An Interview With Artist Theo Beatty

Art and Culture, Interviews

Theo Beatty is a 30 year old, openly gay, Hopi artist living and working in Phoenix, Arizona. When I first stumbled across his Instagram page by way of a mutual friend I was blown away. The intimacy and power of his work immediately captured my attention and after speaking only briefly, Theo agreed to this interview, allowing me the chance to gain some first hand insight into his process and sources of inspiration.

His work, often dealing with themes surrounding identity, community and the soul, offers a powerfully unique voice that honors and intimately explores the heritage and cultural landscape Beatty was raised by while at once providing something wholly personal and deeply vulnerable.

TA: Let’s start off with a little about yourself. how old are you, what are your pronouns, where are you from, where are you currently living and what do you “do” (for a living, for fun and/or for the sake of doing)?

Theo Beatty:I am 30 years young, my pronouns are anything really. I’ve been called all the pronouns at one point or another in my life so I pretty much respond to anything. Given certain groups of people I hang out with it just depends like at home I’m referred to in male pronouns, In the queer community I’m referred to by any pronoun, so it really just depends where I am and who I’m with. I am originally from Northern Arizona from the Hopi reservation. I grew up in the town of Polacca and lived a vast majority of my life on the reservation. It wasn’t until I attended university that I left. I currently reside in Phoenix, Arizona where I work on my art. I’ve resided here for almost 10 year and came with the intentions of finishing my education here. I did earn my Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from Arizona State University so my goal has been accomplished. At the moment I am “unemployed” give the current situation of things but my art work is my business so I am constantly working on something or another. For fun I usually just dance around my room or play games and read, now is the perfect time to catch up on my reading.

How and when did you first start making art? Was it a natural impulse or something you were introduced to?

I first started drawing when I was very young, my father was the one to 1st show me how to draw outside of scribbles and lines. At least that’s the earliest memory I can think of involving learning to draw deliberate subjects. I’m sure I was drawing before that but didn’t really take a conscious endeavor towards it before that other than just to have fun. I still have fun while drawing, it is a great comfort. I guess I would have to ask my parents more about it to be honest *laughing*. If I had to put an age to it I’d say 4 or 5 was when that happened.

Your artist bio says that you started selling art to tourists when you were pretty young, but lost interest around high school. What was it like selling your art at a young age and how do you feel that affected your relationship to it as you got older?

It was thrilling to know that people wanted to have something I created. In high school my priorities shifted to a pursuit of higher education. I still drew all the time but doing so for the sole purpose of selling was put out of my mind. When I got to university and college I would always take an art course alongside my core classes and such. Art is as much a part of me that if I stay too long away from it I feel like a piece of me is missing. When I start it again then I feel whole. The thrill of getting paid for what you like to do is fun but it becomes a balancing act of profit vs fulfillment. At the time I didn’t have that balance going and wasnt willing to figure it out. As I get older I still feel the thrill when people want to purchase my art works. I think my biggest fear at the moment, in relation to my work, is having it become just another product and getting to a stage where I make art not for fulfillment but solely for profit.

There’s nothing wrong with turning a profit but at this point where I’m still exploring and playing with my work I dont want go lose that momentum of self fulfillment. I am doing commissions in addition to personal work so I feel like that is some sort of balance.

Striking that balance can be difficult, but it sounds like you’re making it work for you. Higher education seems to be a theme in your life, how has academia served or challenged you as an artist?

Im trying my best at balancing. Growing up it was drilled into us that getting a college degree was the best way to make a life for yourself not only from teachers but our parents, grandparents, public speakers, tribal officials, etc. At least that’s the way I remember it.i originally did not pursuit a degree in art, I started off my academic career in the biology field with the goal to actually become a botanist. Along the way I branched out to other things while art is what kept me grounded. Eventually I made the switch to pursuit a degree in fine art. It has helped to discipline my habits, work effort, research skills, and open my eyes to other ways of seeing art and the act of creating. In an academic setting I was pushed to do things that wouldn’t normal do on my own, it helped me gain skills that help develop my work, and exposed me to people with who I could bounce ideas off of, it opened my world in a way.

Academia expanded my world and even challenged me to consider what drives me to create and why. I’m still finding those answers for myself but I encourage academic pursuits if it helps you grow. It certainly helped me.

Much of your work deals with themes surrounding personality, identity, the soul or “the self” while being directly informed by shared cultural themes. How does the relationship between the self and the collective, or the self and the other, influence your art and your process?

I think my work is about understanding your place in society with it being part of a larger collective. Your individuality is part of a greater whole and when you bring those beings together it makes a larger beautiful collective that strives for the same thing. I guess it is all based off of my upbringing and how the family functions as well as the community. We all have a part to play in our communities but that doesn’t take away from our own uniqueness and experiences. It helps build the community. That’s the way I see the idea of self fitting the larger whole in my work.

Katsinam, much like people, possess unique and diverse personalities and identities that make up a larger collective and are continually present in your work. How does your use of katsina and/or pseudo-katsina imagery allow you to play with and express themes surrounding your own identity as well as identity on a broader, social scale?

Katsinam are spirits of nature that help the people when needed bringing rain, food, and joy to the people. They were my first friends growing up, as it is for most Hopi kids, so when depicting them in my work I see them in the same manner. I try to be very respectful and remember that they are more than just images, they are living beings. So I use a version of katsinam that is recognizable as such but is stripped of specific identifiers so that it reads as something new, it has potential to develop, much like people. I use these pseudo-katsinam to represent the individual so the viewer sees the person not only as a person but as a soul or spirit that plays a purpose to the greater whole. I play with colors and markings to match the person’s personality or to establish familial bonds.

Image and other visual communication retain a lot of information that words are often incapable of conveying. What’s the value, power or benefit of visual narrative to you?

I like narrative imagery, I try to incorporate a narrative in my work. It may not be an epic tale but it is still a story. I think narrative imagery is very powerful and allows the viewer to interpret the story for themselves and what it means for them. In that way you are more likely to understand a work of art as well as appreciate it more.

What does religion or spirituality look like for you and how is it involved in your artistic practice?

For me it is just a way of living, spirituality is what you take with you into the world while religion is the actions and organization of events that reaffirm the spiritual practice. So for me, taking my beliefs taught to me wherever I go is spiritual. When I go home and am able to participate in the ritual then I am religious. So there are aspects of both in my work because I cannot really separate the spiritual aspects of Hopi from who I am as a person. Katsinam are definitely part of the religious aspect and need to be handled with respect and care. So when I do these drawings I evoke a sense of both of these elements. Mainly because when we talk of self or soul it is normally tied to something spiritual and the elements I use to convey that can be viewed as semi religious. The imagery I use is never fully secular nor is it fully religious and I try to mediate a middle ground for people to develop their own feelings and ideas about the subject when viewing my work.

I do try to set limits as to what I can and can’t do with regards for respecting my culture and religious restrictions.  I feel that with the subject matter I work with I can never really pull away from the spiritual or religious elements of it since they are exactly that, to an extent.

I do the best I can.

On a more physical level, you mentioned an interest in botany and biology, how does your relationship with the natural environment inform or influence your life and work?

Whether it is birds, plants, or weather conditions there is a lot of nature predominantly featured in my work, especially with my pottery designs drawings. Whenever I need inspiration I look to nature for it.

Is there anything else you’d like for people to know about you and/or your art? Any upcoming shows or projects? How can people stay up to date on your work?

I feel like my work can be interpreted from many different views and I hope that when you do view it that you take something good from it. No current shows coming up but definitely working on a few projects I hope to share soon. People can stay up to date on my work via my Instagram @tbeattyart, it’s my primary place for sharing work at the moment. Other than that just wear a mask, wash your hands, and be happy.

The artist, Theo Beatty

Theo’s work can be found on Instagram @tbeattyart and online at tbeattyart.weebly.com

Dearfield, Colorado: A Ghost of the Black American West

Society and Culture, Travel

Dearfield, Colorado is a ghost on the western plains. What remains of the once thriving agrarian community rests in bleak disrepair alongside state highway 34 in a dry, wind whipped and deeply red Weld County. All but three buildings — once a gas station, a diner and the founder’s home — have succumbed to the pressures of time and neglect, scarcely echoing the promise this land possessed in 1910 when Oliver Toussaint (O.T.) Jackson, inspired by Booker T. Washington’s “Up from Slavery”, first purchased 320 acres and began to lay the foundations for what would become Colorado’s most successful Black settlement.

Oliver Toussaint Jackson

Today one would be hard pressed to imagine that between 200 and 700 people ever called this parcel home, seeing in it’s wide open spaces framed beneath the distant Rocky Mountains to the West a newfound hope for freedom and prosperity, but at its height in the 1920’s Dearfield sustained two churches, a blacksmith, a filling station, a hardware store, a hotel, a dancehall and a diner. 44 cabins and 15,000 cultivated acres of dryland farm covered the landscape now dominated by desiccated grasses, sagebrush and sparse plains cottonwoods.

The weather at the time was far more conducive to dry cultivation of the oats, rye, corn, beans, squash, potatoes, melons and strawberries that Dearfield became known for, but as rains receded year by year and the price of produce plummeted with the close of the First World War, Dearfield’s early momentum weaned. By 1940 the town’s population had dwindled to only 12, two percent of its population just 19 years prior. Though records indicate OT Jackson was the last remaining resident when he passed away in 1948, his granddaughter lived on what remained of his property until her own death in the early 1970s.

Despite a lifespan of only about three decades, Dearfield prospered at a time when such a feat seemed unlikely, when the Ku Klux Klan held significant power throughout the state and racial “covenants” restricted access to land and housing for Colorado’s Black residents. While it was no aberration (many Black western settlements both existed and persisted before and after Dearfield) its connections to the thriving Five Points community in Denver, heralded by many as the Harlem of the West, carried its name farther than those now forgotten or consumed by time.

Weekends throughout the twenties brought hundreds of visitors the 90 miles by train from Denver to Dearfield’s dancehall, so popular that Black and white couples shared the dancefloor there decades before integration, and the township’s aspirations included an industrial cannery and a college to rival HBCUs such as Morehouse and Howard.  Many Black Colorado intellectuals, community leaders, business owners and politicians of the time resided in or were otherwise involved with the raising of Dearfield, including Dr. Joseph H.P. Westbrook, who infiltrated Colorado’s Ku Klux Klan long before Ron Stallworth.

The official accounts of Dearfield’s history insist that it’s untimely demise was due not to mismanagement or prejudice, but to the dust and destitution of the depression.  It is still difficult to believe that a community which so quickly gained national attention, which was supported, championed and nurtured by so many committed, loving, determined and highly capable people would collapse so abruptly when small neighboring communities, white communities, survived. Even the knowledge that Dearfield never acquired the water rights needed to irrigate their fields suggests something sinister in the racist bureaucracy of the time, echoing the sentiments that have turned the county where Dearfield’s remains rest into hardline Trump country.

What is left of Dearfield is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and maintained through a partnership between the University of Northern Colorado and the Black American West Museum in Denver, which officially owns the property. These institutions hope to reconstitute what they can of the decaying buildings and eventually establish a museum to honor the legacy of Dearfield and Black life in the high desert West.

While there is little left to see at Dearfield today but the dwindling shell of a once vibrant community, there is still a sense of hope emanating from those atrophied buildings and the dry earth beneath them. To stand there, knowing what that land meant to so many, knowing what was accomplished, can serve as a healthy reminder of all that still needs to be done in the fight for racial justice and Black liberation, and that, as the old adage goes, where there is a will, there is a way.

To visit Dearfield from Denver, take I-76 East toward Fort Morgan and turn left on state highway 34 just past Wiggins, and to learn more, visit the amazing Black American West Museum in Denver’s historic Five Points neighborhood.

We Need More Than a Shutdown to Heal the Environment

Nature, Science and The Environment

In the first weeks of global Covid-19 shutdowns stories of the natural world recovering from the rampant effects of industrialization began surfacing across social media. Often misleading tales of dolphins returning to the Venetian Canals, freely roaming elephants and lowered metropolitan carbon emissions suggested that the environment, given this unprecedented reduction in human activity, had begun to heal—record breaking emissions from current arctic wildfires put those stories into grim perspective.

While many of the stories heralding the recovery of nature in the early stages of coronavirus shutdowns were exaggerated, misleading or unequivocally false, the resiliency of the natural environment when left to its own devices is beyond speculation. Even Chernobyl, the second most irradiated plot of land on the face of the earth, has been reclaimed by healthy, fully functioning (though doubtlessly radioactive) forest in a span of less than 30 years, including a top predator wolf population 7 times as dense as forests surrounding the exclusion zone.

The problem with embellished resiliency claims made about nature is that they provide a false sense of relief or security in the face of truly dire circumstances. Carbon emissions and the smog they produce in cities around the world did indeed decrease and are still down in many places, and the lack of noise pollution has been suggested to have had positive implications for migratory bird populations and other animal communities vulnerable to its detrimental effects, but it is short sighted to believe that we have even begun to allow the earth enough time and space to catch its breath.

The increased usage of single use PPE alone has already begun to manifest in higher concentrations of plastic waste from gloves, masks and other protective gear in our oceans and waterways, and world leaders opposed to conservation have used the global focus on the pandemic to sneak past policies that weaken environmental protections from the Amazon —where more than 1,200 square miles of forest have been leveled since January—to the Northern Boreal forests.

What’s more, the reality of potential, even inevitable, environmental collapse that we faced before the pandemic has not disappeared, nor have we miraculously come closer to solving the problems that got us to this point in the first place.  

View of current Siberian fires via the European Space Agency

For the second year in a row, and after years of incremental decline, seasonal Arctic wildfires have burned hotter, wider and released more emissions than any season in nearly two decades of monitoring. In June alone arctic wildfires emitted 59 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, more than that of any single Scandinavian nation’s total annual carbon emissions in 2017.

Though a vital component of a healthy arctic ecosystem, wildfires of this particular magnitude are not only unprecedented, but cause for significant concern.  Coupled with earlier melting sea ice, receding snowpack and bone-dry soils these fires have the potential to alter the northern landscape indefinitely.  

This phenomenon is not isolated to the north.  Southern hemispheric wildfire seasons, which typically begin in August, have also been growing in scale and intensity, with Amazonian, Indonesian and Australian wildfires all setting their own records in 2019.  

The emissions from the before unseen intensity of global fire seasons retain the potential to make our already weak emission reduction goals prematurely obsolete. Unless we take radical steps to curb emissions, protect wild spaces and ensure biospheric stability globally, our fate will be sealed whether we drive less and work from home or not.

1200 Years of Reistance: Five Lesser Taught Black Led Slave Revolts

History, Society and Culture

Last week was the 155th celebration of Juneteenth, the commemoration of a federal announcement made in Galveston, Texas on June 19th 1865 that all slaves in the state were officially free — two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was made.

Liberty has always come late. Delaware and Kentucky, slaveholding border states during the Civil War, did not outlaw slavery until December of 1865 when the 13th amendment was ratified, and it is widely acknowledged that clandestine slavery persisted in the United States until as recently as the 1960’s.

Still, the symbolic strength of Juneteenth and what it meant and still means for millions of people is worth memorializing. Not in the name of a false benevolence, not as the end of racism, oppression or violence, but as a sign of hope and a beacon for something better.

As momentum increases to officially make Juneteenth a federal holiday in the US, it is important we remember the legacy of resistance that preceded that Monday in June 155 years ago.  It is important to keep fresh in our minds that the evils of racism, bondage and servitude have been known and rebelled against as long as history can recall, and that we, today, can carry the righteous rage of those who have fought before us forward and towards a truly free tomorrow.

Below are 5 pivotal though lesser known slave revolts which helped to pave the way towards a liberty we are still very much fighting for today.

The Zanj Rebellion (869-883)

We often think of slavery in terms of centuries —one and a half since slavery was abolished in the US, four since the transatlantic slave trade was established— but the Zanj Rebellion forces us to see just how long and brutal the African slave trade truly was.

Begun by the Black poet-prophet ‘Ali ibn Muhammad in 869, the Zanj Rebellion was a major uprising of East African, Bantu-speaking slaves against the Abbasid Caliphate. The conflict started around the city of Basra in present day Iraq and steadily blossomed along the banks of the Tigris. For 14 years ‘Ali ibn Muhammad and a multiracial, multisect, multi class coalition of Zanj, Bahraini, Bedouin and other freedom fighters engaged in multilateral guerilla warfare against the Abbasid Caliphate; freeing slaves, capturing cities, erecting forts, forming a navy and minting their own coins.

The widespread success of the first years of the rebellion as well as it’s early Islamic egalitarian inspirations drew people from across West Asia to join in the revolt.  It’s breadth, ferocity and death toll led to it becoming one of the most well documented and extensively described military campaigns of early Islamic history.  When ‘Ali ibn Muhammad was captured and killed by the Abbasid Caliphate in 883, effectively squashing the rebellion, the death toll is estimated to have reached anywhere between 500,000 and 2,500,000 people.  It wasn’t until 1858, a thousand years later,  that the Ottoman Empire finally outlawed the Zanj slave trade, though it persisted even after the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 that eradicated the open selling and trading of Zanj women in Constantinople.  

São Tomé and Príncipe Rebellion (1595)

Reí Amador on a São Tomé and Príncipe dobras note.

On July 9th, 1595 a man now known as Reí Amador, having avoided enslavement, organized a large-scale uprising of Angolar slaves on the volcanic island of São Tomé off of the northwestern coast of Gabon. The island had been established as a Portuguese “slave depot” around 1500, and by the 1590’s were sending thousands of people a year to Europe and the Americas. Amador and the Angolares marched into the interior of the island and raised a flag before a contingent of Portuguese colonizers, declaring himself “Reí (king in Portuguese) Amador, liberator of all Black people.”

The Angolar success in the ensuing battle allowed for Reí Amador and the Angolares to establish a free state on the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe that lasted until January of 1596 when Reí Amador was captured and killed by Portuguese forces. Successive Kilombo free states continued on the islands for centuries until they finally gained independence from Portugal in 1970. In 2005, January 4th was declared an official holiday honoring Reí Amador in São Tomé and Príncipe.

Gaspar Yanga’s Revolt (1609-1618)

Gaspar Yanga from a mural in the Palacio Municipal of Xalapa, Veracruz

In 1570 Gaspar Yanga, a member of the royal family of Gabon who had been captured and sold into slavery in present day Mexico, led a group of escaped slaves into the highlands of Veracruz to establish a palenque that would come to be known as San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo. For over 30 years, thanks in part to the densely forested terrain and the strength of its inhabitants, the settlement maintained control of the region and attracted escaped slaves and defectors who helped to sustain the community through routine raids in Spanish supply caravans along the Camino Real that connected Veracruz and Mexico City.

In January of 1609, some 550 spanish colonial forces began a campaign to capture the territory. As Gaspar Yanga had reached an old age the resistance was led on the ground by a younger Angolan man named Francisco de la Matosa. After refusing a treaty with Yanga, Spanish colonial forces descended on the settlement, burning it to the ground in the process, but the inhabitants escaped into the surrounding mountains and maintained a decade-long stalemate. In 1618, after sustaining continual losses at the hands of Yanga’s free forces, the Spanish Colonial government signed a treaty granting the settlement sovereignty, and by 1630 the town of San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo was officially established.

In 1871 the Mexican government designated Gaspar Yanga “El Primer Libertador de las Américas” and a national hero of Mexico.  San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo in the state of Veracruz was officially named Yanga in his honor in 1932.

First Maroon Wars (1728-1740)

Queen Nanny of the Maroons

In the late 1710’s and early 1720’s Nanny, an Ashanti woman born in Ghana, established a free state community, or maroon, in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. For years Nanny, along with a cadre of escaped slaves dubbed the Windward Maroons, maintained steady control of the region, venturing into the surrounding territories to free slaves and raid plantations and colonial armories for supplies and weaponry. In 1728, after seizing colonial control from the Spanish, English troops advanced on the territory of the Windward Maroons and the large settlement, Nanny Town, within it.

Over the following six years English forces routinely attempted to capture Nanny Town, succeeding on several occasions but never being able to maintain control.  The military tactics of the Windward Maroons, which included long distance communications, camouflage, organized ambushes and well trained troops, allowed them to maintain dominance in the region and cause major losses for the British.  

By 1734 the skirmishes had dwindled and British troops retreated from the area after burning Nanny Town to the ground, though for the next 6 years a military campaign consisting of regular raids and slave freeing operations by the Windward Maroons continued to mount British losses.  On April 20th, 1740 the British colonial government agreed to a treaty which granted Queen Nanny and the Windward Maroons sovereignty, along with over 500 acres of land upon which the community of New Nanny Town was established and still stands today.

Queen Nanny has been recognized as a national hero of Jamaica and her likeness appears on the $500 Jamaican dollar bill, affectionately referred to as a Nanny.  Her fierce military might and strength as a leader has awarded her a reverent and broad admiration from anti-colonial resistors for nearly 300 years.  

The German Coast Uprising (1811)

1811 Revolt by Lorraine Gendron, 2000

In January of 1811, Charles Deslondes, a creole man born into slavery in Haiti, along with Marie Rose, Jessamine and others organized between 200 and 500 slaves and maroons to rise up against the plantations in present day St. John the Baptist Parish along the Mississippi River. Known as the German Coast due to the history of German settlements in the 1600s, the area was home to a number of large plantations host to thousands of enslaved peoples.

On January 8th, Deslondes, Rose and many of the 86 slaves who lived with them on the Andry plantation took up arms and killed one slave driver and severely wounded Manuel Andry, the plantation owner, with an ax.  Over the following four days Charles Deslondes and his cadre marched up the German Coast toward New Orleans, sacking plantations and freeing slaves along the way.  While their numbers grew greatly, the rebellion only claimed two lives, the slave driver and one other man on the outskirts of New Orleans when they were confronted by a planter militia formed by Manuel Andry and forced to turn around.  

On January 11th the militia attacked and eventually claimed the lives of 95 anti-slavery resistors, including Deslondes who was brutally tortured and killed.  It is thought that more than 100 slaves escaped the attack though many more were returned to the plantations they’d so desperately tried to escape.

While the German Coast uprising was ultimately repressed, word of the scale and ferocity of the insurgency spread and played a critical role in influencing Nat Turner’s Southampton revolt and John Brown’s abolitionist attack on Harper’s Ferry. On November 8th of 2019, artist Dread Scott and filmmaker John Akomfrah organized a re-enactment of the revolt, with hundreds of people making the 26 mile march along the German Coast from St. John the Baptist Parish to New Orleans in full period regalia and arms.


Depiction of the Haitian Revolution against the French-1805

These five instances are merely glimpses into a long lineage of bravery, strength and resistance. They are meant to remind us that the battle for justice, liberty and freedom is recurring and constant, and though wrought with sorrow and pain, eternally and profoundly necessary.

Don’t give up the momentum.

Deepening Discourse: Terrance Hayes- “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins”

Deepening Discourse
Cover of “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins, Penguin/Random House 2018

Poetry, as it stands in modern society, is undervalued. It’s relevance has been eroded from all sides, diminished by the accessible and self indulgent nature of the medium while at once coming across as psychically and intellectually overwhelming due to the attention and consideration a good poem requires of the reader. Few other artistic mediums ask of the observer the fortitude poetry demands, but that very need for attention is what imbues poetry with its unique power and has made it the resonant vehicle for change, awareness and understanding it has always been.

Terrance Hayes’ sixth collection, “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin”, published in mid 2018 and written in the first 200 days of Donald Trump’s presidency is, by far, one of the most powerful, poignant and relevant works of contemporary poetry I have read in recent memory. In a collection of 70 sonnets, all bearing the same name as the collection which contains them, Hayes challenges the limitations of the requisite 14 lines and iambic pentameter that define the form. While paying homage to the lineage of the American Sonnet pioneered by Wanda Coleman in the early 90’s, Hayes harkens back to the form’s oldest iterations, manipulating rhyme and rhythm in a way that melds the classical and contemporary into something that resembles both while at the same time transcending them.

Wanda Coleman: 11/13/46-11/22/13

Transcendence permeates the pages of this collection. Each poem transcends the assumed identity of its shared name with the same tact and sincerity with which they transcend the assumed parameters and expectations of a sonnet. While these poems are didactic, dense and layered with allusion the emotive honesty of each line transcends the ridged, overly verbose barrier academia and the poetic vanguard have ensnared poetry behind and resists the simplicity and definitive tone of popular pulp poets. Most importantly, this collection transcends this moment while concretely capturing it.

The navigation of life, of black life, of Terrance Hayes’ own life in the time of Trump is approached in American Sonnets with a proclivity toward subversive beauty that illuminates the doubt, pain, fear, confusion, rage and uncertainty that have come to define today with a literary light so desperately needed in the age of meme literacy. These distinctly American sonnets are political love poems to one another, and while they can be read individually, the dialogue that is developed between them touches on something far greater than the sum of its individual parts, synthesizing from it’s components a vehicle not only for the advancement of poetics and the written word, but for a much deeper fundamental understanding of what it means to confront our would be assassins, whether in the street, our bedrooms, the White House or the mirror.

Terrance Hayes

The Trump Campaign’s “Trump Army”

News and Politics
Trump (left) and a fully fatigued General Mark Milley (right) in Lawrence Square

In early March, Donald Trump’s re-election campaign unveiled a new yet unsurprisingly familiar tactic in their quest to secure votes in upcoming November elections — the Army for Trump.

The introduction and initial call to join the “Trump Army” came amidst rising domestic concerns surrounding Covid-19, and while Donald Trump’s taste for militarism has been no secret, the flex seemed much more hyperbolic a distant 3 months ago.

Trump at St. John’s after ordering the National guard and federal officers to forcefully disperse demonstrators.

As the number of Trump’s horrendous militarized responses to sustained national uprisings for black liberation continue to mount, his aptly titled campaign has lost the novel quality of hyperbole many have applied to his rhetoric.

When national guard troops and federal officers used chemical agents and “less lethal” projectiles to clear a path for him through Lafayette Square for a photo op at St. John’s church, the nightmare of a militarized refusal of the peaceful transition of power should he lose in November became that much more fertile a possibility. The fact that he was accompanied by a member of the joint chiefs of staff and America’s highest ranking soldier, General Mark Milley, dressed in full combat fatigues only made the implications of Trump’s continual military adjacent posturing that much worse.

“Trump Army” email from the Trump Campaign

Four days ago, an email from the Trump campaign was shared on Twitter by the senior Washington Post reporter Aaron Blake. The email, promoting this newly formed “army”, ardently reminded supporters that they were “the President’s first line of defense when it comes to fighting off the liberal MOB [sic].” It then linked to a WinRed fundraising website where, for a $35 dollar donation, one could officially “enlist” in the Trump Army and receive an exclusive, camouflage “Keep America Great” hat.

“Trump Army” WinRed fundraising page

This rhetoric is nothing new for DT. His willingness to insite and encourage extrajudicial violence as a skewed act of patriotism helped to get him elected and it is clear that he intends to use it, in increasingly menacing ways, to secure the same result in this election or, (and I hope, though doubt, this is a reach) violently sustain the result of the last.

The Great White Myth Part 1: The Abstraction of a Simple Truth

Essays, Society and Culture
“American Prieta” by Tom Loftin Johnson, 1941

Oftentimes, when attempting to convince our white colleagues, families or peers of the horror of a particular racial injustice, we ask them to put a loved one in the victim’s place. We ask of them the impossible task of placing their white child in a park with a toy gun or walking home with Skittles and a Brisk and dying for it, or to imagine a white brother or father begging for their breath as it is stolen from them in broad daylight, on camera and replayed over and over and over again for the world to see. On its face, this seemingly innocuous exercise appears to be one of empathy, a way of approximating oneself and one’s peers to something beyond the realm of personal experience so to better understand and relate to it, but the impulse clearly illustrates how the plight of a black body cannot be seen for what it is through the deeply obscured lens of whiteness and instead must be replaced with another, one seen by the white observer as somehow more human, more worthy of dignity and thus more worthy of life. Whiteness, for all the power it has centralized, is incapable of recognizing the humanity of those who exist on or outside of the arbitrary margins it has constructed, enforced and maintained for centuries.

“Whiteness is less complex than the abstract social benefit dictum it is made out to be. It is, very simply, a refusal of the humanness, the realness, the actuality of the perceived ‘other’.”

The problem of whiteness, and race at large, presents itself to many white people as an abstraction — a layered, murky, historical web of individual power dynamics, cultural nuance and implicit bias which only really manifest in the trespasses of chattel slavery and segregation or the overt racism of the Ku Klux Klan and insular Alt-Right message boards.  As a result we excuse perceivably subtle racism, microaggressions and normalized incarnations of racist violence like police brutality, restrictive housing markets, and the school to prison pipeline as a lack of understanding or cultural awareness and thus deflect focus from the simple, mutual root coursing through every manifestation of racism and white supremacy: dehumanization, the prima metería of bigotry.  

The historic and contemporary implications of the white>other binary have become a fixture of the public discourse, but the narrative is so often a procession of straw men and scapegoats; shifting blame and pointing fingers. Education, economics, cultural differences, the sins of our ancestors, and this one, particularly abhorrent president are all held responsible for the racial disparities of the world today. We’re not wrong for recognizing the truth that may exist in these statements, but they are symptoms, real world manifestations of a deeper societal sickness. Whiteness is less complex than the abstract social benefit dictum it is made out to be. It is, very simply, a refusal of the humanness, the realness, the actuality of the perceived “other”. If it were not, accepting a black, indigenous or otherwise non white person’s lived experiences at face value would never be met with resistance, and yet, en masse and for generations, black life, in all its human variety, richness and dimension, is socially and publicly refuted as an aberration or reduced to a one dimensional caricature.

“When we reduce others, consciously or subconsciously, to a stereotype, a caricature or a trope, we lose our own complexity, our own humanity, and enter a world of monsters.”

A common and key refutation of whiteness studies is the lack of homogeneity in white identity, the assertion that not all white people are the same, that white identity is a spectrum, and thus no single attitude, philosophy, structure or culture can be rightfully applied to it.  While this is true, and the ways in which white identity has grown throughout history to incorporate ethnic groups it once excluded such as Irish, Italian and Jewish Europeans proves this, what I feel is missed by this sentiment —beyond the denial of the complex, varied identity and experience of non white people— are the ways in which whiteness has defined and influenced the concept of blackness, and all other racial, cultural and ethnic identities, by relation to itself, effectively reducing its own identity to a singular oppositional dimension.  Because whiteness has been established as the default societal standard for human experience, it’s retainers and beneficiaries —white people—  have become, willingly or not, incapable of projecting the nuance of their own experiences upon the rest of the world, and the most fundamental expressions of pain, joy, anger, reflection, creativity, love, intellect and longing have become unrecognizable in the amalgamous and imaginary other. 

The mutuality of the effects of the systematized social categorization of human beings can’t be understated. When we reduce others, consciously or subconsciously, to a stereotype, a caricature or a trope, we lose our own complexity, our own humanity, and enter a world of monsters. Whiteness itself was born from these very reductions and that is the world we find ourselves living in today, plagued by senseless violence, greed and repression. After hundreds of years of building benign societal boundaries we have lost sight of our most rudimentary sense of being, that suchness which we all, by virtue of existence, share. To try and find alternative fault, though seemingly fruitful, is futile when every incarnation of racism, no matter how large or small, extreme or mundane, shares that refutation of another’s most basic existence.

“We must challenge those assumptions and doubts that keep us from recognizing in another that which exists without question in ourselves.”

To combat this terrible truth and end white supremacy, I believe we must relearn what it means to be human and undertake the practice of a deeply radical, universal empathy. We must remember that those expressions and experiences which are most natural and common to humanity —sorrow, joy, need, hunger, affection, thirst, pride, doubt, loneliness, longing, triumph— are ubiquitously shared, regardless of melanin, geography, religion, language or culture. We must challenge those assumptions and doubts that keep us from recognizing in another that which exists without question in ourselves. When we can see that most basic humanness, the need to question the mere reality of the horror, violence and sadism we continue to see play out on television and computer screens week after week erodes. We can be honest in our demands for reform, internally and externally, and manifest true, deep and systematic change.

I believe that when the Murri activist, artist and academic Lilla Watson said “if you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together,” she was speaking to this very idea. Our humanity, and thus our liberation, are inseparable. Until whiteness comes to terms with that, we can never hope to rid ourselves of even the most benign of bigotries.

Deepening Discourse: Frantz Fanon-“The Wretched of the Earth”

Deepening Discourse
Cover of the 1968 Grove Press Edition

Frantz Omar Fanon was born on the French occupied Caribbean island of Martinique in 1925. After a tour in World War II as a member of the Free French Forces exposed Fanon to the depths of European anti-black racism he began studies in psychopathology and medicine, developing the strong existential analysis on anti black racism and colonialism he is best known for today. While Fanon’s first book, his rejected doctoral thesis later published as “Black Skin, White Mask”, is an important and valuable read, “The Wretched of the Earth”, published near the end of his life and dictated while actively engaged in Algerian freedom operations, is the quintessential Fanon — a work steeped in both deep consideration and lived experience. Since its initial publication in 1961 it has served as inspiration for anti-colonial revolutionary movements around the world and has played a significant role in our collective and clinical understanding of the socio-psychological effects of colonization as well as the severe implications of it’s resistance. As an exploration of black national identity and the role of violence in anti-colonial liberation movements it’s voice is still masterfully relevant today. Nearly 60 years after its first French printing “The Wretched of the Earth” continues to shed much needed light on what it means to be faced with the brutal dehumanization of colonialism and what is required of humanity to atone for it. -BK

Frantz Fanon

On American Riot

Essays, Society and Culture
“The Soiling of Old Glory” Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by Stanley Forman. Taken during Boston’s busing crisis of 1976

In moments of great turmoil historicity serves us all. Time, above all things, shows us our successes and failures, our seized and missed opportunities, to best elucidate the present state of our being, and yet we are so often woe to remember, or, if a collective amnesia is not at fault, fail to acknowledge what has led us to this very moment. As the streets of nearly every major US city and many more globally have become illuminated with the fires of revolt, it is paramount that we understand the long, grueling path that has led us to today as we begin to construct a future out of yesterday’s ashes.

The legacy of riot has a unique and influential place in American discourse. This nation was steeled in its language from its very conception, yet the racially and culturally pigmented dialects of that language have been translated quite differently. Six years before the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, riots, which often included the looting of shops, throwing of stones and mass concentrations of disgruntled colonists, were commonplace as tensions between American colonists and British loyalists continued to manifest in small, decentralized skirmishes. As recently illustrated in an article from The Atlantic one of these very riots —coming only months after a 10 year old boy was shot and killed by a shop owner in an earlier riot—resulted in the first casualty of the Revolutionary War, an Afro-Native stevedore by the name of Crispus Attucks.

“Boston Massacre” Lithograph c.1850’s. This is the first portrayal of Crispus Attucks as a central figure in the Boston Massacre.

The parallels of the legal case which followed the death of Crispus Attucks and four others during what was to become known as The Boston Massacre are harrowingly similar to those we’ve seen in recent years. John Adams, who would later become the second president of the United States, served as defense attorney for the British officers responsible for the shots which killed Attucks, all of whom were acquitted of murder charges and only two charged with the much lesser crime of manslaughter.

While the acquittal of officers charged with the death of a black and native man can be seen and felt with a mournful familiarity, it was the nature of Adams’ defense which most echoes the current shortcomings of our justice system and the depths of it’s institutionalized bigotries. The riots were initially lauded as valiantly patriotic resistance to British injustice by the likes of Paul Revere, Samual Adams and John Hancock, but John Adams constructed a defense narrative of vicious, belligerent black hostility from Attucks and his compatriots for an all white, non Bostonian jury. His description of the rioters as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes [sic], Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs,” who were “under the command of a stout molatto fellow, whose very looks, was enough to terrify any person,” played into a well established anti-black sentiment steeped in the transatlantic slave trade and shared by colonists and loyalists alike. Despite being the first man to fight and die for the American Revolution, Crispus Attucks was posthumously vilified by Adams, a man who would prosper greatly from the very actions he condemned, writing years later that “on that night the formation of American independence was laid… Not the battle of Lexington or Bunker Hill, not the surrender of Burgoyne or Cornwallis were more important events in American history than the battle of King Street on March 5th 1770.”

In the 250 years since, this pattern has continued to re-emerge on the national stage. Through slave rebellions, westward expansion, labor struggles, the civil war, reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, stonewall, farm workers revolts and the most recent BLM uprisings we have seen these narratives replay themselves. The cumulative frustration, hope, rage and fundamental human longing which set the stage for protest, resistance and riot, no matter how warranted or legitimate, are demonized, neglected and villified when manifest and expressed in non-white bodies, while outright prejudicial violence is excused, tolerated or dismissed.

In 1834, 3 years after Nat Turner’s infamous rebellion, white anti-abolitionist rioters swarmed New York City and submerged it in violence for over a week, destroying seven black churches and over a dozen black homes in the process. The source of their anger and violence? The mere acknowledgement of black humanity. Despite this terror at the hands of over four thousand white people, the New York riots were largely understood as “…not only the denunciation of an insulted community, but the violence of an infuriated populace.”

The Greenwood District of Tulsa, OK in ruins after the massacre of 1921

In 1864, at the height of the civil war, a mixed race man named William Faulkner was falsely accused and arrested in Detroit for the molestation of a young white woman. Before this, Faulkner passed as white, voting in multiple elections years before the 15th amendment was ratified, but after his blackness was noted in the pages of local newspapers, white mobs gathered and began to attack black citizens in front of and surrounding the court house where his trial was taking place. This white ire spread throughout Detroit over the following days with assaults on black people and the arson and looting of black homes and businesses, resulting in two deaths, the complete burning of 35 buildings and over 200 black men, women and children left without shelter. In the end, Faulkner, though pardoned two years later, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The Detroit City Council refused to offer any compensation for the 200 left homeless despite being encouraged by the Michigan Legislature to do so, and opted instead to implement the city’s first full time, all white, police force.

99 years ago almost to the day, 1,250 homes were destroyed and between 150-300 people are estimated to have died when white “rioters” leveled the black Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The court proceedings following the tragedy led to an all white jury attributing the violence and destruction to the very black community that had been devastated by it, though an official report by the Oklahoma State Legislature 80 years later found that the city of Tulsa has conspired with the white mob against the black community of Greenwood. Not a single conviction was brought for all the violence, and many black residents were left to live in tents among the ashes of their former homes and businesses. Within a year the City of Tulsa began redevelopment of the once thriving black economic center, pushing any remaining black businesses and residents further out of the city. It wasn’t until this year, 2020, that Oklahoma school districts were provided with an extensive curriculum on the riot, the largest of its kind in US history.

Aftermath of Harlem Riots

These incidents of excused terror come in sharp contrast, both in nature and response, to black led uprisings and riots. The Harlem Riot of 1935 which started in response to the reported severe beating of a black Puerto Rican child by employees of a white owned five and dime is seen to be the first “modern race riot” in the us. It’s claim to modernity? The targets of violence were almost entirely property and the black and brown rioters did not target other racial groups with physical violence as white mobs routinely did. The same can be said for the Birmingham Riots of 1963, which began as a peaceful protest in response to a bombing that targeted black leaders of the Birmingham Campaign for racial justice, and only resorted to property damage after violent police intervention. The demonstrators in Birmingham were met with the force of Federal troops for the first time in history as a result.

Police violence during the Birmingham riots of 1963.

Time and again white riotous violence is met with an exclusive understanding and little to no legal recourse while black resistance and calls for justice are met with violently suppressive force and swift, legal brutality. These aforementioned examples are only shards of our complex and distant past, but we can clearly see in their reflection the events of recent decades. And we can see how, after the pressure applied by multilateral black liberation movements and other movements for social, environmental and economic justice forces the world to reckon with it’s wrongs, these struggles are co opted and white-washed into something both placating and palatable. Like Adams, the very individuals and institutions who once discredit, dehumanize and vilify black rebellion inevitably come to champion it to their own benefit. Who but the most openly vile of racists will defame the legacy of Dr. King today, though he was one of the most hated men in the country the years before he died? They will quote him and reduce the vigor of his calls for justice to something they can use against those who rise in his spirit and those of countless black resistors before and after who have suffered, struggled and died at the hands of white violence and whose names are never spoken. Those who suppress, criticize and condemn the rage of a bleeding populace can only rightfully invoke his words asserting “riot is the language of the unheard” when they truly hear, and see their complicity in the words that follow: “…in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.”

What a long, white winter it has been.

A Brief Introduction to the Web Editions

Uncategorized
From “Azoth of the Philosophers” by Basil Valentine c. 1659

The name of this project is a bit of a misnomer.  To suggest a one, true alchemy, or worse, that I possessed any knowledge of it, would be a misgiving.  The word itself is a complex and murky synthesis of meanings and language, transmuted through Egyptian, Coptic, Greek, Arabic and Latin to arrive at it’s most modern and familiar romantic forms.  The concept these words intend to express is just as varied and interwoven, at once a protoscientific precursor of modern chemistry, a ceaseless quest for divinity and an attempt at the mastery of matter and mind.  It is too vast, too historically, spiritually and intellectually complex to be reduced to a singular truth.

But that paradox, one of a singular multiplicity or a multiple singularity, being one and at the same time many, changing and constant, is the powerful metaphor alchemy provides.  By reducing matter, perception, experience, or thought down to the prima materia, the formless quintessence of being, we come to better know the form, and this is the fundamental aim of all true alchemy.  

This project is a merging of those subjects and ideas, curiosities and questions which have remained disparate and apart in me. It is a common, unifying course upon a forking path, a living question whose ends are not met in answers but in a vivid perception of the question itself.  With True Alchemy I aim to present an amalgam of language, art, science and spirit through story, image and symbol, revealing insights not only of the self or it’s mirage, but of the unified whole of our shared experience.  As my perspective is only one of an innumerable many this project would be nothing without the active engagement of others and the sharing of their journeys, stories, work and insights toward the same elusive and endless destination — those labyrinthine halls of understanding.