What a revelation. I saw the 22-year-old Baltimorean, Kondwani Fidel, perform his spoken word last evening. This is the power and potential of Art. To speak the universal language of the heart. To show, unsparingly, what is real, and true. To alchemize almost unbearable suffering into strength.
Not the false strength of righteous anger and bitterness. The unbreakable strength of an open heart.
Watching him, taken in by the rhythm of words, I was struck by his courage, the word itself derived from the Old French, coeur, meaning heart. His poetry was an offering of himself, a gift of story. His words shone with the raw material of struggle and honesty, polished by the thought and care of craft. Artistry transformed hard subjects all too often burdened with shame. His words reached me.
It is no random coincidence that Baltimore has produced such a voice. Raised by his grandmother, he is a proud product of Baltimore City College High School and a college graduate with all the dreams and ambitions of any newly minted Millennial. All this with a father currently in jail and a mother who, after six months clean from heroin, recently went back to using. He also has seven younger brothers and sisters who still need a stable home life. And while he appreciates all that his grandmother did for him, sometimes he just wants a mother and father to love him. He just wants one of those iconic Christmas mornings, where his mother will not sell his shiny new bicycle the next day to buy drugs.
His is a story that used to be ignored, refused, swept under the rug. His is a life that used to be written off as pathology, typical of an inferior race that white people should fear and shun. And marginalize.
The other evening, I was at a community event that displayed a timeline of key moments in Baltimore’s urban planning history. This included special ordinances for racial districts and redlining. For example, in 1910, Baltimore enacted the first citywide law in the United States that mandated the segregation of each residential block. It prohibited members of one racial group from buying a house in a city block already occupied by another race. Explaining the policy, Baltimore’s mayor, J. Barry Mahool, said:
“Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidence of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority.”
Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, showed me that I have quite a distorted understanding of the last several decades of the War on Drugs. This is disconcerting, since I was there. And yet my takeaway was manipulated and distorted by politicians and the media. And I was a willing, or overly trusting, or thoughtless accomplice. I consumed their stories. I believed them, internalized them. Repeated them. Made them my own.
Whoever controls the story wins.
That’s the maxim of advertising. It’s been put to good—or nefarious—use for as long as people have been telling stories.
When people of color call the police presence in their neighborhoods an occupation, how does that land with you? Until recently, I brushed it off. First, it’s not terribly relevant to my sheltered, segregated, day-to-day life. Did I think people were exaggerating when they said this? To be honest, I didn’t think much about it one way or another. It didn’t concern me.
Well, it concerns me now. I used to think African Americans are treated so unfairly in this country because of our legacy of slavery. It’s more complicated than that. In the first chapter of her book, Alexander gives a brilliant overview of the invention of race as a distinguishing factor, an excuse to rank people in hierarchies. And she tells of the deliberate, calculated methods that those in privileged positions of power and wealth have employed to drive a wedge between poor whites and blacks.
This has happened over and over in our country’s history, from Bacon’s Rebellion to the Redemption Movement of the late 1890s, on up to post Civil Rights Movement backlash. Whenever alliances began forming between poor whites and blacks, those in power found ways to pit them against each other. The redlining that kicked off in Baltimore in 1910 and really got going in the 1940s and 1950s is just one example. Returning soldiers from the Second World War could not get G.I. Bill financing if they weren’t white.
So here we are. What now? It does seem that the only way forward is to face this thing. To listen to one another. Especially our fellow citizens of color who’ve borne the brunt of all this oppression and unfairness for so long. What strikes me about Kondwani’s performance last evening was his composure. He wasn’t asking for pity or payback, for reparations or retribution. He was asking only to be heard. Not even asking. Inviting.
There’s something refreshing every time another grimy detail surfaces like the 1910 segregation law, or the whole nest of lies upon which the War on Drugs was built. It’s high time to drag this history out into the light. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, embarrassing, and shameful. So what? We have to do it anyway. And when it gets to be tough sledding, beauty and art and openheartedness will carry us through.
The response to want to fix something broken is useful, but it can get in the way of simple human connection. It might cause me to see someone as a project, instead of a fellow heart, a sister or brother. Kondwani’s story couldn’t be more different from mine. But he has the same heart, and we have intelligence, ambition, and dreams in common. That’s a story that no one can take away from us.