Zenzele Isoke studies U.S. Black women’s political activism in urban spaces. She is specifically interested in how issues of space and identity influence how social capital is created and deployed by African American women in their efforts to challenge social marginality in U.S. cities. Using intersectionality as a central analytic tool and the stories that contemporary Black women activists tell about “politics” as her primary evidence, her research examines both the practical and discursive roles that black women activists play in hip hop politics, Black LGBTQ politics, and other contemporary social movements in the U.S.
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Approaching Art (Life) Peacefully
I was armed when I walked into the Walker Art Museum atrium from the parking lot of my car. As I walked into the cold yet colorfully pristine white space of the museum I questioned exactly why I agreed to be “citizen journalist” for this event. Why me? Because I’m black, female, a feminist professor? Because I could somehow “represent” my community. I was awash with insecurities, second guessing my ability to add anything worthwhile to a celebration of art in artsy Minneapolis. I must have come off as chilly as the Mark Manders exhibition in the Target Gallery. I was hard, scared, and armed with analysis. Then I saw Lolla Muhammud and her warm smile, and her friend who became mine, Julia Opoti. And I saw Andrea Smith and Tammy Owens and Natalie Clifford. And I felt better, a little softer, like even if I didn’t feel like I belonged, it was okay for me to act like I did.
I joined the orientation group for the citizen journalists and listened to two young curators explain the day’s events. When I heard how they along with a series of guest artists designed a creative eco-system that I began to seriously think about what my role in this social experiment could be. It was clear, as I noticed high school aged students of color—Native American, African American, Somali American, and Asian American that I saw what the organizers intent was: to make Walker accessible to more than just the privileged. Admirable, I thought, but ultimately a guilty colonial gesture. I had relaxed a little, but I was still armed.
I took my teal piece of 8.5 x 11 printer paper, and began to plot out my visit. My first Living Classroom “exhibit” was called Instructions for Peace. A lively woman sat me down to explain her station. She explained how she and her organization collected and distributed flip flops [sandals] to disparate parts of the world impacted by war—flip flops were used as art but were also used a practical gift to many who went without basic necessities. I silently wondered if they gave out flip flops in gang and drug ravished communities in the Southern United States. Then, she said this one word that caught my attention: disarmament. She wanted to use art to disarm. To disarm people, to disarm armies, to disarm communities. And then she showed me this colorful hardback children’s book with the title, “Instructions for Peace.” The Alphabetical list of instructions were funny, ordinary, practical, and effective. I smiled. It had me wondering about myself. About whether or not I understood what it means be peaceful. To be disarmed.
Well, if I didn’t I was about to try. I wasn’t allowed to be a journalist, the all observing eyewitness, instead I about was about be patted down, frisked and abruptly disarmed by a community artist. The academic had to play at being an artist. I had to use some colorful little sticky notes to describe peace on the side of the Walker Art Center. I had to give my own instructions for peace. And at that time my ego had not only softened, but was being swallowed up by an opening heart. So I wrote a poem, one that I shall share here—my instructions for peace. My self-critique.
Peace is being.
Not just an idea.
Are you disarmed?
Do you have to analyze?
Are you open to new allies?
Can you listen from the heart?
And from that moment onward, I viewed the Open Field of the Walker as an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to be and build with friends, old and new. I accepted the invitation to be with community art peacefully. Dominoes, karaoke, a walk in the park, and after party. Art to connect people—brilliant, welcomed, and completely unexpected!
So I learned how to play dominos with a photographer and artist from Alabama. I made a sober audience suffer through my karaoked rendition of “Heard it the Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye in the Ping and Sing with Wing workshop. And I listened to two less than twenty-somethings belch out a Hall and Oaks classic. I smiled big, laughed and cheered them on. I cheered myself on. Sometimes it feels good to make a fool of yourself.
Afterward, I walked downstairs to the formal gallery the Exposed exhibit. I found my self in a pitch black room lounging on a huge faux leather bean bag. It was Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. I found myself immersed in an achingly personal photo memoir of a complete stranger. Though the pictures were colorful in an early 1980’s grainy sense, the art itself seem cold and disembodied. The exhibit seemed to make fun of humanist experiment that the organizers of Living Classroom were trying to pull off right outside building. It made me question my own increasingly “disarmed” interpretation of the Living Classroom.
After sitting through a twenty-minute slide show of images of bodies, sex, youth and waning beauty, I was convinced that the only reason the organizers Walker brought people of color into this space was to liven it, to humanize, to provide warmth, touch, and communion to the heavy mass of post-structural, post-identity despair that animated the Walker’s egg shell white gallery spaces. I thought: we were brought there to make them feel. And at that moment, I felt sad. Resigned. Complicit. My life in Minnesota. I felt like I was part of the exhibit. Something being analyzed, commented upon, critiqued.
After “Exposed,” my objectified self joined the six other young people on a tour of Loring Park led by local architect Marcy Schulte. I listened to her and a Loring Park community organizer offer competing narratives about the history, meaning, use and potential of Loring Park. I listened to them talk about how cattails had taken over the pond, crowding out hundreds of other native organisms that had once thrived. I listened to them discuss how the parks, confiscated from local band of the Ojibwe was designed for an early twentieth century white leisure class, has become a shared “liveable” space for young urban professionals and their small families. As we walked around the park both of our guides ignored and failed to comment on the court full of African American men laughing, running, playing, and openly enjoying the park space. Our guides happily commented on the pedestrians, the bikers, the young women pushing strollers, but the shirtless male black bodies were ignored. I wondered why. I wondered what stories they would tell about Loring Park, I wonder how they fit into the scripts that were being offered to us on the walking tour. I wondered how these unremarked upon pedestrians would map the social space and social history of the park.
I made it the Open Field just in time for Bamuthi’s performance. I felt him dance. I heard him call out his pain, his joy, his confusion and his triumph through his body and voice. As I watched him give praise through movement and words, again I felt an opening, a softening of my heart. I remembered how the ancestors so boldly made themselves known in their Georgia landscape. I remembered how the clay earth warmed, and the trees quivered with their spirits when we danced to West African drumming during Nzinga and Ndugu crossing ceremonies. Bamuthi had stayed close to the spirits. He allowed them to inform his artisty on every level. We all felt it. We all felt him. I realized that this day, the “guilty colonial gesture” of Living Classroom was a blessing. It was opportunity to reconnect with an aspect of my spirit that is often neglected in Minnesota. I was humbled. Disarmed. And I gave thanks.
By the end of the evening, I was trying to pull together a spring event with two of the featured community artists Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Tish Jones. I wondered aloud how myself and my good friend John Thabiti Willis could build with Bamuthi and Tish to create a community event for young African American girls and boys that could enable them to creatively assess the richness of their own lives, map their own neighborhoods, on their own terms, and for them. It felt good to create more work for myself. And they are all waiting for me to follow up. I hope we can make it happen together.
The After Party
My last time to hug and kiss old friends and new. I danced to a Planet Rock. I finally loosened up. As I sipped a small cup of red wine and watched a slide show of a community concert in Oakland. I felt a little younger, a little stronger, a little more courage to follow my own path, my own art—disarmed.
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The Education & Community Programs department is asked a handful of talented writers and artistic interpreters from distinct perspectives to serve as Citizen Journalists and correspondents for the Living Classroom, with a focus on generating community-centric documentation of the event. We sought individuals from distinct perspectives — people interested and grounded in communities facing the issues at hand. Sonja Kuftinec, Associate Professor of Theatre at the University of Minnesota, and an organizer for the Imagining America conference happening in Minneapolis September 22-24, provided recommendations, with final selection by Associate Director of Public & Interpretive Programs Susy Bielak and Open Field Coordinator Scott Artley.