Something fundamental many people don’t understand about their own minds is that they can choose to change them. People get offended or discouraged when they’re called out on their prejudices, but if they genuinely want to grow and be better, do better, they can. It may be impossible to completely overcome one’s biases, but it is absolutely possible to stop them from controlling one’s life.
There have been points in my life (there still are) when I’ve realized I’m not doing enough. I might suddenly see I’m not reading enough black writers for example, or I can only list a couple of Asian actors by name. At the point when I see my own ignorance honestly, I have a choice. I can shrug it off and pretend my ignorance is okay, or I can give myself homework. A project. Research. And my mind will grow.
We all have blind spots. We all have asshole tendencies. What defines you is what you decide to do about it.
Lauryn Hill. Yusef Komunyakaa. Wyclef Jean. Malcolm X. Spike Lee. W.E.B. DuBois. Ben Harper.
My artists of choice skewed a little more conscious as I reached my late teens. My timing was great: during those years, Lauryn Hill came out with an album that somehow felt like both a declaration of war by an unstoppable force, and an eloquent expression of abiding peace. No one saw a work of this magnitude coming. The Fugees’ album had been strong, we all loved it, sure, but when Lauryn dropped that solo… Whew. A million teenaged girls breathed deep, screamed with recognition and joy and memorized every word she said. Some of her lyrics gave me pause, a quiet unsettledness I did my damndest to ignore; Hill’s understanding of God didn’t resonate with my own spiritual sensibility at all, and her certainty on that front rubbed me really wrong. Like everyone else alive, I found the “classroom” scenes between songs tedious, preachy, shallow philosophy. Her obsession with vengeance didn’t pair well with the “good Christian” act, and made me wonder which part was a lie. I didn’t like how dependent Hill seemed to be on the men in her life; she seemed to carry one torch after another for one questionable man after another.
But the woman had so much fucking skill. At her best, she was ebullient and wise, devastating in her wit, power, and brilliance. I loved that Lauryn had this huge range of emotion that included anger, that she had a philosophy to espouse beyond the Woman’s Guide to Fucks and Heartbreak. Miseducation blew the roof off the world. We thought it was just the beginning. Looking back, though, it makes sense as a standalone feat: For most people, after our early 20s, we’re never really that sure again. We start realizing we never will be. Back then, though, at that age of my life, and that point in time, it was just so damn brave and so fucking refreshing for a woman to claim she did know it all–for once.
Yusef. I was so lucky to find the right poems by him, poems that spoke plainly to me, but with such immeasurable elegance. Dien Cai Dau was the first work of his to reach me, and still the one that touches me best. That book showed me the truth about war, how it must feel to absorb that kind of conflict. I had never felt that at all, nothing close to it, before then. I still believe that collection is one of very few flawless books.
Wyclef opened my mind to the black diaspora. Coming from DC, we had embassies, yes, but the children of those places were almost always sheltered by private schools, not the public ones I went to. I knew most black people to be Americans, usually from where they still lived, staying where they were from all their lives. My dad’s side of the family stayed in West Haven, almost entirely. The black people I knew from DC were born there, died there, and most never left. Wyclef showed me I was missing a lot. His gorgeous linguistic tapestries, his melodies from places I’d never heard of, traditions I’d never known, bowled me over with beauty. At the time, no one knew he’d never match that album again, either (yet. Always yet.)–but that collection shone so brightly, and still does.
Malcolm X I met through Alex Haley. His story upended the myth of American history, law and order. Suddenly everything I thought I knew about our nation was turned on its head. There was something fundamentally rotten in our country, something people would and do murder to maintain. Not Malcolm, though. Somehow he carried a legacy among white America as a murderous radical, but he was the opposite of the killer people pretended he was. He was a sensitive, insightful man, a scholar of admirable rigor and depth. Someone to emulate, not to despise. Suddenly the world was all wrong. The world that lied about this man’s life and legacy was a deeply ominous place.
DuBois brought that unease into sharper focus for me. The double consciousness he spoke of, the ill-fitting shoes he wore–those shoes were bound to my feet, too, constantly. To feel alien all the time was normal for black Americans. All of us felt out of place all the time–not just me. Most importantly, I hadn’t even realized I felt that way. The discomfort, the pain had been constant throughout my life, so I only felt odd in the rare moments when that pressure was lifted: traveling abroad, sometimes, especially in a brown country, existing in all-black spaces, sometimes… DuBois woke me the fuck up, eloquently, firmly, compassionately.
Ben Harper was like a living Jimi when I met him, representing for us non-white kids in the alternative scene. The first song of his I ever heard was “Widow of a Living Man,” and it made me weep hard. That was the first moment I realized men could be feminists, too, sometimes better advocates for us than we were for ourselves.
Spike Lee opened windows onto black thought that were completely fresh. His movies were sharp, smart, crisp, and they were complicated. I found myself angered by the arguments his characters made, all the time. School Daze horrified me. So did Jungle Fever. I wanted so badly to argue back! But I kept watching and watching, and I knew I was learning lessons that, again, were subtle, and dangerous. Feeling something, wanting to stand up and speak–these were good things. His art moved me to action.
Those are some of the names that led me away from the mainstream story, closer to understanding my true self and my place in the world. I was ready to embrace the challenge of being a thinking artist and intellectual to the best of my means, to invite myself into the conversation…