“Who Would Win if Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Gil Scott-Heron, and Miles Davis played a Game of Bid-Whist-with-words? Artist Bisa Butler, as Well as Najee Dorsey’s new Billboard might just Hold Some Clues” by Debra Hand
Yep. I’m trying to “start some stuff”.
Coming up in Black culture during a time when people still gathered around kitchen tables for lively discussions, my generation got to eavesdrop on some ”real” and powerful “grown-folk” talk. We got to witness some great kitchen-table-scholars examine and debate every subject affecting Black life and culture. It was exciting to watch clever thinkers in action, volleying opinions and ideas back and forth. And if the host broke out a deck of playing cards, that was all the better. The card table was like a gladiator arena — a strategic battle of wits and witticisms in an atmosphere filled with laughter and one-line retorts punctuating shrewd plays.
So I got to thinking… what would a Bid Whist game have been like between the following great Black thinkers? I dealt in Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Gil Scott-Heron, and Miles Davis.
Now, if you don’t know, Bid-Whist is a cultural favorite when it comes to card games. Even if you don’t know how to play, one thing is quickly observed: the more confident a player is that they’re playing the winning card, the harder they smack that card on the table. Why? Because it’s just so cool to check your opponent with a clever line while winning the book — all to the sound effect of a smacking card. And nobody smacks a card on the table like a Black person playing Bid Whist or Spades.
Now, to mix up the game a little, instead of playing Bid Whist with regular cards, these four legends have to win this game by using only words. So… on the cards each is holding, are the statements that person has made in the past about how to exist within, or contribute to, Black culture. This is my way of putting them in dialogue with each other to see what wisdom might be extracted. Whose point of view was right about the role of Black artists in culture? Who will win?
Let the game begin.
Nina Simone has the first play. With queenly confidence, she pulls a card from the spread in her hand. BAM! She smacks it down on the table. It says, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times!”
Indignant now, Nina looks to Gil Scott-Heron. He smiles knowingly. Gil pulls a card from his hand and slams it down. BAM! The card says, “If all we’re fighting for is to be Black, then we’re wasting our time ‘cause we’re already THAT!”
Nina sips from her cup, unfazed. Gil looks to James Baldwin who has already pasted a card to his forehead. In dramatic fashion Baldwin peels off the card and smacks it down. BAM! “I left America to live in Paris precisely because I knew one thing… leaving America was the only way I could find out where being Black ended and I began! And vice versa!”
Gil Scott chuckles.
Now everyone looks to Miles. He has the last play.
Miles is laid back… too laid back to be slamming stuff. He takes his time, carefully scanning the cards in his spread. He almost chooses one, but changes his mind and selects another card instead. Satisfied, he flicks his card atop the center pile and reads it aloud in a cool throaty whisper. “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”
The onlookers eye each other curiously. While Miles statement is profound, it seems slightly out of place here. But not to Nina and Gil… they give each other five. Miles words have not gone over their heads. More about that in a second, but meanwhile, back to the game. Nina pulls another card from her hand.
Wait. Whose play is it? Who won the last book? Was it Nina, Gil, Baldwin, or Miles? Did you find yourself immediately taking a side?
The fact is, they all won, and especially “us” in particular. They are giving us the game from every facet of the prism of being Black. For that reason, these statements should not be pitted against each other, they should be synthesized into one homogenous lesson we can continue to pass down.
Each statement is powerful and should be admired and reflected on, but we must also keep in mind that each of these artists didn’t just make one finite statement about how to exist as artists or as Black people. At different times, on different days, they expanded on these statements; either in word or in practice. They were all intentional in their art practices, always thinking about the ways in which they could effectively serve culture.
If we want to use culture effectively as a means of collective progress, our work as Black artists and collectors has to be much bigger than only chasing money, especially when the health of our culture is at stake. These four artists knew this well. Their words attempted to help us prepare. Today, as in their lifetimes, we are still trying to rebuild from the Tsunami of slavery. And the persistent, systemic tidal waves of racism have not let up. How we use art in our culture is critical.
As I’ve said in previous articles, “There’s a big difference between creating art as a means of culture, and creating art as a business — even when these activities overlap. Culture still must exist on its own, even without the sale of a single piece of art…”
Given the major, major stuff confronting us as a cultural group, it’s pretty clear that we don’t have the time-luxury to “not” be intentional. We might not have the same luxury as other cultural groups when it comes to our art; particularly those groups who can afford to tape a banana to a wall and call it art. We might need to skip that particular movement and focus on something that can help elevate us as a people, or that can help save our communities from drowning in the chaos of systemic neglect, industrial pollution, underfunded schools, lack of youth services and outlets, and a privatized prison system waiting to swallow their futures. Unlike other cultural groups, we might not have the time-luxury to be participating in art that is not designed to heal us, strengthen us, renew us, nurture us, unite us, inspire us, or inform us in some way. We might not have the time to be standing around trying to look intellectual while we wonder, “WTH is this banana doing taped to this wall, and why did someone just pay $300,000 for it?”
Like, I’m sure it’s an interesting story, and the artist and collector have their reasons, but this is not the kind of activity that will help us culturally; not unless that artist is planning to donate the proceeds of that art to create a youth center in the hood somewhere. If not, everyone is free to stay there and enjoy themselves but, personally, for me, I’ma need to excuse my way past that spectacle and scoot on down the way to some art that resonates with me. Maybe check out Bisa Butler’s work where I can be reminded of the historical through-line language and lineage of Black quilt makers; and where I can be excited by her extraordinary compositions while discussing what part visual imagery plays in reinforcing or eroding our self-images. I’d much rather be inspired and rejuvenated by the gorgeously articulated palettes Butler so masterfully constructs using textiles which, themselves, chronicle African traditions and trace them through Black history into modern day narratives that, as Nina said, “speak to the times.” I’d much rather be immersed in Bisa Butler’s vividly colored, adventurously-storied world where the subtext is the greatness of my heritage, and the story arcs resound with messages of our strength, resilience, and beauty as a cultural group. I’d much rather hear from the mind of this young, brilliant artist who has the power to take art to its most noble extreme. After all, the true power of art is not in its ability to bring spectators together to drool out mindless chatter. The greatest power of the arts is its ability to create shared moments that enlighten us… that open our senses to the uniqueness of each other’s cultures while creating space for us to become more reflective, considerate, and thereby, more cohesive, as a human group. Standing next to a non-Black person at a Bisa Butler exhibit, I want them to be able to turn to us and say, “Wow, now I’m beginning to see and understand the beauty of who you are.”
This is what the work of astonishing artists like Bisa Butler can do for all of us, not just Black people, but for everyone who has been constantly bombarded with negative images and untruths about who we are. Bisa Butler’s work opens this dialog in a powerful, beautiful way as it serves culture to the highest degree: she is helping to set the record straight about us.
Or maybe I’ll ease on down the way to the work of Najee Dorsey, one of the strongest visual voices of the day. Dorsey’s works, while multi-layered in their humanity, speak in the shorthand of Black culture. Visually stunning, they seize your intention immediately, but as you explore them, they deeply inform while etching their way into your consciousness.
In his body of work, “Poor People’s Campaign”, he confronts what’s hiding in plain sight — the constant dump of toxins into communities of color – a perpetual poisoning of the ground and atmosphere kept in motion by corporate and political greed.
Not only does the art of Najee Dorsey inform, but it also serves as a giant visual protest. He has taken his campaign to the streets, renting a highway billboard to both inform and confront. This is a conversation he intends this nation to have. The child on the billboard is innocent — not ominous or dire looking. She is simply a child trying to exist as a child in a world that is without regard for her existence. It is the simple expression on her face – yet the stark pronouncement of her fragile humanness against a dystopian industrial wasteland that strikes and echoes in our consciousness. Even without an understanding of how the world should work, this child knows something is off. Those eyes know, and they know we know, and they force us into seeing… into acknowledgement. We will remember this encounter. Yes, we have seen such warnings before, but not like this.
Enhanced even further by Dorsey’s masterful command of composition, color, and perspective, the girl stares out from the dystopian fallout of industrial greed; peeping from behind her Sponge Bob treat while smokestacks in the backdrop burn bright with chemical combustion, billowing their poisons into the wounded ozone. Not far behind her, a young boy looks on broodingly. He’s been left out. Today, for him, they’ll be no decent air or ice cream.
Still, it is the girl whose face we won’t forget. She will make all who see her think more deeply about the toxic industries so casually concentrated in Black and Brown communities, as well as every community where the least economic power exists.
Najee Dorsey, like Bisa Butler, and like Nina Simone, has created work that intensely speaks to the time. As Simone said, this “… is the duty of the artist.”
Nina, however, is not alone in her opinion at this card table.
Gil Scott, holding his cards closer now carefully chooses one. It reads, “The first step in having people change is to try to change their minds. That’s where the real revolution happens — in your mind, not on television.” BAM!
Gil smiles softly at Nina. “By the way, your new love song, ‘I Put a Spell On You,’ that’s fyr!“
That’s right. As an artist Nina Simone was not just one dimensional. She used her art to explore and express her full humanity. She reflected the times, and those times included all the situations she found herself in, both socially and emotionally. She immersed herself in the joys and complexities of being a woman in love. She obviously understood that it was important to nurture and cultivate all of who we are.
This is what James Baldwin was trying to do when he moved to Paris. He wanted to discover “all” of who he was. As he said, “I want to find out the difference between what‘s happening to me because of my doing, as opposed to that which is happening to me because I am Black.”
What Black person wouldn’t benefit from exploring and discovering the difference between those two things?
Even as artists, we should sometimes experience creating art that is driven purely by our creative impulses. We must allow space for the exploration that will make us adept with our brushes and mediums so that when we do choose to “speak to the times” through art, we do so with the fluency and skill of a Bisa Butler or a Najee Dorsey.
To that point, James Baldwin plays the next card. BAM! “A society must assume it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven… The artist must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.”
Miles nods. It sounds good to him. His cell phone lights and buzzes. It’s Cicely Tyson. He steps away to take the call.
Meanwhile, “Winter in America” plays. Nina closes her eyes and sways her head to the lush sounds. This song is one of Gil Scott-Heron’s masterpieces. He co-created it with the musical genius Brian Jackson, Gil’s longtime writing partner and the other half of the story that catapulted Gil Scott into fame and sustained his career though a ten-year proliferation of his best work. The collaboration between these two artists was the perfect alchemy. Gil handled all the ABC’s and Brian Jackson handled all the musical notes. “Winter in America” remains one of the most stunning musical compositions ever written. The profound words written by Gil Scott show clearly, that while Gil wanted to experience life in terms that went beyond just being Black in America, he and Jackson were clearly devoted to using art to reflect and speak to the times. In fact, this was a theme in Gil’s life until the end.
When it comes to Black culture and how to exist in it, we need the wise words and creativity of our great artists and thinkers to not only inform, but also to inspire us. There is so much rebuilding yet to be done. As Dr. Margaret Burroughs said, “The wealth of 3 continents has been built on the backs of our ancestors.” The rippling effects are still in full effect. Winter in America is far from welcoming spring.
As Miles returns to the table, Gil rises. He apologies for having to leave, and tosses his cards on the table. One card flips over. It reads, “if you’re in a struggle to correct some wrong, then whatever you can possibly do – vote, demonstrate, teach, protest, organize, activate – you do whatever you can do. I feel the thing I’m most qualified to do is in the field in which I drew my education; and that concerns poetry and art.”
Notice that Gil referred to his training. This is important. Artists have to practice their crafts in order to uncover their own potential. As artists, we have to spend time challenging ourselves and pushing ourselves to break past boundaries to see what’s possible. It’s how we discover who we are and what our unique contributions to life and culture can be.
Contributing the best of ourselves to culture boils down to the simple statement by Miles Davis: “Sometimes it takes a long time to learn how to play like yourself.”
Putting in the work to discover what you have to offer as a unique being on Earth is the most important piece of it all. It’s about who you are in your full humanity and how you might best use your creativity to contribute something valuable to culture, and to the world. And nothing about that process should be limited or constrained by categories of your complexion.
Finding your special gifts involves both learning and unlearning. It involves unshackling your mind from the negative labels projected onto you and your culture, by others. It involves us finding the confidence to stand in our full power — first as individuals, and then collectively as a cultural group.
Our lives are too complex to be adequately informed by one single sound-bite, no matter how great the thinker is. On the subjects of art, life and culture, Nina, Gil, Baldwin, and Miles had many different things to say, depending on what they were faced with at that moment, both in society and in their lives. Different situations call for different things from us, and from our art. We must not forget to also nourish our culture through our art and to speak to our full humanity.
So often we talk about freedom as if the word only exists in relation to slavery. But, within the laws of nature, freedom was never an authority granted to historic White men to distribute to the rest of us. It is our birthright.
These four artists remind us that we should not fail to experience it fully, nor fail to reflect it fully, otherwise we limit our humanity as individuals, as artists, and, especially, as a cultural group. “Learning to play like yourself” will ultimately allow each of us to make the greatest cultural contribution possible.
Please enjoy this brief but powerful video featuring Najee Dorsey’s billboard.
As always, we appreciate you sharing your thoughts in the Comment Section below.
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DEBRA HAND is a museum-collected sculptor, painter, and writer. She is the creator of the historic bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dunbar Park. Among the history makers who own her works are former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; Harry Belafonte; Cicely Tyson; Smokey Robinson; Yo-Yo Ma; Spike Lee; Seal; Sinbad; and the renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt; the late Winnie Mandela, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou also owned her work. Debra Hand holds a Master of Science Degree from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University. She is a self-taught artist whose talent was discovered by the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum. It was Burroughs who arranged for Hand’s first public exhibit.
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