What good are the arts to poor folks?
For April Fool’s Day, Pan Morigan and I were at Winston Salem State University (WSSU), an historically black college in North Carolina.
We flew out of Massachusetts just ahead of a wintry nor’easter that threatened 6-12 inches of snow and we landed in warm southern hospitality. What a treat it was to be guests of the Provost, Brenda Allen, an old friend and colleague, and be hosted by Professor Michael Brookshaw, a long time science fiction fan and Belinda Tate, director of the Diggs Gallery, who gave us the private tour through the astonishing history of the town. At the performance/reading of Redwood and Wildfire, Pan sang out her “Simple Song” and the crowd was like an amen corner, carried away by Pan’s soaring notes.
On arrival, Pan and I were gifted with large canvas bags of goodies and the warm embraces of curious strangers. We stepped into classrooms, auditoriums, and galleries filled with bright-eyed students, dedicated teachers, and committed administrators. I’m not exaggerating. A lot was at stake for everybody. The spirit of the place was exhilarating!
I gave a paper, “Prophetic Artists: Octavia Butler and African Americans writing speculative literature,” to a lively audience of students, faculty, and community members. All were eager to hear about science fiction. Indeed as people came up to me after the talk, many came out as long-time but secret science fiction fans. They admitted to a decades old spec fiction passion and were relieved, no, THRILLED to hear that they weren’t the only geeks of color or the only upstanding academics with a serious jones for alien encounters and magical portals. It was amazing to watch these shy fans go public with their avid interest (obsession) with Science Fiction and Fantasy! I gave them a juicy list of novels to go out and buy. Everybody was happy to discover writers of color (in addition to Octavia Butler) who were putting out spec fiction books right this minute. I sold an entire box of books and Pan says she saw young women hugging them to their hearts.
But a question did hang in the air: “What good is Science Fiction to Black folks?”
Octavia Butler often got asked this as she struck out into the unknown and defined herself as a Black Feminist Science Fiction writer. This is a question many of us still get. It’s a systemic question woven into our current cultural reality. What good is SF to poor people! What good is SF to people of color? Vandana Singh spoke about this as she received the Parallax Prize at the Carl Brandon Award ceremony in January, 2011.
We refuse to be consigned to any ghetto of the mind, of the imagination.
At WSSU, one faculty member, excited by the marvelous achievements of Butler and the other writers I mentioned, challenged me and not just with what good is SF & F to black folks, poor folks, people of color, women, but what good are any of the arts to us? We know that singing and dancing and making stuff up is entertaining, but…what the heck would I say to parents who thought their child should not spend precious student hours (and hard earned money) on reading Octavia Butler or studying painting or acting, or writing spec fiction? How is trekking around the fantasy landscape or the sci-fi universe going to get us anywhere? Liberal Arts and specifically literature, theatre, and visual arts are luxuries for the elite, entertainment…How will make-believe pay the rent, put food on the table, secure our place in the world?
Several hundred eyes were on me, people who longed to make art, who hoped to express themselves, who felt anxious about their desires and hopes for time to do and experience more art. Many in the audience didn’t dare give in to artistic impulses. Many hungered for more than what was expected of their “low status group.” They chafed at the utilitarian mindset of industrial education that readied them for “survival jobs,” but not necessarily to invent the world they wanted to live in. They were pleading with me to have an answer to the class-bound, anti-art sensibility that runs through the core values of our society. Certainly they could be consumers of entertainment, but crafters of reality? What could I say?
Of course, they already had the answer. They had a passion for what art does, for what artists do, for the necessity of creative endeavors to their humanity. They just wanted fierce words for what was clear and strong in their hearts; they wanted an academic, logical argument for what was already known.
Every office at WSSU was alive with the generosity and inspiration of people fired up, on an educational, intellectual, creative quest. Pan and I fit right in with the passionate folks getting ready for whatever may come. Provost Brenda Allen had everybody trying to figure out, not just how to handle what was coming, but how to make the future we wanted! All I had to do was point that out.
“Hold up a smart phone—did you have it two years ago? Education has to be about something other than job training. Specific skill sets go obsolete in a hot second. Creative, critical minds, innovative citizens of the future, that’s the magic of education that we have to be practicing. To quote Octavia Butler:
All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
(Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler)
We live in a science fictional world, right now. We need artistic insight to help us solve problems we can’t even imagine yet. We need artistic discipline and craft to write the story we would make of our lives. We need the arts to invent a reality that will sustain and challenge us. Catastrophes loom—turning this ship around requires mighty and ingenious effort. Indeed, to motivate and manifest the changes necessary for our future, we need the passion that art fills us with.”