A few days ago, I was alerted that I had been publicly accused of being “poisonous” to the field of the arts and art education—the field I have dedicated my life’s work to—all because I identify as an anti-racist. Because life is short, my response was not to engage the accuser directly, diverting my own focus and wasting my energies, but rather to creatively redirect this attempt to injure me into a call for more anti-racist field workers. I’ve polished it and published it this brief new writing. Please share it and help me to amplify its reach. Lives that matter are still being violently snuffed out, lives like the young Elijah McClain, and we who stand against racism have work to do.
Self-portrait/Community rumination, walking through East New York, Brooklyn. Photo by James H. Rolling, Jr.
I am an anti-racist art educator because racism and its effects are still active and visible in the world. Anti-racist educators must be just as active and visible.
I am an anti-racist art educator because racism now calls anti-racists racists in a failed attempt to prevent anti-racist work from being done. We are doing the work anyway.
I am an anti-racist art educator because racism has been used to build many destructive things over many centuries--systems and practices that have hoarded wealth for some while exploiting others to death. Those structures still stand and while they continue to operate, the work of anti-racism is never done.
I am an anti-racist art educator because life is short, yet the effects of racism on lives and communities that matter deeply to me has lasted whole lifetimes and generations. These are folks whom I love. I grew up in these communities. These are still the places I feel most at home. There is literally no time to be wasted on lost focus or diverted problem-solving energies, the stuff our next creative leaps will be made of.
I am an anti-racist art educator because racism has done damage that has yet to be repaired and I believe one of the jobs of an educator is to educe readiness and repair out of one's students for the hard days of work and achievement ahead.
I am an anti-racist art educator because no child should be left behind or made invisible.
I am an anti-racist art educator because racism resists repair and even denies its own existence so it can continue to produce the wealth inequities, social hierarchies, and petty take-downs it was designed to produce without interruption.
I am an anti-racist art educator because racism assassinates the character of the very Obama's it pretends to elevate as examples that racism no longer exists, often lining up anti-Black Blacks as its firing squad so it can pretend it has no blood on its hands.
I am an anti-racist art educator because I will not be diverted into exhausting battles with those who attempt to goad me and who are not my focus. My focus is on advocating for and supporting those not yet fully aware of their creative superpowers.
I am an anti-racist art educator because I've lived in redlined communities that were systematically stripped of wealth and opportunity by overtly racist and exclusionary practices and policies.
I am an anti-racist art educator because within my lifetime I have been gravely wounded by racism's labeling and stereotypes and name-calling and victim-blaming and attempted cancellations. Yet, I have survived to wrap my arms around anyone--anyone I can reach--who needs my love and protection. Reaching others to give my best to and inspire the best from is why I was called to be an art teacher.
I am an anti-racist art educator because I confess I have failed to reach everyone I desire to protect, and my reach is nowhere yet as far as I wish it were. Elijah McClain should not have died at 23-years old, walking home from a store in Colorado in August 2019 for the crime of being Black and a bit peculiar. I've been guilty of the same crime all my life and it guts me that I was not there to keep him safe. According to news reports, as he was beset by police officers these were Elijah's last words:
"I'm an introvert. I'm just different that's all. I'm so sorry. I don't have a gun. I don't do that stuff.
"All I was trying to do was become better. I'll do it...You all are phenomenal.
"You are beautiful. And I love you. Try to forgive me. I'm sorry." I am an anti-racist art educator because Elijah McClain, an artistic and perceptive soul, has been blamed by racists for his own death. And it guts me.
I am an anti-racist art educator because art makes far more than beautiful objects and self-expression. Art, in its fullest definition--and as Elijah McClain had already perceived--makes all of us better. First, our art and design practices open access for individuals not only to make things as needed or imagined, but also in order to signify their intersecting identities, model the value of their life experiences, process their traumas, and contest prevailing norms through their own creative acts. Secondly, our artmaking develops the agency not to promote the "survival of the fittest," but rather the "survival of the patterns," and models, and stories to live by that ultimately sustain our better selves.
I am an anti-racist art educator because I am not satisfied with the status quo. I cannot be. We can do and be better. JHR