It is their way of preserving memory. It is this revolutionary act of preservation, of creating art, which in some small way makes up for what has been lost. Artists in their creating believe that they have an inherent responsibility to honor those lives that have been lost through tragedy and injustice.

Recently a fellow writer and I were asked how we define ourselves as artists and this new movement that’s happening amongst the younger Latinos in New York City. Clearly we are not part of the original Nuyorican movement of the 60’s and 70’s, but we are a part of a NewerRican movement that was definitely built on the foundation laid by our elders of the Nuyorican movement. A movement, heavily influenced by love and pride for our heritage/culture, activism, progression, and giving back to our community.

Though some 40 plus years have passed since the birth of the Nuyorican movement, Latinos and all people of color continue to tackle some of the very same issues that were prevalent back then. I turn on CNN and I see protests all over the country against police brutality. I see thousands of people take over the Brooklyn Bridge at rush hour. I see businesses getting burned to the ground in Ferguson because people are angry and enraged at a system that systematically continues to strip them of their basic civil rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I see images of a man killed by a police officer using an illegal chokehold and faces no legal ramifications.

Young boys are gunned down on their front stoops or for walking down the street with a hooded sweater and some Skittles and Iced Tea for no other reason than the color of their skin. I also see their killers walk away with not even a slap on the wrist. Not even when there is indisputable video footage and the coroner has ruled the death a homicide does the perpetrator even get indicted. It’s no wonder people are angry. It’s no wonder people of color feel like they have to say that black lives matter, because they do. All lives matter. The injustices that we are seeing are driving a nation apart even when we have a Black man as president.

Everyone agrees that there is injustice going on, and while some protest or burn down businesses to release their rage— as an artist, as a writer, I do the only thing I know how. I write. I read. I try and educate myself and others and then I write some more. My art is the only weapon I have. My words are how I fight back because in the end my words are all I have.

-NAR-

“Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most! — and listens to their testimony. Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any black man, any poor person — ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it. It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”

James Baldwin. No Name in the Street. 1972.

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