A Word of Thanks for Art and Design in a World Still Burdened by Racism

I suppose it’s fitting that within the same week that I caught up with the Cliven Bundy story, I also got around to watching "12 Years a Slave." I can’t say that I was particularly interested in seeing the film even if it did win three Academy awards. Given that my ancestors—my own flesh and blood—experienced the kind of torture and degradation that have been brought to the big screen in such painful detail, I knew it was going to be a challenge to sit through. The idea that I am genealogically connected to people who were kidnapped and forced into servitude for centuries isn’t difficult to understand in an abstract sense. But trying to fully comprehend their lives and existence as real people who suffered is another matter. Yet somehow, as evidenced by virtue of my presence in this world, they managed to survive in body if not fully in spirit.

That anyone anywhere in the world could ever romanticize slavery, consequently, should give us all pause. However innocuous “picking cotton” might sound to some, the words belie the laundry list of horrors slaves endured at the hands of their fellow human beings, to say nothing of the parade of injustices and atrocities—including Jim Crow laws and community-sanctioned lynching—that have followed.

When the Donald Sterling / L.A. Clippers scandal hit the 24-hour news cycle right on the heels of the Bundy story, I could only roll my eyes and be reminded of Don Imus’ infamous “nappy-headed hos” comment several years ago in reference to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. But whether we’re talking about athletes or the First Family, whether we are referencing overt acts of racism or systemic forms of discrimination that are embedded in our culture and institutions, the sickness is the same. We cannot seem to free ourselves of our attachment to the value we place on skin color. We cannot seem to grasp the damage that is done when we perpetuate the idea that pigmentation is some sort of defect to be overcome, or a peculiarity to be exoticized. We can’t seem to grasp the reality that outside appearance is no reflection of intelligence or ability, and that those who look a certain way are not inherently better members of society than others.

Thank God, then, for art and design. Without them, we would be utterly lost. No, art is not rocket science. Design is not brain surgery. Our ability to create, however, is part of what makes us human. As easy as it is to dismiss the arts when it comes to practical matters, they teach us to appreciate what is in front of us, even if we have cause to question our understanding. As I’ve argued numerous times prior, art and design connect us in ways that help us overcome our limitations and remember our common humanity. The spectrum of what is beautiful and worthy is infinite, and looking to find fault or criticizing what we don’t “get” shows a supreme lack of imagination.

To quote Macy Gray:

So baby, in between
Notice the blue skies
Notice the butterflies
Notice me
Stop and smell the flowers
And lose it In sweet music
And dance with me
'Cause there is beauty in the world
So much beauty in the world
Always beauty in the world
There is beauty in the world

Over the course of the last two years, I’ve had the privilege of writing about this topic as well as all of the others that collide with the kind of work I do for a living. Much of what I have put in my posts has, selfishly, been for me, but I can't even say how much I’ve appreciated the number of people who have either commented on my posts or expressed their support in person. (It’s been humbling to say the least.) So, as I sit here writing my last blog entry, I’m extremely grateful to have had the opportunity. Many thanks to Duane, Liz, Tim and the Goshen Commons staff for all of the hard work they’ve put into creating this kind of community forum. And, lastly, a special shout-out goes to my former student and design baby Emma Brooks for the wonderful graphics she created for this site!

It’s been a pleasure.