Sekou Sundiata

TCG National Conference, June 18, 2005

Sekou Sundiata


SUSAN BOOTH, Artistic Director, Alliance Theatre; TCG Board Member

Hi, I’m Susan Booth. I’m the artistic director of the Alliance Theatre, and a member of the board of directors, of Atlanta, Georgia, and the mother of the small child. [applause] You can always tell when we’re approaching the end.

It is my distinct pleasure to introduce what I’m starting to think of as “the benediction plenary.” We have traveled from the ugly truth of Kansas to the rot at the top and the mob at the gate, and now it is time for the call to action.

“Serious as light overhead in darkness.” That was Amiri Baraka’s read on our next speaker. Harlem poet Sekou Sundiata has been a force on the America poetry scene for more than two decades, writing, recording and performing on topics ranging from slavery and reparation to bombs and Jimi Hendrix. He refers to his own style as “rhythm and news.”

Sekou’s been a Rockefeller Foundation fellow, a Sundance Institute screenwriting fellow, the first writer-in-residence at the New School University in New York, featured on Bill Moyer’s series “The Language of Life,” part of “Def Poetry Jam” on HBO. But it’s Sekou’s latest project that perhaps best captures the sheer scope and wonder, the fear-combatting hope and joy, of this “serious light.” Combining art with civic dialogue, the America Project is a contemplation of America’s national identity, of its power in the world, of its guiding mythologies. It explores how American defines itself, its quest to find the vision of what it means to be both a citizen and an individual in a deeply complex, hyper-kinetic society.

This is from a Tanzanian-American teenager who contributed to The 51st Dream State, a performance component of the America Project. This teenager said, having been a part of the project: “I can’t even say the typical American view anymore without hesitation because this project made me realize there isn’t just one view. America is a world of its own.”

But the best music to offer you in illumination of Sekou Sundiata is his own. And this is from his deeply moving work, Blessing the Boats. “There is nothing new in another story about grace. Yet it always renews. It has the liminal power to raise our vision to the highest possibilities of the heart, to the best intentions of human conduct. Listening to such stories ennobles the listener.”

Please join me in welcoming Sekou Sundiata. [applause]


Thank you. I’m going to share with you some of the noise that’s been going on in my head for the past few years, with the faith and belief that some of this noise has also been going on in your head. And I’m going to talk somewhat about the new project I’ve been working on. The overall project is called the America Project; the particular show aspect of it is called The 51st Dream State. And I’m going to try to leave a generous amount of time for some give-and-take between us. That would really help me—I’m still working and developing this piece across the country, and I gain a great deal from these conversations. So, keep notes. And also, help me remember. There are things I like to come back to in a talkback that I’m not going to talk about here.

So I’m speaking today from my notes toward the development of The 51st Dream State, which is my latest project. When it premieres next spring, it will be a cycle of music, song, spoken poetry, supported by still and moving images projected on multiple surfaces. And there is no plot or character development. Instead, the narrative unfolds like a lyrical poem through perception and feeling.

And this work grows out of a personal struggle to understand what it means to be an artist and a citizen in these extraordinary times. That means that I’m partisan, but not in the sense of party politics. It means that I have a critique, I have an argument to make and I’m willing to take a stand. And I can do this because I’m not running for office. And I’m not trying to sell you anything. And I don’t owe you anything, except my honest take on the world through the lens of my work.

When I was in grade school, back in the 20th century [laughter]—don’t laugh, most of you were, all of you were too! [laughter]— geography was one of my favorite subjects. I enjoyed thinking about where I was in relation to other countries, to mountains and rivers and the great oceans. I could stare at maps for hours. I could draw the map of the United States from memory. I believed that this mapping gave me some special knowledge that went far beyond longitudes and latitudes—it’s as if I knew how places felt—what, for example, it felt for Florida to sit under Georgia and to stretch out into the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, I used to search for the Mason-Dixon Line, so I could see if I could feel the difference when we crossed it, driving south every year with my family. I knew something serious changed as soon as we hit the south, but I wanted to know where it changed, exactly where did it change? I even wrote a character into one of my stories named Mason Dixon, one of my early stories.

Such was the polarized world as I knew it in the 1950s. In those days, there were 48 states, and the national question was would there be a 50th state? And then after Hawaii and Alaska, the question became, would there be a 51st state? And we studied these things in school, and I recall feeling a sense of pride every time a state was added, as if we were on the move, we were expanding, we were getting bigger, and bigger meant better.

And it was a consensus of opinion among many people that I talked to in developing this work that says, in the age of American empire, the state of war will be the 51st state. This may be cynicism talking, or it may be a sharp reading of these dangerous times. Either way, it is one of the ideas that led me to think about the American dream. Not in an ironic, superficial way, but as a serious proposition. I wanted to understand how diverse people viewed it, to see if it still had any power. And I suspect that the America dream is probably a commonly held constellation of many ideas. And not ideas that live in some uncritical, untroubled state of grace, but ideas that live in some common, subterranean field of thinking and feeling. I suspected that there would be some language and imagery at that level of consciousness that could be, like Amiri Baraka said, “Light overhead in darkness.” And my personal and, now, artistic struggle to think about being an artist and a citizen. This is how I got the idea of exploring the American dream as the 51st state, in a poetic sense.

Here is philosopher Jacob Needleman on this subject: “The task is to separate out the political, sociological and economic aspects of America that by themselves tend to set us against each other, and to rediscover the American vision, the transcendent ideas that can bring and keep people together, both as individuals and collectives for the purpose of serving the good.”

That’s the short version of how I got to thinking about art, democracy and imagination. And I’m not using these words casually, as if they’re some interesting concepts making the round of all the hit places. I use them to describe an argument with myself as I attempt to orchestrate the noise in my head with the harmonies and dissonances in daily life: the manufactured news, the disinformation, the heartbreak of war, the unprecedented assault on thought and speech, and so on.

I found that many people are also trying to clear their heads. Trying to reinterpret the meaning of America. In fact, I’ve come to see this constant revisioning and redefining as a driving force in the creative process of democracy, a process that’s not maintained in a fixed and settled consensus, but one that has been historically powered forward by argumentation, dissent, protest and bold imagination. I’m talking about this need to perpetually calibrate the meaning of America as something that’s deep in the cultural and mythic DNA, that probably has its origins in revolution, in the American Revolution. So this struggle to revision and redefine is not new. What is new is the context in which we are wrestling with these ideas. The stakes and how high they are, that’s what’s new.

There are many wisdom traditions which recognize the ways in which the outward gaze can lead inward. Long distance runners know that if they run long and far enough, the more the mind can turn inward. And in talking to students and senior citizens and faculty and other folk who come to the community singings and poetry circles that we organize to trigger what I call “critical citizenship conversations,” the comments usually begin with an outer view toward America, toward domestic policy and foreign policy, and for many people, myself included, it’s impossible to deny the imperial power that America exerts in the world as well as the consequences of that power at home.

I came across an article that does a fine job of framing this new reality. And if people have talked to me or heard me talk about this before, some of this stuff will sound familiar to you. And I return to it again and again. This is a quote:

“What word but empire describes the awesome thing that America is becoming? It is the only nation that polices the world through five global military commands; maintains more than a million men and women under arms on four continents; deploys carrier battle groups on watch in every sea; guarantees the survival of countries from Israel to South Korea; drives the wheels of global trade and commerce; and fills the hearts and minds of an entire planet with its dreams and desires.” Look at the power of that language: “America drives the wheels of global trade and commerce; and fills the hearts and minds of an entire planet with its dreams and desires.”

And the subtitle to this article posed a question that really gets to the heart of the matter: “With a military of unrivaled might, the United States rules a new kind of empire.” Here’s the author’s question—this is in the Sunday Times: “Will this cost America its soul?”

This is what I mean about the external leading to the internal. The thrust of the article is American foreign policy, but the author recognizes that it has domestic implications. Not just domestic in terms of budgets, and elections and so on, he’s talking about domestic implications that require profound soul-searching. What could be a more probing question about the interior life of a nation than that subtitle? Will this cost America its soul?

What’s at stake? Consider the following. This is a quote, it’s kind of a long quote, but hang with me. “For the first time in the memory of anyone alive, the entire federal government is united behind a right-wing agenda for which George W. Bush believes he has a mandate. That includes the use of the taxing power to transfer wealth to the rich, and the use of the authority of law to give corporations a free hand to eviscerate the environment, as well as to control the regulatory agencies meant to hold them accountable. This new hegemony also means secrecy on a scale you cannot imagine. And above all, judges with political agendas appointed for life. If you like the Supreme Court that put George W. Bush in the White House, you’ll swoon over what’s coming next. And if you like God in your government, get ready for the rapture. The quasi-religious pillar of the new conservative movement is embodied in Tom DeLay, the house majority leader, who said the Almighty is using him to promote a Biblical world view in politics. Where are the Democrats? As Republicans were coming back from the wilderness, lean, mean and hungry, Democrats were busy assimilating their opponents’ belief system. Because they coveted the same corporate money, Democrats practically walked away from the politics of struggle. Democrats have become the doves of class warfare. Even as poverty increases and inequity grows and our quality of life diminishes, Democrats have become the doves of class warfare. We’re moving toward an oligarchic society where a relatively small handful of the rich decide with their money who will run, who will win, and how they will govern. Nothing less than democracy is at stake.”

These are fighting words, if ever there were fighting words. And they don’t come from me—they come from the pen of Bill Moyers, in his new book Moyers on America: A Journalist and His Times. And I chose his words because his politics are much more moderate than mine. [laughter] And because he’s been on the inside of American political culture for four decades. Which means that he’s been a privileged player in every decade since the 1960s. But despite any political difference I may have with him, I think he is a citizen of good conscience.

Consider these words from another source: “In the months and years following the collapse of those Twin Towers, another sort of abandonment has commenced. In our horror and shock over the unexpected attacks of September 11, a slow unraveling of the people’s liberties has begun, from the ambivalence of Congress, to the pandering nature of media coverage, to the passive attitude of too many of our citizens. We are, all of us, guilty of aiding and abetting a heinous process. I’m angry, having bent my back and my brain in service to my country for over 50 years. How can we be so comatose as a nation when so many damaging and radical changes are thrust upon us?”

This is Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia—and his politics are really different from mine. [laughter] His book is called Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency. But who is Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia? A privileged insider, if ever there was one. A 45-year member of what is probably the most undemocratic and unrepresentative elected body in government, the United States Senate. He’s also a former Klansman who was part of the Stop Kennedy drive in the 1960 presidential campaign. I hope people can remember that the Klan was not only racist, it was anti-Catholic. And Kennedy was a big-time Catholic who was within spitting distance of the Oval Office. Byrd was not just a member, he was what they call a “Kleagle”—I guess you get a little badge or something. [laughter] He was a Kleagle, an organizer who promoted the idea of a national Klan organization. And since those days he’s transformed himself into a politician who looks liberal next to many of his comrades in the Congress.

I think it’s important to put my sources into context because they are privileged insiders. And if privileged insiders like Moyers and Byrd are saying something is rotten in Denmark, and that they smell smoke, then I should be yelling “Fire!” in Times Square. [laughter and applause]

I want to take a moment just to connect a couple of dots. I was struck by the notions of loss that appeared in the three texts I just quoted—in the title of Byrd’s book, Losing America; Moyers’s sense that there is something in danger of being lost: “Nothing less than democracy is at stake.” And Michael Ignatieff, who is the author from that New York Times article, with his introspective subtitle: “Will this cost America its soul?”

In my critical citizenship conversations, these powerful notions of loss come up again and again. And sometimes loss is expressed as a nostalgia for “the old days,” when music was made by real musicians, and we were on one side of the Iron Curtain and they were on the other side. Other times, the loss is named as ideals, or principles, or courage. Sometimes it’s an unnamed loss too difficult to capture with words. I’ve been drawn to this idea as a theme for The 51st Dream State. And part of the appeal has to do with the way that loss implies search or discovery or quest in my mind.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire—so what’s burning? For me, Ground Zero is burning. And I return over and over again to the metaphor of Ground Zero as a “thin place.” A couple of years ago I was speaking on a panel about organ and tissue donation and transplantation. And one of the other panelists was a Catholic priest, an Irish priest, who spoke about a belief in Celtic culture in something called “thin places.” It was a belief that there are certain places in the world where the line between heaven and earth is thin and easily crossed. I’ve taken poetic license with that idea to think about it as a thin line between the sacred and the profane, between history and eternity, between flesh and the spirit. The point is that such places invite and facilitate travel from one plane to the next and back again. They cause us to lift our heads up from the daily grind, to raise our eyes up from the mundane to the marvelous.

We’ve all experienced such places, certain mountains or rivers or moments when ordinary places are transformed into beauty by the light of an approaching storm. But I’m also thinking about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and such places, or the middle of the Atlantic Ocean as another such place. And now, Ground Zero.

In spite of the ways it circulates in the culture at times as an ahistorical airbrushed site of forgetting, instead of a site of deep remembering, the name itself speaks to a termination, and at the same time, a transformation, a beginning. And for me that hole in the ground has issued a renewed call to conscience, to witness, and to citizenship.

A little background. Toward the end of the summer of 2001 I’d just completed a national tour with my band, opening for the signer and songwriter Ani DiFranco. We played about 12 cities in 30 days, traveling by bus. Before we left New York, I got the tour schedule and I took out my road atlas and traced the route of the tour. And as I did that, this kind of poetic hum settled over my mind, as I saw the names of some of the places along the way: Bethlehem, Pa., Angola, La., Baghdad, Ariz., East Palestine, Ohio, Mecca, Calif., and so on. A mystery began to shape up in my mind—something to do with the meaning of America and how the whole world is in America, as evidenced by the power of these names.

And although it was six months after the fact, I was still fuming from the way George W. Bush came to power through the manipulation of the voting system in Florida and through his appointment to the White House by the Supreme Court. And I didn’t trust the new president; he didn’t strike me as being up to the job in terms of experience or intellect. And from his inauguration through the summer of that year, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I kept thinking that something would happen that would overwhelm him. And that we, the people, would have to take the weight. I know it’s easy to say these things in hindsight, but I said and felt it at that time. And you didn’t have to be a prophet to make that call. There was more than enough available evidence to support it—I wish I was just tripping—I wish I was wrong.

On September 11 I was in a hospital in Park Slope in Brooklyn, N.Y. And I was watching the news when the first reports of an airplane headed toward the Twin Towers came in. I went into the hallway and told the first nurse I saw about the news report. In a few minutes, my room was full of people watching the attacks unfold. I spent the rest of the week in the hospital—so all the news I received came from television or from family and friends calling to bring me up to date. You could see lower Manhattan from the widows in the hospital, and if you couldn’t see the buildings you could see the smoke and ash rising from the city across the river.

This was the beginning of a feeling that has been troubling me ever since. I felt my home, my land was under attack. And this visceral response came over me and rode me like a ghost from my past—when I was a little Negro child, a patriot sitting in assembly in school, singing “This Land is My Land” and “The House I Live In.” And I’m sure that those teachers included those songs in our songbook as part of their liberal and old-left propaganda to win over our poor, working-class hearts and minds. In other words, I felt something like patriotism. But it wasn’t that simple, it wasn’t that simple, untroubled patriotism—it was something else again. Although this was 2001, I was still a radical activist interested in the radical transformation of society—which was like French, you know, that was a term we would use in polite company when we didn’t want to say “revolution.”

I’ll never know how some poets came up with September 11 poems on September 12, but they did. I tried to start a journal, but I came up empty. Whatever this thing was called seemed to call for some heavy lifting. And whatever I wrote seemed too light, too available, too soon. After many months I came up with the draft of a poem. It’s still a draft, and it’s still untitled, and I’m thinking about it as the lead poem for The 51st Dream State. And in the interest of time, I’m just going to read a short excerpt of this poem. If we have time at the end, maybe I’ll read the rest of it. But the poem is basically an account of my visit to Ground Zero at a time in which it was still smoking, and all the twisted, melting wreckage of steel and glass had not been completely removed, and the national guardsmen kept a line of security around the perimeter. This was my first look at the site.

The crater recalled a lonely planet
A pockmarked moon of ridges
and man-sized valleys, earthmovers,
dump trucks and cranes
A priest kneels in the powdered ash
The rescue stops
for the holy ghost and the angel of death
to cross paths
Someone calls for the jaws of life: earth water fire air
The Ellington blue sky pours over the harbor
The burning isms curl black smoke
into its soft watercolors
I stood citizen-to-citizen with the crowd three rows deep
A man flipped through the Daily News
matching pictures to the scene
A couple in a doorway argued hip hop
versus R & B in times like these
they look up from their ideologies to agree
Mercury must be retrograde
A woman to my right worried a flag
the size of a handkerchief
the kind you get at the fairgrounds
And Little Emmett Till came to me
A face that long ago cured
my schoolboy faith
in that lyric
So that I could not longer sing
With the voice of praise
As if it was my own
O beautiful for spacious skies
I drowned in a flood of burning jet fuel
Down was looking like up when I jumped with my brains on fire
I ran from the falling towers and wandered for days
I followed horse trails through secret pathways
A priest kneels in the powdered ash
The holy ghost and the angel of death cross paths
Someone calls for the jaws of life: earth water fire air

In my many attempts to write this poem as a response to the disruption of the 9/11 attacks, I was brought to the idea of creating a new work and it helped to give shape to my quest, to my question. Even though I could no longer sing with the voice of praise as I could when I was in grade school, an American feeling came over me at Ground Zero. It wasn’t a flag-waving, jingoistic feeling, but it was an American feeling, nevertheless. A feeling that took into account the mighty hyphen in African-hyphen-American. And as a Mexican-American woman friend said during one of our activities: If you are a hyphenated American, nothing erases the hyphen. It’s always a negotiation. Some days the hyphen is long and inflexible; other days it’s short, and barely noticeable. Other than those extremes, it just is—a border, arrived—to cross and not cross, to confront.

But this new feeling complicated the picture. It called up a long-suppressed desire to feel like a whole citizen in a community with other citizens. Any feeling that I would call “American” had been killed off long ago in what seemed like the black-and-white certainties of the Cold War years. Or so I thought. I thought it was gone—and replaced with what? Opposition? Dissent? I mean, I could articulate what I was against, but what was I for? What is this feeling?

As a teacher and an artist, I recognize the value of a good question. And I knew that I had a good question when it led to other questions about American identity, and when it implicated me on a personal level. What does it mean to be a citizen of the empire? Empire—can I say that I am in it but not of it? Can the old central myths of beauty and power and destiny sustain a nation? Is national identity necessary in a global culture? What are the prospects for love, compassion and human solidarity? What kind of God do Americans imagine? What kind of God do Americans need?

Toward the end of his life, the great musician John Coltrane faced tremendous criticism for creating music that was passionate and difficult—it was dangerous music. It was too demanding for commerce. There were no tunes to hum, you couldn’t pat your feet, it didn’t facilitate flirting or buying drinks. And when he was asked what he was trying to achieve, he said he just wanted his music to be a force for good. And I don’t think he meant “good” in terms of wholesome, or clean. I think he wanted music that could offer transcendence, that could connect with the intelligence of the heart. Real soul music that could be a thin place.

I carried this anecdote in my memory for 30 years and it just seems to surface as available wisdom as needed, like a proverb. Maybe Coltrane was speaking from those times to these times—from the critical soul-searching of the 1960s to the questions before us in 2005.

Here’s a quote from Jacob Needleman’s book called The American Soul—I thought it would be useful here: “We need to rediscover the deeper mythic meaning of our nation. A mythic meaning not for children, but for adults. We need ideas expressed in ways that touch not only our logical minds but also our feelings. It is one of the teachings of ancient wisdom that the merely logical mind, when it is cut off from the intrinsically higher human feelings of wonder and the sense of the sacred”—I’m going to repeat that for a moment because he’s making an important point here that has really helped me understand some of these things—“It is one of the teachings of ancient wisdom that the merely logical mind, when it is cut off from the intrinsically higher human feelings of wonder and the sense of the sacred, inevitably becomes a plaything of the external senses, convincing us that only what is perceived with these outward-directed senses is real.”

I’ve come to understand that any hope for a possible future, for me, involves the quest to recover some lost, or hidden, or yet-to-be-created meaning of America, and the better I understood this, the more I became convinced that this is a great time to be an engaged artists. It renewed my faith in art’s special capacity to bridge polarized worlds, to engage our most difficult differences instead of forcing them into the silence of an exile from which those same differences organize themselves and launch a counteroffensive against our sanity. Sooner or later.

This is the poet William Carlos Williams on this point: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

And so in addition to talking to myself, I’ve been conducting a public contemplation about the meaning of America, in both our dream life and in our wide-awake life. And between the two of them, the wide-awake life gets the most attention. That is to say, America as a state draws the most heat. The conversation goes very quickly to issues of governance and policy and justice and injustice and so on, and that door opens onto anger and hurt and suspicion and polarization. It is difficult to move the conversation beyond this point. There’s no question that this is a necessary and useful line of discussion, but it can easily become the only line of discussion—fixed on what was and what is.

It’s interesting to look at what happens when I ask people to think and talk about what’s possible. About all the ways of imagining America. If the discussion is about the state of cities, for example, then I might ask people to imagine a possible city that neither was nor is. What does it look like? What size is it? What does community mean in a future city? How are the leaders chosen? What is the purpose of the city?

While these questions get some play, the conversation soon returns to matters of state and policy, and I think that this is a failure of imagination. I also think that this failure is no mistake. On the one hand, society is so driven by getting and having and consuming that there’s little patience for the organic temples of creativity and imagination. So much of our experience seems to be powered by an engine that moves much faster than the speed of the self’s capacity to listen to itself.

The cultural critic and historian Robin Kelly comments about this in his book, Freedom Dreams. “Sometimes I think the conditions of daily life, of everyday oppression, of survival, not to mention temporary pleasures available to most of us, render our imaginations inert. We are constantly putting out fires, responding to deadlines, demands, emergencies, finding temporary refuge, all of which makes it difficult to see anything other than the present.”

On the other hand, there’s not much that many of us deal with that fuels the imagination on a day-to-day basis. Not television or the news, not movies, and certainly not what passes for political commentary. In fact, most of our contact with language and images is merely passive because really they’re trying to pick our pockets. And by the time they get to us it’s been reduced to bite-size nuggets, empty calories of fast-food for thought for easy consumption. Fast-food for thought that is neither healthy nor filling, but it keeps our minds and souls in a state of agitated hunger.

So what am I looking for when I ask about the meaning of America? To some degree, I’m asking about the objective meaning, which I think of as meaning arrived at through thinking. A meaning that is often separated in people’s minds from personal experience. The objective meaning pays attention to what can be weighted and measured—gay marriage, stem cell research, mortgage rates and so on. But I’m most interested in something that’s deeper and more pressing: the subjective meaning, which wants to pay attention to our experience, to our ideas, to our dreams.

When people stay close to the subjective in our conversations, they talk story. They make personal narrative and personal mythology, and in doing so they make meaning, and sometimes that meaning is not in alignment with the objective meaning. This is not a good or bad thing in and of itself; as an artist, I know the importance of holding something in my mind that does not square with the facts, because the facts can sometimes get in the way of the truth. But in this case, I’m talking about something that endangers the practice of democracy. To my mind, a citizenship that does not call into motion our objective and subjective understanding of our times removes our actual lives, our conscience and imagination from democratic practice. It is a citizenship that does not value the singular personal humanity of each citizen. And if I’m not valued, how can I value you? Why should you ever take the time to imagine me?

This is why the work of excavating these subjective meanings is served so well by art. Art asks us to slow down, to engage the rational side of our brains and at the same time to explore and trust what we intuit and experience. Art can, it doesn’t have to, art can compel us to imagine difference, as in a different society, and to imagine otherness, people other than ourselves. And the best art, for my money, implicates on a personal level, but it doesn’t stay personal. It moves on to something broader. And it speaks to human drama by adding feeling to thinking. One eye sees, the other eye feels.

What does all this have to do with creating the future and theatre in a polarized world? When I think of the future, I think of a new and better world, and I don’t mean “new” in a utopian and new-age sense. Any new world carries the genealogy of the world from which it emerges. We could talk about, for example, this post–Cold War, post-9/11, new millennium as a new world that is unexplainable without the old world of the 20th century. In fact, we could call it the “post-world.”

In any case, thinking about the future requires a powerful process of the imagination. Robin Kelly writes, “The map to a new world is in the imagination and what we see in our third eye rather than in the desolation around us.” And Needleman adds this: “Ideas communicated through myth show us a world that is perceived through the vision of wonder, love of truth and the sense of the sacred. The impulse to serve and to participate in a greater reality, what we may call the inner world. We need to re-mythologize the idea of America.”

To talk about creating theatre and personal futures in the context of a polarized world, to me has to be rooted in a determined quest to recover this kind of poetic and prophetic inner meaning of democracy. This is where, by the way, this is where we define the world and images and language to counter the persuasive and charismatic language of the religious zeal and dogma driven by right-wing forces.

It is easy for us to start thinking in that way that’s been framed, this blue and red thing that doesn’t make sense, really. I mean, I’m about to go off—we’ll talk about that later. [laughter] But my point is this. [laughter] My point is this. And I’ll make an assumption here, but I will. [laughter] For those of us who are as partisan as I am, meaning you know, I think of myself as a progressive, I think it’s an error, and it’s easy to dismiss people who we don’t think are progressive or who are conservative or even right-wing. It’s very easy to do that and very easy to dismiss it. But if you can empty your cup for a minute, you know, and listen and pay attention, you hear some language that is absolutely charismatic and compelling—language that progressives don’t have. And if you listen to that language you can begin to understand what drives people, what motivates people. And some of it may not be so different from your own thinking. [applause] We can talk about that a little later.

Anyway, in the search for this prophetic vision and this inner meaning, this poetic meaning, is where we find the language and the images that we need to counter the danger us-versus-them distinction that, for example the Bush administration draws between people who are faith-based and people who are reality-based. I’m not making that up. I read it in the New York Times, that’s the Holy Bible of the secular world, right? [laughter] In which the administration does talk about those people who are faith-based and reality-based. And I understand that. As an artist, what’s more faith-based than an artist? [laughter] Think about your proposals and your grants you’ll see what I mean. [Laughter]

Make no mistake—although I’m talking about the poetic and the prophetic and the visionary, I’m also talking about humans inescapably engaged in the drama of being human, of being both the makers and the subjects of history. This is not to the exclusion of religious faith, but it’s possible to live a life in spiritual faith and, at the same time, live in and of the world. There is perhaps no greater example in the 20th century of this than Martin Luther King, and the mass of people who looked into the their holy books and found a mandate to act in the world, because they recognized that history is in fact their history. That they forge history just as they are forged by it. It is one thing to stand off from the world in perfect judgment, but it is another thing altogether to be in it, and to know that its appetites and needs and desires are your own appetites, needs and desires. And if you can look at the demons and angels and the heroes and the angels and all the intermediate areas that parade across our screens and across our stages, if you can look at that and get past any aspect of entertainment and say, there I go—that is also in me-if you can do that, then you enter history, and your wisdom begins.

The poet and novelist Ishmael Reed has a great poem that speaks to this point wonderfully. It’s a very short poem: “I am outside of history. / It looks hungry there in its cage. / I am inside of history. / It’s hungrier than I thought.”

I have my spiritual beliefs, but I also have faith in my secular beliefs. Which is to say, history. Which is to say, human beings and our capacity to change our condition, our capacity for love and compassion, in spite of our capacity for hatred and destruction. And isn’t this the part of the human condition that André Malraux was addressing in his novel, Man’s Fate? The contradiction of aspiring to God but being less than, falling short but aspiring just the same? The great Sufi poet Rumi says that the aspiration itself, the calling forth and the reaching out, is a divine principle in motion.

So what is necessary to recover this prophetic and visionary meaning of America? Because it leads us to a humane understanding of what society can be. And because it makes sense of all the comings and goings of the day. It puts the quotidian meaning of our lives into the context of greater meaning and purpose. And it protects us from complacency in the face of raw power and brute force. It stiffens our spine to accept nothing less than real democracy. Otherwise, we stay trapped in a fight for things: better wages, better working conditions, better schools, better transportation and so on. It’s possible, in a society with such tremendous wealth and great resources and access to resources, it’s possible for such a society to be a dictatorship and still give you universal health care, still make your trains run on time, still give you decent wages, and keep your freedoms.

What does it take to recover these things? I’m sure it takes many things but, again, it takes imagination and creativity. And a good part of that to me means art, because art can give us the permission to ask those difficult questions. And because it keeps the human being in front of us, so that the human drama is not lost in a world of sums and weights and measures. Anything can make us look, but art can make us see.

I want to close by saying that I don’t want to build a case for art strictly on the basis of the social function of art. If we leave it there, we risk a return to the utilitarian anti-intellectual view of the arts promoted by the old left and the old new left. [laughter] If any of you were in the new left, you’re in the old new left now! [laughter] Just so you know.

They were suspicious of any art that was not a tool, a weapon and a struggle. No, this new imagining has to recognize that art is its own argument. The only cause it needs to serve is the cause of human experience. It doesn’t have to mean, it just has to be. When I talk about democracy and freedom, I’m also talking about the freedom to be fully human. Which means the freedom to experience and pursue pleasure, and joy, and desire, and the erotic—the marvelous, the wonderful, the mystery and awe—because without the freedom of pleasure and joy and desire and the erotic and marvelous and mystery and wonder and awe, we are just consumers and focus groups and demographics. [applause] And we become citizens of the state, at the expense of a citizenry of the heart and the body electric and the soul.

To my mind, it takes bold imaginings and disruptive, irresistible creativity to picture a society organized around both the material and metaphysical needs of the human being. In the 1960s, many of us assumed that material justice and well-being equals psychological and spiritual well-being. That an end to poverty or racism or sexism would mean fulfilled human beings. So we didn’t spend much time thinking about that. But we’re in a new place in time, and we have to insist that democracy does not mean free markets—check that out. If you haven’t thought about that, go back and peruse the news, and how “freedom” has become a way to really mean “free markets.” Which means... hold on, we’ll talk about that later. [laughter]

We have to insist that democracy does not mean free markets, it means free people. It means liberated human beings. And this can be a difficult thing to understand or explain because it’s not hard. Because it is not immediately apparent. But it can be understood. And it can be explained. Amiri Baraka, the Miles Davis of black poetry, illuminates this point beautifully with the opening lines to his poem “X”: “Everything we do not understand / is explained in art.”

And Adrienne Rich, in an essay she wrote called “When We the Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” she’s talking about her poetics, but I think we can extrapolate from it something for our conversation today. “For a poem to coalesce, for a character or actor to take shape, there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality—which is in no way passive. Moreover, if the imagination is to transcend and transform experience, it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives—perhaps to the very life you are living at the moment.”

Thank you. [applause]


Okay, it’s time. We have microphones on both sides of the stage. We have a roving mike upstairs. Come down the side and we’ll take some questions. Anyone? Anyone up there? ...You’ve stunned them.

Q: Go off on the red state/blue state.


I’m not going to go off on the red states. But this is what I do want to talk about. I went to an interesting panel yesterday, which was “Red State/Blue State, How Do You Survive?” or something along those lines. And one of the things that occurs to me—you know, you get on something, I don’t know if you do, but I’m like a dog with a bone, you know you get on it and it’s like grrrrrr! So part of it is, I guess, the Audre Lord quote, you know: “You can’t use the masses to dismantle the masses’ house.”

And so the idea of—where did that come from? Blue state? This is framed from somewhere else, you know? And not only that, it’s electoral language. Red and blue is Democrat and Republican. So if that frames our discussion we stay right there. We think it’s about Democrats and Republicans. And even people who voted for Kerry knew that you were holding your nose when you voted. [laughter and applause]

So if we talk about bold and creative imaginings, you’ve got to come out of that box. And you can’t take a box that’s already framed for you and given to you and then you start thinking in that. When say bold and disruptive, and all those great authors that I’m quoting, first of all, they’re not talking about a box. They’re talking about a new space. And the new space begins here. And even thinking about the terrain and the ground which we cover.

If I know somebody’s from a red state, what does that tell me about them? What does a red state tell me about somebody? Nothing! You know something—here’s the deal. You know there’s a lot of red people in the closet, they are, and I can understand that if you’re not in your red home. But the fact of the matter is that if we let go of those categories—we’re talking about a polarized world. If we let go of blue and red and Democrat and Republican and start talking citizen to citizen and human being to human being, you find more common territory than you can imagine. I think this polarization, a lot of it, is manufactured. [applause]

And also I want to know, where are the liberal and progressive Christians? How come they’re not fighting these people around Jesus? You know, listen, I came of age in a period of time when Christians in this country, at least not all, but a strong movement coming out of the church in this country, were so engaged, and looked at the Bible and looked at the example of Jesus and saw a mandate to act in the world. In a bold way! I’m not talking about, “Ah, yeah, we need your vote,” I’m talking about in a very bold way. Jesus told them to stop the war. Jesus told them it was wrong to lynch people, and to sic dogs on them and to put water hoses on them. Not only that it was wrong, that they should do something about it. You know this question today, “what would Jesus do?” They thought Jesus would protest and would demonstrate and put himself on the line. That’s what they did. So listen, I don’t want argue about anybody’s religion, but it seems to me that that’s so uncontested. Somebody said the true history is not the battles won and lost but the stories we believe in. There’s a narrative around there just around that, alone, that’s so uncontested.

Q: Hi. I’d love to know a little more about what the show is going to be that you’re working on. What’s it going to look like and sound like? And just a little more of your vision.


Uh, it’ll sound good. [laughter] Well, let me tell you this. In addition to the public way in which I’ve been developing this piece, in terms of how I think about it, also in terms of people contributing to it. That I have a number of people, co-collaborators writing music. Which is something very exciting to me. I’ve never worked like that before. Either I’ve done my own thing, or I’ve worked with one composer. But a wonderful composer named Graham Haynes who’s the son of the great drummer Roy Haynes is composing the overall score. I’ve done some music, Ani DiFranco is writing some music, Vernon Reid from Living Color is writing some music, a number of different people are writing and contributing music. And I imagine it’ll be a cast of about 9 people, including the singer. It’s very vocally driven, in terms of spoken stuff and songs.

And I know it seems to be standard these days that you add video to your project, but my idea of America, of contemporary society, is that there’s a new literacy in the world, in contemporary society. I first discovered this through my students. I’ve been teaching at the university for about 16 years now. And I realized, there was a period of time when I started getting students who had a different sense of literacy than I did. First of all, they come into a writing class, and they really want to know where’s the microphone, you know, “1-2, 1-2.” I come out of a very molecular world, in terms of writing—you write, you revise, you mark up the paper—you know, revision. It’s not the art of writing, it’s the art of rewriting, that whole idea. And really it is about the page. These students, I realized, had a different literacy that was about multiple inputs. It was about languages, it was about images. I still struggle with—you know, you watch the news, and stuff scrolls across the bottom of the screen? I’m still getting that together! [Laughter] Really. And I’m proud of myself because I’m kind of getting there, I don’t lose one at the expense of the other now so much. That’s lightweight compared to my students. They can do all these multiple inputs and then, the best of them can take that and make a coherent narrative out of it.

So there’s something about this society to me, the literacy of the society, that’s also audio, also visual. And so my use of video, moving and still images, along with the music, is me trying to explore and understand how to speak that language, how to communicate in that—actually how to be in the society now. You know, my students talk in sound effects! I don’t know if anyone else teaches, but I ask my students, “How did that strike you?” “Well, you know it was like pop-pop-pop-pop-pop.” Say what? “Yeah, it was like shhw shhw shhw.” And the others students say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” [laughter] So I can go off, I can be a Luddite, like, “No, no, no.” But there’s something going on there. I know you didn’t even ask me all that, but that’s kind of what that is about.

It’s also, in many ways, my dream concert. If you think of the old concept albums in which an artist, in popular music and in jazz, for example, they would use a whole album to contemplate some broad theme. And popular music, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. In jazz, Maiden Voyage, Sketches of Spain, you know, who did...what’s that group that did...Pink Floyd, you know. You get the idea. It’s that kind of thing. And I’m not the only one, there are a lot of artists coming out of the music world now, working in this way. I just bought a CD by Ry Cooder called Chavez Ravine, which over a period of 12 songs, and there’s a video to go with it, does the same kind of thing. And before him, Neil Young. His last project was also the same. So that’s my idea.

Q: You mentioned Baraka’s quote that anything that can’t be explained can be explained by art, or... I’m misquoting it.


“Anything we don’t understand can be explained by art.”

Q: Right. A lot of people would speak of religion in the exact same way. Given that we all work in theatre, which all originates in religious ritual, from Greeks in medieval times and passion know, we’re working in a religious medium. But that has gotten so separate from that because from what we’ve been talking about this weekend, a lot of, there’s the religion and certainty, theatre and uncertainty, and embracing that and embracing those divisions. Where do you see—or do you see—any places of confluence between the two?


I think we have to create the confluence, that’s one thing. The other thing, is there’s some very progressive churches, for example, and religious institutions, who really are open to art and open to even the uncertainty of art. And I think that’s a very wise thing.

I always thought of church as, like the place for sinners. You know what I mean? If you’re not a sinner, why are going to church? [laughter] Every Sunday, there’s a house full of sinners. I don’t know if that would fly in my mother’s church, but that’s what... [laughter] But I think that’s a wonderful idea and I think we should not be afraid of trying to engage that. And not feel like it’s a missionary thing, where we’re taking our view and we’re bringing it to these religious institutions, but to really be open about it, and find out where...

You know what’s really interesting? My close friends say I have idea-arrhea. [laughter] I’ve got a bunch of ideas that I’ll never get around to, so I give a lot of them away, you know. But I would like to see a collaboration between maybe a theatre and maybe a...check this out. Between a theatre, a church, a mosque and a synagogue to create something around Abraham. Because Abraham is the central figure in all of those religions. And they are busy fighting each other, but what is that point of unity with Abraham? So it would be really interesting to think about that. Send me an e-mail if anybody does that.

Q: [Shouting from audience] Read the rest of the poem!


Okay. But let me hear the questions and then I’ll... thank you though.

Q: Yeah, read the rest of the poem—but my question is, Sekou, in contrast to how you describe the old left, what would your image, or how would an imaginative progressive movement play out, where arts were a really important part of it?


I’m tempted, you know.... And Karen, you know, I’m not trying to get out of that, but just let me say this. The truth is, I don’t know. And I don’t think any of us know. And I’m restraining myself because of this principle: I think that once we engage that process of trying to make that happen, we find out what it is.

I know what I would like for it to think about. And one of the things that I would like for it to think about is one of things that I just talked about, the place of the individual. Back in the day, in the new left, we were so interested in collectives. Lived together, we had these houses together, collective collective collective, and that was important, and so we did that. But I think we did it at the expense of recognizing the sanctity of the individual. And I know there’s a tension there always, between the individual and a group. But I would like to see greater attention paid to that. Because I think that in the world today, that that is one of the ways that we witness so much cruelty and brutality. That the single individual life of the human being is not sacred. It’s these categories, it’s Hutu or Serbs, you know, these broad categories that you can kind of wipe out. So I would love to see that happen.

And the other thing—I know I said I didn’t know, but the other thing is this—is the place of art in that movement. For the most part, I’ve found that there were very few people, even in the Civil Rights movement—just to claim my own politics—the Civil Rights movement was to the right of me. Just to give you an idea where I was coming from. There was still not a great appreciation for art unless it was art that served the cause. That’s a mistake! That’s a mistake. That’s what I was trying to say in this paper. That a recognition...I can imagine a situation in which art is recognized as its own thing.

That’s a big turnaround for me—art for art’s sake? My first poem, when I got to City College as a freshman, I wrote on the board, I stole it from somewhere, but I wrote, “If anything stands between you and freedom, burn it down!” That’s the kind of stuff I was writing. And so the idea of writing something because it’s beautiful—just never occurred to me. But all the stuff I talked about, the idea of the pleasure and the erotic, and beauty and the body, there has to be a place for that in whatever evolves next.

Q: As a member of the society of the artists that are possibly going to be a member of our 51st state, or 52nd, or 53rd, as we expand democracy around the continent and the world, I am wondering what do you think we as the members of the so-called free society, the artists of the free society, could do to those artists who—in my country and in countries like that today, as we speak, are on hunger strike—to bring them into our polarized world, or join to their polarized world?


I don’t know if I have an answer for that, that doesn’t sound easy. I just know that in general, American artists have a history of being like American workers—concerned mainly about their own situation. So maybe this goes into Karen’s question, a little bit. The idea of what is the global—you know, I take very seriously this idea that America’s an empire and that I’m a citizen of the empire. But I think at the same time, whether I like it or not, it also makes me a citizen of the world. And so then, if that’s true, what do I take up as part of that responsibility?

While I applaud Bono from U2 completely, I really have to question, where are the American artists on this? Saying, look at the rest of the world, look at what’s happening to the rest of the world, look how we’re crushing them with this debt. And how if we let AIDS flourish like that, and new strains of AIDS happen in other parts of the world, it’s going to come home. That this is one world. It’s not like it’s just over there anymore.

Other than get on my soapbox about it, I don’t have a real answer.

Q: I just wanted to ask you, Sekou, if you would share, if you feel comfortable sharing some of the research structure, some of the community sings, anything anecdotal, because I know your process is so interesting?


I could tell you a couple but I’m going to tell you one. Maybe I’ll tell you two.

We were doing a community sing with some of the singers from the cast, we were up at Amherst, at New World Theatre. And we were doing a community sing at which basically we invited audience to come in and we sang some “American songs,” broadly defined. And we sing them with the audience, and we use the occasion of singing this music to trigger these critical citizenship conversations, and the belief that music is a repository for all of this cultural energy and memory and all of that stuff and that the music gives us quick access to all those things. Anyway, we were singing the Negro National Anthem. This is the first one we did. I was shocked at how much people wanted to sing, first of all. Because the music director said, “Would anybody like to come on stage?” and people came, just flooded downstage to sing. And we were signing the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” And we gave them the lyric sheet.

And we’re singing and singing, and there’s a woman standing in the back, I find out later she’s Japanese-American, and she’s standing in the back and she is kind of weak and a little frail, she can’t come down the stairs. But she’s standing erect in the back, and she doesn’t have the lyric sheet but she’s singing resolutely, and she sings every verse. Most black people don’t know every verse of that song! [laughter] They don’t! They get to the part where they sing, “Da da da, da da da da...” She did every verse. And I noticed it, so I couldn’t wait till we got to the talkback portion.

So I asked her later, how did you come to know that song? I ended up doing an individual interview with her. We got this wonderful story about how she went to public school in Los Angeles in the ‘30s and there were no black kids in her school and no black teachers, and they learned Paul Laurence Dunbar, they learned Langston Hughes, they learned all these songs. The teachers taught them all of these songs. And she said, “In those days, we used to salute the flag like this.” [Fascist-style salute.] I said, boy, I wish I had a picture of all these American kids saluting the flag like this.... And then that led her to talk about how fearful she was because at the age of 15, she was interned. Which basically means she was arrested and put in one of those camps. She talked about her experience of being in one of those...very rich story, you know. But she was saying not because “look at what happened to me,” she was saying it because she was afraid that the climate was such that such a thing could happen again.

So, that kind of thing happened. I was at Lafayette College and the International Students Association, every year they have a International Students Day, which all the undergraduates do, whether you’re international or local, it’s like the shake-and-bake week, you dance and all that stuff. Every year they do this, and it lasts a week, and it’s really wonderful in the sense that everybody’s culture gets acknowledged. And out on the quad they put up the flags, it’s like the United Nations, they put up the flags of their nations. And they have all these activities. This project has been in residency there that whole academic year that just passed. And this happened in a period of time when I was out on tour, so I couldn’t make it for the event.

But I came back the following week, I said, “How did the international thing go?” They said, “Well, we put the flags up on Monday night. Tuesday morning they were all gone, except the American flag.” I said, really? And first of all, I was there all day before anybody even mentioned it to me. I’m meeting with the students, we’re talking about America, and nobody even says anything. I heard the story from the dean, which is why I bring it up with them.

And so we started talking about what happened, blah blah blah, they said, “What happened is some guys got drunk, you know,” I said, “Boy, this is starting to sound familiar. Some white guys got drunk and they did this?” “Yeah, but, then the guys came forward toward the end of the week with the flags.” And then one student said, “Yeah, same thing happened last year.” And there was a reluctance to see this as anything other than a drunken prank. Not uniformly, but that was certainly a trend in the room. Reluctance to call this thing. And so we talked about that. I asked them to even write about it for part of the ultimate project, but they never did.

And I think part of it, the more we talked about it, part of it had to do with their status as international students. And not feeling secure being in this country. And this is also what I mean earlier about when people talk about the subjective and these personal narratives. We talked about the flags and whatever they had to say. Then I asked them, I said, “Are you really all that attached to your flag?” And then I started getting the story. One student said, “When I knew I was coming here to go to school from Trinidad, two days before I left I went all over Port-au-Prince trying to find a flag that I could bring. And that flag was on the wall in my dorm. That’s the flag I gave them, the flag I kept on my wall in the dorm.” I said, “Really! You brought your flag from home?” He said, yeah. A couple of other students told me the same thing, that they brought their flags from home. At home, they barely paid attention to the flag, but because they were coming here they brought that flag with them. So those kinds of things, I keep uncovering again and again. [applause]


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