Celebrating King the Activist (Not Just the Dreamer) in Art

Celebrating King the Activist (Not Just the Dreamer) in Art

Celebrating King the Activist (Not Just the Dreamer) in Art

Celebrating King the Activist (Not Just the Dreamer) in Art

“Let Freedom Ring” is the title the Brooklyn Academy of Music has given to its public exhibition of images by seven Brooklyn-based artists as part of its 35th Annual Brooklyn Tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The images appear through next Friday on the giant BAM sign (typically used to advertise upcoming shows and events) at the corner of Lafayette Avenue and Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn.

The phrase “Let freedom ring” resonates deeply with me. It takes me back to that moment as a child watching television with my own Black family, immigrants from Jamaica, arriving in New York in the 1970s, and quickly, intuitively understanding that we had to make common cause with Black Americans who were then (when are they not?) energetically engaged in the struggle for social and economic equity. Together, my father, mother and sister watched a program about civil rights that featured the grainy, black-and-white footage of King giving that speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 1963 — the famous “I have a dream” speech. In it the refrain “let freedom ring” was so gripping to me that looking at the electronic billboard I can hear his voice again: “Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill in Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

I’m grateful that BAM and the project’s curator, Larry Ossei-Mensah, did not choose the other well-worn phrase to represent King and his activist agenda: “I have a dream.” I recall my political science professor John Ehrenberg, who in the early 1990s taught me and my classmates about the Civil Rights Movement in granular detail just a few blocks away from the BAM sign: at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus, where I earned my undergraduate degree. Prof. Ehrenberg has insisted that the rhetorical construction of King as a dreamer was a grievous misreading of his work and legacy. King was an activist, an intellectual, an organizer, a social justice warrior. The work on display on the BAM billboard thankfully reaches beyond the rhetorical construction of an equitable society as a dream to show what freedom looks like when it undergirds the lives of Black and Latino people.

The slide show of images features work by Derrick Adams, Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Hank Willis Thomas, Jasmine Wahi, Alvin Armstrong and Lizania Cruz, and it lasts for about three minutes. Here are Black bodies in repose, in celebration of their being, rather than oppressed, fearful and immiserated. Barrayn, in her “Self-Portrait (Extension of a Woman)” (2007), shows a Black woman enveloped in warm light and framed by the gold accents of her earrings and necklace serenely facing the viewer without meeting our gaze. She is free enough to not seek reciprocity. She is intact and at peace where she is. And in Barrayn’s “Luz + Adrian, Jogo De Capoeira” (2018), two bodies are shown upside down, heads to the ground, balancing with their legs in the air, in full revelry of the freedom of their bodies to dance on their hands.

With “We Don’t Die We Multiply” (2021), Armstrong takes this idea of celebratory movement into painterly representation, depicting two Black, silhouetted bodies meeting in exultation and joy, arms flung open wide. And Adams portrays the freedom fighter himself in “MLK’s Tropic Interlude” (2020), which imagines King having the liberty to unwind in solitary leisure.

Cruz’s “Freedom Budget” (2021) uses text to argue for the kind of profound socioeconomic restructuring that can make these moments of enjoyment customary, even commonplace, for Black people. “Freedom Budget” alludes to the policy document created by a coalition of Black, socialist and progressive leaders who had initially gathered to organize the 1963 March on Washington. (They called it “A Freedom Budget for All Americans.”) Their goal was to end poverty in the United States in 10 years without cost to taxpayers. It was first released in 1966, proposing to use strong economic growth to provide a federal jobs guarantee, universal health care and a basic income.

Cruz reminds us that the Freedom Budget provides: “Clean Air And Water For All,” “Healthcare For All,” “Housing For All,” “Job Guarantee For All,” “Child Care For All” and “Higher Education For All.” Along with other leaders in the movement, King understood that no one can be truly free unless everyone is. In other words, Black people needed to make common cause with everyone who is poor and abandoned by the United States’ miserly social safety net system, everyone who is not free from fear and want. As King explained in the plan’s foreword:

The long journey ahead requires that we emphasize the needs of all America’s poor, for there is no way merely to find work, or adequate housing, or quality-integrated schools for Negroes alone.

While Black people were at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, crucially it consisted of activists and organizers, laborers and politicians across ethnicities, socioeconomic classes, sexualities and religious beliefs to produce the key legislative victories of the 1960s that transformed civic society. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 effectively ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits racial discrimination in voting; and even the 1968 Fair Housing Act forbids discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing. And yet, the struggle continues to unearth the deeply interconnected and interdependent structures of white supremacy. Rasheed seems to warn us of this with her text piece “Read the Fine Print.” (2021).

But then the last image in the slide show is Thomas’s “Who Taught You to Love?” (2020) in festive green and red letters on a black background. It strikes the right note in this moment when our public discourse is shot through by questions regarding the social and cultural mechanisms that teach us to hate, that radicalize us to the point of violent insurrection. Love, like freedom, can flicker between dreamy assertion and lived reality, and to get us from the one arid landscape to the other fertile ground we always need teachers like Martin Luther King who will not only point the way, but hold hands with us and march in that direction.

Let Freedom Ring

Through Jan. 22, the BAM sign screen (corner of Flatbush Avenue and Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn).

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