Artists Who Happen to be Black:
Identity and Race within the African-American And Artistic Communities
(Selected case studies of a work in progress)
Artists Are Different
In the third year of my counseling training, I was working for a private practice and was randomly assigned clients on an ongoing basis. By chance, in the beginning of my time in the practice I was assigned 3 working artists: a writer, an improv performer, and a visual artist. Over the course of the year, I realized that the things we talked about were specific to the experience of being an artist and how that identity affected all their relationships and sense of self. One day I was in a session with the visual artist who was talking about being blocked, how deeply he felt the loss of his inspiration, and how crucial his ability to make work was to his sense of social and personal identity as an artist. I was very affected, identifying strongly with his experience and how he described it, and, as we are trained to do, went to see my supervisor (who happened to be gay) after the session to process it. I was surprised when he didn’t understand why the session had such a profound effect on me, and that he didn’t understand what he thought was my extreme response. After a few days reflection, I realized a radical thing I had done when I was younger was coming into play. At the beginning my working life as a designer, I consciously chose being an artist as my primary identity, not gender, or race, or any other social construct. This choice has influenced all aspects of my life, and given me a particular perspective on how I view the world and how the world views me. My supervisor’s response showed me that the rest of the world (and the field of psychology) didn’t feel the same way, and to a certain extent was dismissive of the particular issues that come from being a working artist. Seeing him again after a few days, I tried to explain my responses to the session, and asked him to imagine how he would have felt if he’d had a client who told him a coming out story that related to his own. It was as if I saw a light bulb go off over his head. He got it.
After creating an art piece that had to do with therapy as an artistic experience (at Art Expo in Chicago last September), I also came to understand that artists are particularly drawn to therapy. Of all the people I saw the weekend of the fair, (over 80 during the course of three days) most were artists or involved in the arts. Most were trying to work out how to reconcile their drive to create or live as an artist (or within the arts) with the demands of relationships, work and family.
Spending time counseling other working artists made me realize that there is a particular need, and that my special understanding of artists’ problems and situations came from being one. I’m interested in how I can disseminate the idea that artists are important to society, need to be appreciated and supported in their endeavors, and deserve parity in access to wellness and mental health counseling.
Narrative Sense of Self.
According to certain theories of psychology and mind, we are the stories we tell about ourselves. Our sense of self develops from a combination of genetics, familial experience, brain structure, personality traits and tendencies, and social experiences, both internal and external. (White, M. Epston, D., 1990)
If the definition of an artist or creative person (an area which is an evolving discussion) is someone who has particular strengths on certain scales of personality, such as openness to experience, conscientiousness, and/or extraversion, is hyper-attentive to surroundings, and engages in divergent thinking, (Feist, 1999), then this person will create a story of themselves that includes their creative talents and their expression.
This personal story will also include attitudes and experiences related to their socio-ethnic status and cultural group. If race is a construct (another evolving discussion) and racial groups and cultures are ethnicities, then the personal stories of people in those ethnic groups include perceptions of their relative place in society, other groups’ attitudes towards them, and their attitudes towards themselves. (Tajfel, et al 2004)
The story that African American artists tell to themselves and about themselves is a combination of art and race. They embody their history, possibility, and familial connections along with their talent, discipline and desire. Their artistic experience is formed by their personal expression, the arrangement of their lives, and the embellishment of their situations.
There are indications of a tension between the telling of the two stories, self-narratives of creativity experienced and talent expressed, and the internal and external experience of being black in America. Often these two narratives come into direct conflict with each other, such as when a black child is told that blacks don’t play, like, or listen to classical music, museums are only for white folks, or that getting educated in the arts is a waste of time and money, since arts organizations don’t hire blacks anyway.
Crises of self and awareness come into being at the perception that both narratives are true, and so if a black person really resonates to understanding and listening to Mozart and Ravel, her equally strong experience of being African American in America can invalidate this self realization and awareness of her creative self.
Tribes enforce norms. Cultural expectations are the currency of inclusion and create expectations of behavior of the people identifying as part of the group (Wilson, et al, 2008). African American artists are often forced to choose between their identity as an artist or creative person and their understanding of self both internally and externally as a person identified as black in America. When they decide to think or behave in a way that is in contradiction with the cultural norms of their family, community or friends, (consciously or not) they are often accused of not being or acting black, or of thinking they have gotten “too good” for their former relationships. There are myriad solutions to this conundrum, and often these situations and experiences correspond to the in-group out-group sense of tribal and ethnic behaviors of groups based on class, race or nationality (Haidt, 2007).
The previous choice is an internal contradiction, but Black American artists also experience an external contradiction as well. There is an ongoing effort to get arts institutions to acknowledge the validity of black American art, and art made by Black Americans (two different ideas that are addressed below). Efforts to achieve parity of remuneration and acknowledgement of influence, borrowing and copying, particularly in the music industry, but in other areas of the arts as well, is still difficult to realize and see in practice. Getting the culture at large to appreciate, and encourage participation by black artists on their own merits and not make assumptions that they are not able, willing, or interested in any given field of artistic expression is an ongoing effort.
The multicultural psychology movement has given the psychology field a way to think of one’s self-narrative as a description of an identity, and aspects of the story are often experienced as a person’s multiple identities. A primary identity is the way one thinks of one’s self first and most deeply. (Sue, D., Sue, D. 1990) Most people tend to have gender as primary identity, with men in majority groups often thinking of themselves in terms of their profession primarily as an attribute of status. Minorities in society often identify according to racial identity constructs, externally and internally imposed. (Cote, Levine, 2014). Artists and creatives, once they understand the concept and become aware of a sense of a creative self, often identify being an artist as the most deeply felt and important aspect of their being. Evidence of this is everywhere within the artistic community, from the oft heard refrain that artists think differently and “we’re not like them”, or that people who are not creative are “civilians”. Creatives have often experienced the sense of leaving a family, educational environment or community that is not welcoming or understanding of divergent thinking and finding a place, group or profession where people “get” them. Experiencing the appreciation of their talent, attitudes, and way of thinking for the first time can be a strong way for artists to bind themselves to what is considered an artistic identity and loosen the hold of their previous primary identity of ethnicity.
Integrating multiple identities can be a challenge, and every person of multicultural background can attest to its difficulty. There has been some work written and thought about the intersection of identities of women artists (McLaughlin, 2006), but very little about the intersection of ethnicity or race and art. Understanding how to be an artist and black is a problem solved (or not) uniquely by each person who identifies as African American in this society and also feels the need (and has the talent and desire) to become a working artist within American and global culture. Among the artists I have spoken with or surveyed, the solutions to this problem depend on the medium in which they practice and the level of acceptance of the type of black artist society perceives them to be. (Hip-hop musicians have an easier time existing as artists and black than abstract textile visual artists within or outside the context of their work,) I will argue that efforts to exist with both identities run the range from actively choosing one or another in a professional and/or personal sense, denying one or another in the context of their work, blaming an oppressive society for their deprivation of expression or their inability to express one or both of their identities, or working to find a way to integrate both their social and internal feelings of blackness with their drive and personal expression as an artist.
My Left Eye or My Right Eye?
So what happens when a person is forced to choose between acceptance by his family and community, and being true to a sense of self that the community cannot or does not want to accept or understand. For a subset of African American artists this is a major dilemma, and their artistic experience will often reflect that. For some, the internal conflict is difficult to overcome, but for many more, the external conflict is debilitating. The experience of being a black artist and not being supported by society, the infrastructure of the particular field or medium of expression of the artist, or the denigration of their art simply because of their racial identity has caused a great deal of anger, sadness, depression and disorientation among a number of the artists I have interviewed.
Several artist respondents say that they don’t wish to engage in racial or political discussions within their work. They want to be accepted as artists, first and foremost, and have structured their lives and careers so as to avoid or disregard, if possible, the question. They see no merit in engaging in the discussion, since their work is an expression of themselves, and not their racial identity. This does not preclude their activism on other fronts, and doesn’t mean they don’t acknowledge the issue. They just see their art as beyond issues of race or ethnicity
Other artists insist that the two cannot be separated. Their attitude is that an artist’s experience and identity as black in America must be a part of any artistic self-expression, and to disregard it is to deny a part of one’s self, and to deny or disregard the experience of the entire ethnic group.
How an individual who identifies as an artistic professional and a Black American responds to these challenges is determined by a variety of factors, just as the responses of all people are formed by their psychological, social and biological situations and determinants. Among the participants who have completed my survey and/or have been interviewed, certain commonalities of experience begin to show. Some of these are universal, such as the need for familial unconditional love and support of the choices an artist makes in their education and development, in order to succeed and grow as an artist and a person. Other familial experiences, such as parental attachment, family and peer background, family history and success (or not) in the arts, will show how this affected family dynamics and the development of the artistic person, and are equally universal and important.
The Danger of A Creative Personality
Artists are, by just about any definition, open to experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996), and their heightened attention is enhanced by interest in the subject at hand. They can also be driven, ambitious, more confident in themselves and less willing to engage in conventional thought patterns and ideas. (Rothenberg 2006). This combination of personality traits and behaviors is seen as a lightning rod in the black community, going against many of the ways black society has developed to keep safe, stay “beneath the radar” of police and other authorities, and to protect itself from the harm of dashed hope.
There is something in black family lore known as “the talk” (Amber, 2013). It is given to adolescents in order to make them understand the dangers that come with existing in a minority body in the USA as well as how to handle themselves in interactions with external authority figures and institutions. It usually consists of strong suggestions to defer, keep eyes down, don’t engage, don’t threaten, don’t draw attention to yourself, don’t antagonize, behaviors which are directly contradictory to the innate attitudes one usually finds in the creative person. Existing as an artist in the black community often entails hiding, or denying an artistic sensibility and sense of self. The difference, and sometimes conflict, in attitude between artists and non-creative thinkers, is another universal situation, present in many communities. The difference in the black community is that the desire of parents and family for the artist and creative person to keep their head down is based on a desire for their safety. It is rooted in the awareness of black society’s history of interaction with law enforcement, and with political and governmental institutions that continues and has lead to events of the current day.
Arguably, this attitude extends to the interaction and dynamic between creative artists, with differing opinions as to how to resolve the tension and conflict among themselves, their communities, and society.
The Survey Questions
I have spoken to artists working in a variety of mediums and read the accounts of many more, since in interviews and their own writing and performance they often touch on the subject of what it’s like to be a black creative in their given field. When I originally thought of the content of this paper, I drew on my personal experience as a practicing artist as well as my current practice in counseling and therapy for artists and working creatives in formulating the questions, hoping to get qualitative answers about the lived experience of Black American artists.
The first four questions are directed at the early experience of creating an identity and sense of self. They refer to familial support, self-understanding, and educational opportunities and situations.
The second four questions address the professional experience of the artist, including how they perceive themselves within their profession, and whether and how their race has affected them professionally.
The third set of three questions asks about mental health, counseling and relationships, and how being a creative influences or affects their ability to have relationships and seek counseling if needed or desired.
The last question tries to get at the heart of the conundrum of identity of being a black artist in America, insofar as it asks the respondent to think about what their image of a creative person is, and whether they conform to it, or are outside of the societal, cultural, internal or external expectations of who (or what) an artistic person is or can be.
What kind of Artist, what kind of work?
For a large number of the artistic careers whose cases I have considered, anger seems to be a common thread of feeling. This can occur and manifest at various levels, from a low-grade acknowledgement of just living with the “way things are” to a rage that boils over either in their lives or their work, or both. How an artist handles their particular level and form of rage can spell their success or failure, their ability to practice their art or not, and their ability to function in personal and professional realms.
Below are examples of how two artists experienced anger over perceived but explicit racial bias in their professions. These are but two of the variety of anger responses to bias and racism and the range of success, failure or disengagement each response engenders.
The fantasy writer N.K. Jemisin, in a podcast on Tor.com (2015), spoke of initially writing a novel according to the conventions of the fantasy genre, which was well received by the industry but ultimately not published because the publishing house thought they could not sell the piece unless it had all white, European characters. After that experience, she says she sat down and, in an extended expression of anger about that experience in the mainstream fantasy publishing industry, wrote what would become an award-winning and bestselling novel of the same genre, “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms”. In it she creates characters and a world where the focus is on people of color in a non-European setting, and the novel becomes about cultural conflict and oppression. Her story and her response to the bias of the publishing industry caused her to be even more successful, in that she touched a chord among the fantasy reading public, which was very receptive to an alternative to the rote forms of the fantasy epic genre.
An artist who has had a less positive response to his views about the bias against black art, and more struggles for success in his chosen media is painter and writer John Sibley. He states (J. Sibley survey interview, 2015) his belief that all African American artists have mental issues from having to deal with day-to-day racism, and the duality of being black and American makes all black American artists paranoid or schizoid to some degree. Sibley’s work, a series of self-published memoirs and fiction, describes the world as he sees it for Black Americans in general and black artists in particular as being difficult, constrained by institutional racism toward African American people in general and creative people of color in particular struggling mightily to remain undefeated in the face of societal oppression.
Other artists choose to live primarily through their artistic identity, either personally or professionally, and don’t overtly include or acknowledge racial or cultural content in their work. Among several artists with whom I spoke, the creation of the art and the interaction with the observer/audience is the key element to their lives as an artist, and is at least as important, if not superceding their racial identity.
An example of this attitude about how to create work and a successful career in spite of racial (and gender) bias comes from Washington D.C. artist Lilian Burwell. She describes various problems her race and gender presented to her early in her career, from the antagonism of college administrators to the emotional and physical abuse of an early marriage that denied any creative practice and expression on her part (L. Burwell, survey and interview, 2015). She overcame these obstacles to combine a career of art making and teaching, which she describes as letting her identity and practice as a creative person allow the spirit of art to come through her. She describes her creative life as looking for the sun in her work, and turned racial setbacks and problems into opportunities to develop creativity and strength. Her art, she feels, in its abstraction of color, shape, and light has transcended her racial identity, although all her life she has tried to effect social change through her position as teacher and activist.
Bob Stroger is a musician with a long career in the blues, playing with the greats in the field. As a young person in 1930’s and 40’s rural Missouri, he saw how musicians were respected and stood apart from the rest, and decided he wanted to be like them, eventually dedicating his life to music. He has stated (B. Stroger interview and survey, 2015) that music has no prejudice, it is a universal language that he speaks, connecting with audiences all around the world. He actively avoids any discussion of politics and activism, mentioning a particular time in Russia when he was pointedly asked to comment on American racial issues; he was simply unwilling to engage in the discussion. He is aware, though, of the problems that can arise from being black in America, and says that one of the reasons he never became involved with illegal drugs was because he knew that as a black man in rural Missouri, touring the south, any interaction with the authorities could be dangerous and possibly fatal. He says that he is a musician first and foremost, feeling that artists are a special family who have the opportunity to perform for and connect with their audience. Their job is to love what they do, give 100%, and realize that they are there for the audience, not the other way around.
Black Art, and Artists who happen to be Black.
There is an ongoing disagreement in the community of black American artists as to whether it is possible, desirable or beneficial to artists and the world at large to create work that is not directly related to or referencing the black cultural experience in America. While there is a vast difference in how each discipline approaches this question, the discussion hasn’t really changed. In the late 60’s a symposium of 6 Black sculptors at the Metropolitan Museum of NYC (Bearden, et al, 1969) were pretty evenly split over the issue, and the New York Times recently posted an article asking how to allow and accept social consciousness and other species of sensitivity to reside within the same person (Cunningham, 2015) with equally ambivalent results. In the music world, Elvis Presley and British rockers were accused of appropriating the music of blues and jazz musicians without remuneration or credit (Garofalo, 2002) . Nikki Minaj, Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus are having exactly the same conversation 60 years later (Rogers, 2015). Is there such a thing as black art? Who owns it? Who has the right, or the duty, to create it? Is it possible to separate the making of art from the cultural and racial identity of the maker? What are the consequences, personally, professionally, and culturally when that happens? Do these questions still apply given current social change?
Helping to understand and accept the validity of each person’s unique answer to these questions will help artists to create a more stable sense of self. For the purposes of this research, and to better collaborate and consult with the artists and creatives with whom I work, I’m open to opportunities to share what I can do in a variety of settings, individuals, groups, and organizations, and hopeful that this paper and presentation will help me to do this, aiding artists and creatives of all cultures, races, and ethnicities. This will allow artists to create the best work possible, ultimately forming the conscience and creative expression of our society.
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