Thursday, October 22, 2020

By Christopher Merrill, director, International Writing Program

Human beings are meaning-making creatures, and in tumultuous periods of history many turn to the arts for solace, instruction, and delight. Poets and novelists, painters and sculptors, composers and choreographers—all seek to frame their particular experiences in enduring works of art, which can help us articulate those bewildering questions that in extremis may beset us at any moment. What answers we discover in any artistic encounter, however provisional those answers might be, can nevertheless clarify some portion of our own experience, imagined or remembered. After a summer of widespread protests against racial injustice, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, which has afflicted eight million Americans, at least 215,000 of whom have lost their lives, and the continuing misery of profound economic dislocation, which has left twelve million unemployed, the arts may matter more than ever, especially with a fiercely contested national election looming. Hence the Arts Advancement Committee’s decision to create Art and the Pursuit of Social Justice, a month-long exploration of institutional racism, injustice, and inequality, and the first program of the 2020-2021 season of WorldCanvass “Pursuing Racial Justice” on October 22 from 5:30-7 p.m.

On August 14, 2019, The New York Times Magazine launched The 1619 Project, a multimedia project commemorating the 400th anniversary of the first slaves’ arrival in Virginia. In essays—historical, political, and photographic—and a collection of poetry and fiction, The 1619 Project generated a conversation about slavery’s legacy, which soon turned heated, with historians, journalists, and political scientists publishing letters supporting or protesting its determination to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the national narrative.” Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Iowa-born and MacArthur Award-winning editor of The 1619 Project, argues in her opening essay that “No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed.” The ferocity of the reaction to The 1619 Project suggests that she struck a nerve.


Likewise the video footage of four Minneapolis policemen killing George Floyd in May. This inspired protests in hundreds of cities and towns, raising troubling questions for Americans about our experiment in liberty—questions that UI jazz composer Damani Phillips will address in his new work, “Face Truth/ Face Self,” which he will discuss on WorldCanvass. In the last segment of the show, UI dramaturg Loyce Arthur, who is working with Public Space One and artists from the Center for Afrofuturist Studies to create a mural honoring the Black Lives Matter movement, will offer her ideas about how our campus and community can engage on issues of social justice—which have become ever more momentous in the wake of President Trump’s executive order to create the 1776 Commission, which will promote what he calls “a patriotic education.”

“Critical race theory,” the president explained last month at a White House Conference on American history, “the 1619 Project and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.” But one man’s version of the truth is another’s propaganda. For artists know, as William Faulkner observed in his novel, Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Which is why we keep trying to make sense of where we have been, what we have done for good or ill, and where we are going. Tune into WorldCanvass to hear more.