LETTER FROM THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR JULY 2, 2020
#PENUMBRASTRONG || A Letter from Sarah Bellamy, Penumbra featured in the press and more
Greetings Dear Community,
Some weeks ago, I wrote to you about the thrill I experienced as a young scholar diving into a rich archive of black literature. Reading James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, bell hooks, Cornell West, August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, Ntzoke Shange, Langston Hughes and others powerfully shaped not just my artistic taste but my politics.
When I am tested, I go back to them for guidance and nurturance. Their analyses are informed by their own lived experiences and were intersectional before that word became trendy. They are justice-oriented. Equity-oriented. Compassionate. Fierce. Brave. They were willing to wrestle with the things other people turned away from. They would not be bullied or silenced or appropriated. They engaged in sharp political and social critique, made beautiful art, and lived lives that sometimes drew criticism, but at the end of the day squared with what they believed. Occasionally throughout their lives, people tried to make them small-because they were black or queer or female; because they spoke plainly, were educated, or were loyal to community; because they understood what justice looks like after surviving injustice for so long, and because they found ways to manifest justice that some disagreed with. When that happened, they elegantly and surgically excoriated their detractors and kept right on being black, being brilliant, and being bold enough to tell and live the truth. They kept their eyes set on a horizon of hope.
We need these artists and leaders desperately right now. Those who lit up our past and those who will light the future. The black community has never been short on leaders, but too often leadership has cost too much. It has cost health, financial stability, even lives. Now is the time to invest in those who will carry America forward, even if the country has to go kicking and screaming into the dawn of its own potential. Even when it’s hard to hear, we have to trust that those leading us today wouldn’t risk so much without having something powerful to offer us all.
It’s been one month since George Floyd’s tragic murder. We are entering the hard part of the work-the inspirational speeches, the moving memorials, the thousands-strong protests are done (for now). Those of us who have been in this work a long time know what’s coming next: Rather than focus on the inequities that put black Americans’ lives at risk, some will begin to chip away at those trying to make change. This is part of the sickness gripping this country; rather than heal and move into a future we have never known, there will be those who will do everything they can to stay here-comfortable in discomfort, even as people around them gasp for breath and plead for change. They will come self-righteously. Arrogantly. Even persuasively. We need powerful discernment to stay on track, to keep our eyes on that horizon of hope. Perhaps it helps to remember that others have been here before. The great writers and thinkers of our past met similar challenges with grace and ferocity, and we can too.
As we turn the next corner in the fight for justice, we may hear more critique than encouragement. We may hear people slipping into lazy rhetoric that pathologizes the black community. We may see people pointing fingers or trying to tear down our leaders driving change. We may hear folks who have been genuinely disenfranchised or disempowered call for a shift away from racial justice. I invite us to ask ourselves what might be motivating these efforts. Is it virtuous? Or is it the past rearing its ugly head, fighting as hard as it can against change that is inevitable.
I know that fear is great, especially fear of the unknown. I know that we have a hard time letting go of what we think keeps our lives in order, keeps our anxieties at bay, keeps our bodies calm. We must be willing to see and strip away the lies that we think keep us safe. We have become accustomed to surviving a toxic ecosystem. It’s going to hurt as we shed what no longer serves us, but I believe that like trees we’ll soon grow new limbs, that our most tender leaves will unfurl, and that we will reach for the sun. Perhaps our new growth will offer protection for the young ones still striving to see the horizon that we know waits.
We will need to resource ourselves with inspiration and spiritual nourishment to keep on the path. It is easy to lose our way when there is so much noise. I share the names of some of the artists who have helped me through dark times before in hopes that they will nourish and guide you, too. Treat yourself to their brilliance, their unflinching authenticity. Perhaps they will do for you what they have done for me: opened my heart, allowed me to grieve, fired my resolve, and made me more human.
With abiding love,
“How are we going to take the songs of all of this wonderful flock here and weave them together to create this great orchestra that will sing the song of healing? ”
—Seitu Ken Jones