Monday, November 15, 2004

The Artist Statement [2004]

The artist statement is a standard document often required for grant and fellowship applications in the arts. Essentially, it expresses an artist's vision and philosophy. Click the links for some examples of statements from other artists in different disciplines. Here's my most recent:


This is a simple declarative statement, yet it is the nucleus of my literary universe.

As a youth, my diet of Black literature was anemic—a Maya Angleou poem here, a Langston Hughes short story there – and the appalling consequence of this was that it formed a Black child who did not believe his own trivial life - nor the lives of anyone else who shared his brown eyes, his dark skin, and his coarse hair - was worthy of literature. It saddens me now, angers me, makes me tremble in my bones to think that I ever felt this way. What is perhaps more tragic is that no one ever sat me down and specifically instructed, “You can’t write about X, or no one wants to read Y.” It was a very understated yet systematic process that led to my thinking, a slow drip of arsenic in my skull.

The sole purpose of my artistic existence is to stop other young readers – Black and especially those who are not – from ever feeling this way about Black people – in America and the world over.

I am not militant. If my telling a story or composing a poem requires people of various ethnic backgrounds, then I will write what the story demands. But my motivation stems from that dreadful moment when I believed that my life—and I mean that in the sense of the whole Black race – was something subhuman. Further, if I as a Black writer don’t pen Black literature, then who will?

All over the world, people tell their own stories. No one would dare say to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “This novel is lovely, but why such a focus on White characters?” Or to Ha Jin, “This is a beautiful story, but do all of your characters have to be Chinese?” The fact is, people write what they know. Even in most far-fetched science fiction, once you strip away all of the circuitry and the gadgets, a writer's own experience is his basis.

Of American literary classics, how many books of fiction by White authors even include a single Black character? How many plays? And when Black characters are included, how well-rounded are they?

I choose not to blame this on a conspiracy by “The Man” or some racist regime. I am self-determined. I choose to do something about it because it is my duty as a Black artist with a pen - to write my history, to report my present, to transform my future - no one else’s.

Now if others want to write about the Black experience, then more power to them. But an old Nigerian proverb says: Do you know why, in the stories of the lion and the hunter, the hunter always wins? It is because it is always the hunter who tells the tales.

I do realize that some may view my commital to writing Black literature as restrictive, but it is only restrictive to the closed-minded. “The reason why Blacks are invisible," novelist Ralph Ellison wrote, "is because they refuse to exercise the full range of their humanity.” And so, when I say Black, I mean not in the terms which others have defined, but in the sense of the blackness of outer space, of the infinite possibilities of both what Black has been, but, more importantly, what Black can be.

Consider: a Black astronaut, a Black serial killer, a Black Chief Justice, a Black news anchor, a Black golf star, a Black Academy award winner. At some point, some garbage collector, some sharecropper, some slave looked up from his dusty work and dreamed. And oh what a dream we are! At some point, these notions were all far-fetched, all outside of the realm of 'Black'. But, my point is that there is no “outside the realm of Black.” The definition of Black is constantly expanding, just like the universe. It has no limits, for better or for worse. So my art aspires toward that Black which is limitless, the Black of the imagination, a Black which has never been seen: a Blackness which is humanity.

In that sense, I make this statement, proudly as an artist:

I am a Black writer.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful! You made me proud to be in the skin I'm in!

Anonymous said...

I feel great after reading this entry, Thanks!