Tuesday, August 12, 2003

'You' and the need to be universal

I recently became aware of a young, African-American artist who seems bewildered by the local literary scene. Rochell Hart has enjoyed some success on the hip hop and spoken word circuit, but believes she is unappreciated in her hometown. She was among several writers interviewed by Willamette Week, an independent newspaper, to check the artistic pulse of Puddletown.

I hate to throw the race card, but as a black performance artist in Portland, it is hard not to. A native of this city, I have been a published author, motivational speaker and performance spoken-word artist (a.k.a. poet) for quite some time. Throughout the years, I have performed on countless stages across America, including such artistic hot spots as New York and Chicago. After carefully sifting through my opinions about life in Portland, I am convinced that as a minority artist, this is one of the hardest cities to survive in.

Be assured that my opinion is not merely a woe-is-me cry. The fact is, only 1.6 percent of the entire state is African-American, with most other ethnic backgrounds weighing in at even less. In a state where it was once illegal for minorities to reside (racist laws remained on Oregon's books until the late 1920s), it's no wonder so few minorities choose to call this place home. Those of us who do must struggle daily to have our voices heard and to make a serious impact.

. . .In Portland, however, my message of righteousness often falls on the ears of a crowd whose majority simply cannot relate. It is seriously challenging (though I am up to the challenge) to recite my signature poem, "Never Question Who I Am," to an audience whose only other minority representatives are my family and friends. The rest of the audience, even with the best intentions, simply seems indifferent to the realities I raise my voice to:

"I am a vibrantly vivid collection

Of ghetto reflections

I am a compilation

Of mass communication

I am black powered, cynical, reigning queen


Surpassing surreal expectations of anything you ever thought I would be."

I haven't conversed with Hart, but if I did, one of the issues I would discuss with her is the need for an artist to be universal. After reading about her and listening to and reading some of her work, I believe part of her failure to connect can be explained by a failure to relate to Everyman or Woman. When writers speak of universality, we don't mean everyone has to write about everything. We mean that the characters and settings we choose to write about need to be made comprehendible by people not from the same background. Much of Hart's material focuses on a narrow conception of the experience of being black, low-income and ghettoized. Though characters in a ghetto or barrio can be just as universal as any others, one must depict them broadly, as human beings first, to make them so.

Near the same time, I read about Hart in WW, I was reading a collection of short stories by Rohinton Mistry. He is an Indian writer of Parsi descent who has resettled in Toronto. The book I was reading, Swimming Lessons: Other Stories from Firozsha Baag, is about the residents of a mainly Parsi apartment complex in Bombay. Though middle-class by Indian standards, they would be mostly working-class by ours. They take for granted the realities of those who don't have and aren't likely to get: leaking toilets, pealing wallpaper, roaches and rats, having to struggle to pay the rent. When I began reading Mistry, starting with his acclaimed novel, A Fine Balance, all I knew about Parsis was that they are one of the smaller sects in India and usually escape the clashes between religions and castes. I still am not sure what a sudra looks like. But, I do understand struggle, and that it is a constant of the human condition. It is that understanding, that element of commonality, that seems to be missing from Hart's work.

That may be partly because she has fallen under the spell of Afrocentricism. The movement too often seeks to empower persons of African descent via chauvinism, glorifying African-American culture and separating it from others. Such thinking is in direct conflict with the need for universality in art if it is to transcend differences between artist and audience.

Mistry, on the other hand, has taken characters set in a minority culture thousands of miles away and made them comprehendible by millions of readers worldwide. He does so by presenting the Parsis as people, hopelessly flawed but deserving of compassion. Hart, at 26, has plenty of time to develop as a writer. She may discover the need to paint portraits of her characters with warts and all eventually. (Serious artists usually do, to the chagrin of shallow people.) Then, she will understand the relationship between 'you' and the need to be universal.

Note: This entry originally appeared at Silver Rights, a blog focusing on civil rights and related issues.

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