I’m New Here

September 28, 2011

Gil Scott Heron’s I’m New Here just came up on my headphones. The song is so beautiful, and in it are messages that continually unfold -both with clarity and pain. As a lover of his work over the years, I can’t help but wonder what it must have been like to be produced in fancy colors by the pop world? Of course, how fortunate we are that the albums got produced so soon before he passed, yet, how strange it is the form they took…Is this what he was new in, willing to be produced by whiteness? Of course with the consciousness of hegemony, is one ever outside the machine? Gil Scott Heron’s voice is so gravelly; here is a man in what will turn out to be the ending phases of his life, with his unique circumstances -was he just bone bone tired and weary from the infinite shit projected onto black men in this society? Of course even me, here….. Having very little understanding of the history of the production of the album, it elicits a reflection in me on the elusive interdependency of content and context, yet again….

What kind of energy does it take to self-produce, or to be a part of a movement of production? I have always associated GSH with Black Arts and as a poet within radical black activism, yet the kind of work it takes to mobilize the environment within which creation takes place is tremendous, be it a national movement, or coalition-building, or a small group producing the Julius Ford/Harriet Tubman Healthy Living Experience, or an independent artist making work.

I tend to be obsessed with this aspect of the picture – not just the thing made, but all the conditions that arise and are composed to make that thing the thing that it is. And the inverse of this, of course, is the power of the thing itself, and what it says. In recent years, I have desired to find the harmony of the content and context, and give equal measure to both. But, indeed, I’m new here, too.

On independent self-production I have recently been blown over yet again by  Pearl Ubungen‘s performance/community arts work in the Tenderloin, SF, just thinking of what it was to make the connections in real time and space, before the comfort of a gated Tenderloin National Forest like we were embraced in through the Luggage Factory Annex and Buffet Flats. What does it mean to make work that interacts with the society within which it takes place, in a real way beyond some lip service?  This takes time and coalition building. Some people are called to make art that at all levels is….understood.  I have felt this through how Pearl works in many contexts, including personally – in a way this is a reminder that art is a framing of our values, and we practice it through how we live. It is an inspiration to witness, and to grow from this. Fortunately, she is not the only one!

As a newbie in the Bay Area, as a white woman with numerous privileges, it is easy for me to  jump into the easier currents of what is, eg: to take the Temescal neighborhood for granted as is without regards to its history and the rapid process of gentrification that scourges neighborhoods and Oakland knows all too well. Through reflections on history, and reflections on the power of community organizing, my continual learning of what I am stepping into is only greatened, and so rewarding. I often think this as I teach qigong in the parks around what used to be Merrit College and Dorsey’s Locker, imagine that years ago the Black Panthers distributed the Red Book, handed out meals, and it is the tip of the iceberg to a huge wave of history and activism as well as personal and social histories in this geographic node.

Our social structures are undeniably unfair, racist, and at times and for many in many ways, inaccessible. Some communities are filled with resources to the point that just to walk down the street is a healing, whereas the disenfranchised are denied even basic goods, healthcare and grocery stores. This is hard to take. Yet, as I write this I see a small opening: isn’t just to walk down the street the healing, no matter what – to breathe through and be part, even if for a moment, of a neighborhood, to circulate and become a little more connected, to sit on the stoop and meet the folks who lived on your block years before you, to be bold to meet the ones you have yet to meet, and learn their names?

In terms of art-making and being a participant in the practice and viewing of it, I am in awe of the histories before me. I see the power of what it takes to make it, and in my days more of dwelling, I wonder why people do it at all. There is this mysteriously jagged and fine line between bringing light into the world through art and doing it from the position of ego, and sometimes it is hard to see what side its on, which side I am on. I asked this question this week, and it grows inside of me: “Can you let go and still stay engaged?”, and somehow this is apt here, in this rambling about art, citizenship, humanness, race, and being situated.

I recognize in others when there is a beautiful synthesis of the power of a voice and all the voices and conditions that brought that voice into being. Sometimes the song is potent enough that it breaks through the exhaustion and sleep and helps us to hear more deeply; this is a kind of breaking away, breaking through that ruptures the everyday, and brings about a consciousness, and it is in this place of living for which I hold immense gratitude.

I don’t want to stop knowing that I am new here, and I look forward to the journey of noticing more and more how I am and can be a part of it.

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