Art shouldn’t only be about self expression. Yes, that’s an important component, but I believe it is our duty as artists to also reflect on society at large, to spark conversations about important issues, and to challenge peoples’ way of thinking. As the famous Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei (pictured below) said, “I don’t think art is elite or mysterious. I don’t think anybody can separate art from politics. The intention to separate art from politics is itself a very political intention.” Most American artists I know don’t view their art as inherently political, but I agree with Ai Wei Wei that the act of separating art from politics is still a political act whether we are aware of it or not. Excluding politics from your creative work (or your Facebook page or Twitter feed) is a choice, and the act of making this choice sends a message. And, in my opinion, it’s a message that needs to be examined. I feel that we artists need to embrace our role as agents of change, as leaders, as cultural affecters, that we need to send a thought-provoking message to our audiences instead of one of apathy or avoidance. Artists have a special kind of power, and I think it’s our job to use it.
As writers, it’s even more important that we embrace this role because our art is based upon language, something that all people use every day to communicate. We’ve studied, practiced, and honed this language, and no matter our genre, we are better at communicating than a typical person is. We must use our expertise and skill to begin conversations, encourage deep thinking, and urge others to talk about important issues. I’m not saying that every single piece we write needs to connect to a news article or shooting or Congressional bill, just that we need to be aware of the gift we have and use it to lead and guide others through important conversations. Or, at a minimum, we need to include people of color in our fiction, reference current affairs in our poems, and speak honestly about our own thoughts and feelings in our essays. Communication is an important element in fixing and healing our country. We writers have above average communication skills. Therefore we have an obligation.
Writers might have the obligation to inspire deep thought and motivate change, but one can always turn his computer off or shut her notebook. Parents have the obligation of raising a healthy, decent human, and they never get a freaking break from it. When you try to fulfill both obligations, you’ll question your sanity. But seriously, how do you talk to kids about race in a way that makes sense to them while also ensuring that they’re eating well and finishing their homework and going to bed on time? And then, after all of this, how the hell are you supposed to find energy to write? There are so many intricate layers and confusing double standards when it comes to race relations in our country. The day-to-day of parenting is already so grueling. It’s tempting to “preserve their innocence” and preserve our own sanity. But we must talk. Kids understand more than we realize. We need to have these conversations so that we can help them understand even more and encourage them to build a better future, but also so that we adults can hear what they have to say. Part of me thinks that adults are the reason this all got so shitty in the first place; sometimes I think we need to vote some kids into Congress.When it comes to conversing, my job as a parent isn’t that difficult yet. My son is only 15-months-old, so we’re obviously not having real discussions about anything, much less the layers of race relations. But I do talk to him in the inane way one talks to a toddler about respect, equality, the importance of peace and nonviolence and being kind and compassionate. I’m not sure how I’ll handle these conversations when he’s older and able to see that our police force and government don’t tend to espouse these same ideas, but I hope that growing more aware will not completely shrink his beautifully wide open heart.
I think a lot about white privilege when I think about these future conversations with my son. I won’t be answering his questions about why strangers hate him because of his skin tone. I won’t have to teach him how to behave around a cop so that he *maybe* won’t get shot. The fear black mothers live with every day is unfathomable to me. No one should have to hold that much fear in her heart. How do I make my son understand this?
In her essay, “The Conversation We Must Have with Our White Children,” Courtney E. Martin goes into more detail about this topic, citing specific examples of the advice parents give to their children of color and explaining why it’s important that our white children understand their black peers’ reality. But is this enough? Is it enough to teach our white kids to be aware of white privilege, or are we as writerparents supposed to instill a sense of activism in our children? Perhaps having these difficult conversations is a form of activism in itself. But is that enough? What will ever be enough?
Maybe being a writerparent actually makes it easier. Maybe embracing this double duty gives us a deeper understanding or insight. Maybe our honed communication skills will make these conversations smoother. Or maybe we can just email our kids our blog posts and then read their comments. Whatever method we choose, we really do have a double duty. Some days will feel like a success, other days a failure, but the true success is in trying.