Art in a City That Can Kill You: An Open Letter to Black Creatives


Wiley_painting1_detail(“Judith and Holofernes” (detail) by Kehinde Wiley, 2012; photo by the author)

To my fellow Columbus black creatives,

For a while now, but especially in the wake of yet another police acquittal, we have needed to come to a decision about this city.

We have a particular relationship with Columbus when it comes to how we are treated by the state. It is a relationship that goes back numerous generations, and in every era of Columbus’ development has ended with black communities receiving the short end of the stick. I can list all of the neighborhoods I’m referring to, but they’re the same neighborhoods we talk about every time we talk about gentrification and police abuse and political capital and the school system. You know them and I know them, and the people who live in those areas now know them, even as they put up new signs and light arches. We have a relationship with Columbus and once you do the math, I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest it’s abusive by every measure.

While Columbus houses nearly 900,000 residents, the city is not so large that your chances of escaping the effects of a given murder or abuse of another black resident are high. When these crimes happen, you likely know someone who knows who it happened to. Most of us are probably only three or four people removed from a victim of police abuse or murder in this city, regardless of where you live or how many white friends you have. And the more invested you are in the culture and politics of black people in Columbus, the more likely that awareness is.

Think about why that’s true. Are black people preternaturally social? Do we have designated meeting spots where we gather en masse and trade culture and intel? No, and of course not, respectively. We often connect to our victims through our people because when you live under conditions designed for your destruction, you regularly engage others that you assume can relate to your condition. Survivors typically seek out other survivors for mental and emotional support, especially under what could easily be labeled fog of war conditions. Under such a state, you remain constantly aware of the targets you might know, the people who notice you for what you are when you walk into a room without knowing who you are, as you have done in kind.

We are a valuable people. Sure, all lives matter, but we bring things that other people and institutions find valuable beyond our lives. You can hear the import they place on those things every day, see it in how others treat what we create, represent, and provide above and beyond the offerings of others. They love our music, our art, our fashion, our language, our bodies, our abilities.  At the same time they fear our presence, our knowing looks, our potential, our language, our bodies, our abilities.

What we provide is valuable in a literal sense as well. It is no coincidence that when it comes time to sell Columbus to the world, we are frequently held up to seal the deal. “Look how diverse we are!” the billboards suggest. “Look how much culture we possess!” What we generate – frequently without the aid of tax dollars – is oftentimes the very key to a city’s ability to unlock more tax dollars, which every developing city needs.

For all of these reasons black artists need to decide if Columbus is worthy of our efforts. We need to decide if we will remain satisfied to make statements in our art or if other types of statements need to be delivered, other actions taken. We need to make those decisions individually and, when possible and sound, collectively. We need to decide if our goal is to point fingers or to lift hands. We need to decide if we’re willing to keep giving the best of ourselves to the worst of our opposition, if we’re going to continue to resign ourselves to being gentrified out of the city, ignored by 90% of the politicians we install, dismayed at the way our schools treat our children, terrorized by a police state, and living off of the scraps of the in-the-know, the hip, and the well-meaning. Does a city deserve to not only take credit but benefit in key ways from the efforts of the artists it maligns when they aren’t being artists (and sometimes when they are)? How much of the culture we generate does Columbus get to take credit for, beyond being a well of inspiration of the worst kind? Do people assume we enjoy painting our conditions, creating poetry about our collective demise, and choreographing our oppression? Is the nature poem ever beyond the ken of our poets? Must our rappers never find love in their bars?

We have conversations to have, and then we have decisions to make. We all have to live somewhere. Lord knows a lot of the places where one can attempt to build a life and career with their art aren’t much better, and are frequently worse. This isn’t a call to leave Columbus. This is a call to reconsider our relationship. We are not a powerless people at large, and our artists are even more steeled to show the way than ever before. Art is always at the front line of change. The question I place before you now is, who gets to benefit from the changes we are making?



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