Black Artists Respond to Racial Injustice
By Christine Green
The summer of 2020 was a hot one.
The humidity spiked just as Rochester residents were getting used to the masks they had to wear in order to protect themselves against the coronavirus. People were agitated and afraid about their health and the reopening of New York businesses.
But the coronavirus wasn’t the only virus stirring things up last season. George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in May — on film — brought new attention to the illness that has plagued America since its founding: racial injustice.
Protests erupted nationwide. Activists used social media to spread the word about racism and how to fight it. Artists, too, took up the fight in their own unique ways.
Local Black artists, Doug Curry, Almeta Whitis, and Cornelius Eady share how they responded to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The world is standing against America and its racist policies and it’s rotten to the core foundation — based upon racism — and saying, enough, enough.”
Storyteller and writer Almeta Whitis of Rochester has lived through many historic moments over her 73 years. She’s seen loss and hard times, illness and injury. She has seen the civil rights movement in its infancy and has been both a witness and participant as it has evolved over the years. Today she believes that the Black Lives Matter movement is opening the eyes of more and more Americans.
The recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have sparked outrage across the nation. Record numbers of Americans have taken to the streets in protests against racially motivated violence, and this swell of support is encouraging to Whitis.
“The difference as I see it today is that there are white and red and brown and yellow allies that weren’t always there. There were a number of white and native allies during the early 20th century, and obviously, with the civil rights movement, and in the abolitionist movement of the 19th century. However, what I’m looking at today is that our allies are much greater, a much more vocal segment of the white population than ever before in history, and we’ve got the world standing with us.”
But Whitis, like so many others, is keeping close to home as the coronavirus pandemic continues to threaten lives. Instead of marching in the streets she is using the power of the internet to share her thoughts in social injustice with friends and family. She sends emails with detailed information about a variety of social justice issues. She has shared articles and personal tales about everything from rent forgiveness during the pandemic to educational videos about the history of the Black Panthers.
These personal tales are at the crux of Whitis’ mission to reach audiences with messages of equality.
“I’ve always known what I wanted to be. I wanted to be in front of people saying something important that would entertain them and educate them. That has always been my, my raison d’etre,” said Whitis. “I use stories not only to entertain but to educate and enlighten people to the spirit of what is going on, so that people can step back, take a deep breath, go into a place of mindfulness.”
She took these lessons with her, too, into her online teen writing classes through Writers & Books in Rochester over the summer.
Whitis said her five grandchildren give her hope for the future. She is also hopeful that her award-winning show, “Smudge Stick Experience: The Pungent Aroma of Truth!” can reopen at various venues around the country after the pandemic subsides. Whitis will also be included in an upcoming October exhibit at the Rochester Museum and Science Center called “The Changemakers: Rochester Women Who Changed the World.”
May 25 was a lovely day for bird watching in Central Park, and birdwatcher Christian Cooper was quietly looking for birds when Amy Cooper (no relation) threatened to call the police when he requested that she leash her dog.
“I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.”
Later that day George Floyd was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
Poet and musician, Cornelius Eady, 66, watched it all from home as so many did.
“It’s so depressing to watch how many African Americans are being murdered on live TV,” he remarked, his voice heavy with sadness.
But with COVID-19 looming large, Eady and so many were compelled to stay home instead of join in-person protests. So he did what he has done for decades: write.
“You know, the only thing I can do as an artist, the only way I can respond to it is to write. So, I’m old and I’m afraid of the virus so I’m not going out. The best thing I can do, the strongest thing I could do, is to write and try to get it out there.”
Thus was born one of his latest songs with his group, The Cornelius Eady Trio, “Birdwatching.”
The lilting melody feels light and airy, but the lyrics are dark and reveal the reality of life for Black Americans.
Your particular skin
Is a popular sin
Doesn’t matter what you do.
And now the cop kneels
Down to prey
His heaven’s a place
Where you go away.
Eady and his bandmates Lisa Liu and Charlie Rauh are also working on a project with musician Jenny Johnson to honor musician Elijah McClain. An unarmed McClain was killed in August 2019 after police placed him in a chokehold and administered a sedative. He was just 23 years old.
Eady wrote a poem in honor of McClain, and Johnson is working with the band and other artists to create a sound art piece. Eady’s poem addresses how police officers stormed a nonviolent violin vigil held in McClain’s honor over the summer.
“Elijah’s killing ripped my heart out,” said Eady of the incident. “You’re taking the most gentle person in the world and wiping them out on live TV, it was so clear.”
He went on to explain that what the cops were trying to do on the day of the vigil was silence the music, “because that was the sound of him [McClain] dying.”
Eady is a Rochester native currently living in New York City. He teaches at SUNY Stony Brook. His 2001 book, “Brutal Imagination,” was a finalist for the National Book Award. His work in poetry and theater has twice been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Learn more about the Cornelius Eady Trio at corneliuseadytrio.com. Listen to their latest songs, including “Birdwatching,” “The Knee” and “Anthology” on Soundcloud.
Some have said that the summer uprisings against social injustice in the U.S. were historic with no precedent. But is this really the case?
Rochester poet Doug Curry, 69, knows that the fight for racial equality isn’t new.
“Young people are self-conscious; that’s all they know is themselves,” says Curry. “So, they think that just because they notice something that it has never happened before. Oh, yes, it has. It’s only new to you.”
Curry, the host of “Blacks & Blues” on WRUR-FM Rochester, examines the Black Lives Matter movement and how it crosses paths with the COVID-19 pandemic in his poem, “Mr. Jackson.”
The poem is a stunning commentary on protests and demonstrations in light of the most recent murders of Black Americans.
The poem’s protagonist, Mr. Jackson, is a 70-year-old African American man from Meridian, Mississippi. He has seen protests before and none of this is novel in his experience:
He is bemused by ironies,
confused by contradictions
as battle lines form
Curry’s Mr. Jackson questions the protests (he calls them parades) and the motivations of some of those involved. No one is off the hook including world leaders:
African brothers across the Diaspora
wherefore have you forsaken your brethren?
He also muses about religious leaders that implore protesters and activists to pray:
Let us pray, bow our wretched heads and pray,
pray for healing although we were never well
Call on the Lord; we always do
We may catch him awake this time
“The poem is really brutal,” Curry says.
But Mr. Jackson does more than comment on performative activism. He also contemplates the violence and murder he has witnessed for decades and mourns the injustices he’s seen over the course of his lifetime. He reflects on how George Floyd and Black Americans have had their very breath stolen over and over. Lines that appear in the poem include:
we can’t breathe…
there is a man kneeling on my neck
and I cannot breathe. . .
“I can’t breathe” “I CAN’T BREATHE!”
When asked what gives him hope, Curry’s answer was complicated and nuanced just like his poem.
“It was President Obama who characterized hope as ‘audacious.’ Was this a simple rhetorical flourish, or a coded warning that change in America’s race relations may come interminably slowly, or not at all? Is hoping against the obduracy of and for the final elimination of American racism the equivalent of President Trump’s rose-colored assessment that COVID-19 is something that will one day ‘just disappear?’
“American racism and COVID-19 will one day become relics, signposts along the evolution of our species. Until that moment, which will only be fully appreciated in hindsight, the same tedium of change is all we will see.
“Our world of ubiquitous media with lenses and microphones everywhere reveals its truths. There is no longer a place to hide them, nor any place to hide from them; keeping them in our consciousness offers rays of hope. Is this why so many protesters march, photographers angle, and writers write?”
To read his poem “Mr. Jackson,” find him on Facebook.