The Ostracon: Dispatches from Beyond Contemporary Art’s Center, an arts writing site by Nicole J. Caruth and Paul Schmelzer, looks at figures and ideas outside the mainstream of contemporary art—from public policy, indigenous rights, and folklore to community organizing, historic preservation, environmental science, journalism, and food justice—that may offer insight into new forms of making art that are more responsive, relevant, and connected to the way we live now as individuals and communities. Taking its name from the pottery shards used in ancient Athens when voting to ostracize community members, the site aims to celebrate, instead of push out, voices from art’s periphery.
Reparations for Black Americans can take many forms. What might this look like in the arts? This post kicks off a conversation series with artists and culture-makers about the possibilities for distributive justice in the arts to repair the historical and ongoing damage of anti-Blackness.
In the weeks following George Floyd’s murder, white-led institutions and companies of all sizes published Black Lives Matter statements, declaring solidarity with their Black staff and constituents and committing to anti-racism. Now that the period of platitudes has subsided, I wonder which arts institutions are engaged in the daily and deeply uncomfortable work of undoing racism? Who in our arts communities is performing allyship and who’s actually relinquishing power to advance Black liberation?
In the arts, we’re awfully good at intellectualizing injustice, studying and theorizing how we got somewhere as a society while failing to recognize how our own institutions perpetuate and benefit from brutality against our fellow human beings. Our arts leaders are swift to write empty inclusion statements, organize panel discussions on social justice, and publish white papers on diversity and equity strategies that took years to develop. But they are slow to take action, with boards and bureaucracies serving as excuses or real obstacles to structural change. And why should we expect more when so many cultural institutions and the people who fund them built their fortunes on the backs of enslaved peoples, by pillaging not only their artifacts and ideas but by stealing their land and lives? Maybe this is why the discourse on reparations for Black Americans sits on the periphery of the arts feeling as taboo as P-Valley is to Hollywood, as sidelined yet as present as Colin Kaepernick.
Repair from the harm of anti-Blackness requires action, not a social media statement about how you intend to behave or what you want the public to believe but actual sacrifice. As Leah Penniman, co-founder of Soul Fire Farm, explained in our interview earlier this year:
“There’s a misconception that the main issue with racism has to do with how individuals treat each other. In other words, ‘be nicer’ when, actually, the main issue with racism is institutional or structural. We can’t solve racism by teaching tolerance or helping people be nice. We solve racism by giving over the lands, the money, the positions of influence in organizations and government and then we share those fairly in society. It’s not about intention; it’s actually about the outcome. We’ll have racism until all metrics of the distribution of power and resources don’t have racial differentials.”
Soul Fire Farm operates with a reparations framework, which means the farm not only acknowledges “that labor was taken, that land was taken, that resources continue to be taken,” says Penniman, they teach folks “to give them back without the associated social capital or ally bash. Just give them back because it’s the right thing to do.” Penniman has seen this emphasis on action in their Uprooting Racism workshops lead to “some pretty profound change,” from “small acts, like well-resourced organizations dedicating twenty percent of their grant writer’s time to writing grants for frontline Black and Indigenous-led organizations that need that support without fanfare, up to giving away ten acres of land.”
This got me thinking: What forms might reparations for Black Americans take in the arts? What’s our twenty-first century version of 40 acres and a mule? How might reparations in our sector support the larger-scale systemic change needed in, say, housing, healthcare, and education? How are artists and culture-makers envisioning reparations in their creative corners of society, from farms and restaurants to museums, performance spaces, and publishing houses? And what platforms are being used to advance these visions? In this conversation series, I attempt to get answers to these questions.
Absolutely improbable and absolutely necessary
In February 2017, the New York performance venue JACK launched Reparations365, a series of performances, workshops, and conversations about distributive justice for Black Americans. The timing of the series was accidentally perfect: Trump had recently been sworn into office, and Congress had just introduced the H.R.40 bill to:
Address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.
Really, what better time to start a community forum on reparations, “the single most divisive idea in American politics,” than after the election of the most divisive president some have seen in their lifetime? As JACK put in its website, “In the aftermath of the [Trump] campaign, the idea of reparations feels both absolutely improbable and absolutely necessary.”
Reparations365 started with JACK co-founder and co-director Alec Duffy, a cis white man, who brought the idea to his co-director at the time, DeeArah Wright, a cis Black woman who now sits on JACK’s board. Duffy was inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article, “The Case for Reparations.” I got the sense that Wright was on the fence about the topic at first. “My work and activism in arts and education is more powered by a sense of self-determination, not consistently looking to this idea of reparations,” she told me via Zoom. “I’m definitely for reparations but I was interested in shaping something that felt like a non-prescriptive way of thinking about it. How could we facilitate this conversation in a creative way, incorporating the arts in thinking about what it means to repair? We thought a lot about how artists are always deconstructing something and creatively putting it back together in ways that make sense for our community; really thinking about what we have and then using that to assess what do we really need and what do we truly want?” So far, JACK has hosted more than 40 conversations on reparations, and Wright has moderated all but one. Participants have ranged in age, from 17 to 70ish, and racial and ethnic backgrounds, though most participants have been Black.
People hold such strong opinions about reparations that discussions on the topic tend to get contentious, even in my own family. What was it like to moderate an interracial, intergenerational dialogue on reparations with strangers who haven’t been indoctrinated into the politically correct conventions of arts dialogue? “There were plenty of uncomfortable and a few volatile moments,” Wright recalls. One disharmony stood out to her: Participants often had difficulty “finding the balance between actively listening and being triggered when people talked about how systematic oppression and racism have impacted their lives.” This meant “being able to sit with some really uncomfortable truths.” Other tensions arose around logical but complicated questions: Who is responsible and accountable for reparations? Who should be trusted in the work? Whose job it is to do the heavy lifting, Black or non-Black people? From Duffy’s perspective, “there’s a lot of mistrust in white people doing that work for Black people,” he said. “How are we ensuring that it’s not just white people trying to solve problems again? We’re always wanting to have the solution and that has often turned out very poorly.”
A home to our neighbors
Located in a former garage space in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood, JACK was co-founded in 2012 by Duffy and several of his colleagues. They wanted to create a theater that, as he said, “reflected the diversity of New York City and felt like it could be a home to our neighbors.” Duffy and his wife used their savings of $75,000 to start the space, and “the money ran out after about five months.” By that time, they were making just enough from ticket sales and rentals to keep JACK going, though never sure if they’d make the next month’s rent. “All sorts of people started coming into our orbit that wanted to program dance and have their own music concerts,” said Duffy. So, JACK quickly evolved into a multidisciplinary performance venue.
The murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner two years later marked another turning point at JACK. “There were protests coursing through New York City and I was asking myself how JACK could provide support to this movement for racial justice at this particular moment.” Duffy’s response was “Ferguson Forward,” six months of programming on racial justice that incorporated benefit parties for local activists. The public response to the series helped Duffy realize that “JACK was not just a space for performance, but a space for activating our community around critical issues of the day.” Motivated to dig deeper into racial justice, Duffy knew, as he told me, “it was pretty problematic for a white male to be leading the visioning around that.” So, instead of using a grant he’d received to hire JACK’s first development director, Duffy hired Wright, an artist and organizer he’d gotten to know in the neighborhood.
“How do we make our organization reflect the values that we’re talking about in the reparations series?,” Duffy said. “By sharing and being in solidarity with people of color and making sure that the leadership of JACK is not just white-led. That influences everything I’m doing on a daily basis in terms of our work with programming, fundraising, partnerships, building relationships in the neighborhood, thinking about what conversations we want to frame at JACK, and how we want to have an impact on our community.”
Anyone can make a declaration of solidarity on behalf of their institution, but our true values show up in how we treat people and in the choices we make outside of work. When I asked Duffy how Reparations365 has impacted his daily actions, he stumbled a bit, saying, “I don’t have an individual reparations practice yet. I haven’t yet been bold or brave enough to go there.” He began reflecting on JACK’s forum on the intersectionality of reparations and parenting: “It ended up being about how white parents can make sure they’re not contributing to racial injustice in the way they raise their children . . . As a newish parent myself, with toddlers, that’s very much influenced what I know will be our next 10 to 15 years of decision making. Now, is that reparations? I’m not sure.” I’d argue that it’s not, but it’s lovely nonetheless to think of child-rearing as a series of actions driven by desire to repair the harm of anti-Blackness, not the so-called progressive teachings of tolerance. The true test of Duffy’s commitment will be the consistency of his actions as his family needs change over time.
Transferring power and shifting relationships
Wright and Duffy have different visions for reparations in the arts, but they align around the idea that there has to be organizational restructuring to even start a larger conversation on reallocation. Wright (who is now director of Education at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum) says, “There are so many ways that reparations could look on a personal or organizational level,” yet she offers this recommendation inspired by Reparations365:
“White-led and founded arts organizations can make ongoing and activecommitments to unpack their organizational history, publicly acknowledge how they have benefited from oppressive systems and white privilege, and make a related public pledge to reparations. Active reparations within the organization could include offering Black team members reparative offerings to support their work-life flow, like additional paid personal days and a chosen, flexible work schedule. Arts organizations could also ensure that Black and Indigenous folks are in empowered positions on the board and leadership team, even if this means white team members must step away.
All folks who want to be an active part of reparations in the arts could complete an ongoing combination of anti-racist training, accountability practice, and direct action, such as committing to paying down or paying off a Black artist’s student debt; offering no-cost services to Black artists; or, transferring ownership of land and spaces to Black and Indigenous artists and organizations.”
Wright seems optimistic about reparations but, true to her spirit of self-determination, she’s looking ahead to the homestead cooperative—“an ecosystem of land co-stewarded by Black and Indigenous members who thrive and create home together”—that she and her husband are launching in upstate New York.
Meanwhile, Duffy is focused on the nonprofit racial leadership gap. “We’re thinking a lot in arts orgs right now about succession planning for leaders because there are a lot of white-led arts organizations and so what does it look like in the context of this current movement?” Duffy is one of 40 New York–based arts leaders that participated in an Undoing Racism workshop led by The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond a few years ago. This cohort, which is racially mixed but mostly white, began meeting regularly when the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests began.
“There’s talk about transferring power, shifting power, and shifting relationships. It’s never been talked about necessarily as reparations but more like, ‘This is the healthy way for our organizations to develop,’ that we need more voices of color in our highest leadership positions.” But Duffy finds that some of his peers don’t see racial inequity (let alone reparations) as their problem to solve. And let’s be honest, even the most well-intentioned folks can be in succession planning mode for years with zero sense of urgency to move on.
Whether Black arts leaders will want positions that white leaders now hold raises a host of other questions. Does the salary match or exceed what white workers are being offered? (Efforts to reduce the racial wealth gap through salaries could be a form of reparations.) Where is the job located, and are the residents hostile toward Black bodies? Will new Black leadership be embraced or embattled by the staff and board? What’s the financial health of the organization that’s being handed to the successor? Would it be better to build a new organization with equity at its core or try to turn someone else’s ship by doing the exhausting work of changing hearts and minds? “I guess another tension is that some Black arts organizations that I’ve been in contact with are like, ‘We don’t want to sit at your table,’” said Duffy. “‘We created our own table.’”
Ceding power to Black leaders isn’t reparations. However, it is part of a reparations process in a sector that’s controlled by white wealth and largely caters to its wants and whims. This is not to say Black leadership can’t reinforce the values of whiteness but we at least need more opportunities to lead. If we can’t get a seat at the table and the power to make decisions, how are we going to create the conditions in the arts for reparations to occur?