On Kujichagulia, Bill Cosby, the appreciation of art and the accountability of sexual predators
I have never actively celebrated Kwanzaa but through my circle of friends, I was well aware that today, the second day of Kwanzaa, was dedicated to the principle of Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) which is the defining and naming of, creating and speaking for, ourselves. As a writer, I often define, create and speak for myself through my art. I wanted see how others named and defined themselves, how others named and defined Black culture. With that, I thought it was a great day to visit the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.
The visit was amazing. I was moved, I was enlightened, I was proud, my spirit was full. And as I realized upon returning home and finding myself in my room, listening to spirituals dancing with an unexplained fervor through movements with which I never knew my body to be familiar, losing myself in the music only to come to myself and see that I was literally reaching to the heavens– for God and my ancestors to help me reconcile a warring of my spirit, I was torn…
A bit of context– upon arriving to the Smithsonian, I realized Conversations was on exhibit. As stated by the Institution’s website:
Conversations brings together African and African American artworks in a visual and intellectual dialogue about particular crosscutting themes:
- Conversations considered
- A Human Presence
- Power and Politics
- Memory, Family, and the Domestic Sphere
- Nature as Metaphor
- Music and Urban Culture
It appeared Conversations was everything I wanted to see and experience during my Kujichagulia engagement. Conversations was everything I wanted my son to experience with me on this day. Conversations was an exhibit comprised of many pieces from the personal collection of…Bill and Camille Cosby. Well aware of the thoughts going through the heads of many visitors, the museum had a placard essentially explaining that while they were aware of the allegations, they believed the artists on display had voices to contribute and that although Bill and Camille had contributed a significant amount of loaned pieces, the entirety of the exhibit, and certainly the culture, did not belong to them.
As I walked through the exhibit with many pieces focusing on family, politics, power, sexuality and even sexual assault, I kept wavering between an appreciation for the art and the knowledge that it had been made accessible to me through a man who had greatly harmed many women. The art was there for me to appreciate because it had been provided by a serial rapist.
See the way my life is set up, I don’t support rapists or batterers. My kids know to turn off the radio if R. Kelly comes on, I don’t watch Floyd Mayweather fight, I’ll never tune in to the Duggar family’s shows, Chris Brown isn’t on any of my playlists. Was I supporting Cosby by attending the exhibit?
As I walked through the exhibit, I searched for a reference point. Some experience with which to align the scenario to make it make sense. I didn’t have to go back very far. See what had happened was, I spent the last 2 weeks binge watching A Different World, a show that Bill Cosby contributed to our culture. It was almost easy to watch the show because Cosby made maybe one appearance and since it’s Netflix, I skip through credits and never even have to see his name. It was easy to examine the timely and forward thinking nature of the show, to see myself in the composites of the Black women on the show. It was easy to watch and see that I am a little bit of Kim, a whole lotta Freddie, some Jaleesa and more Whitley than I care to admit. It was easy to connect to those women and separate that man. It was easy to see how that show served many members of my community- myself included (Jalleesa is how I learned about non traditional students, Ron’s girlfriend is where I saw a single mother in college). And as I stood there in the Smithsonian, I needed to separate the beautiful connection of the art and that man. How could I feel so proud, so connected knowing the source who made that moment possible? I reminded myself that Cosby had not in fact created any of the works (there was one piece created by his daughter). I told myself that history should not cease to be shared because tainted hands once held it. I thought I had done a good job of separating the two- that man and my history. That man and my culture. That man and my emotions.
But as I found myself at home, dancing alone with the fervor of David, I understood that I had not done nearly as good a job as I thought. I was still very torn. So I kept dancing. And dancing. Until my spirit came to rest on this understanding–torn is where I should be because I’m not supposed to separate those things. The fact is that one of those artists quite possibly committed an act just as heinous as those of Cosby. Sexual assault is an ugly part of every culture on this planet. Those who perpetrate must remain included because that is the only way they can be held accountable. Those at risk of perpetrating must remain included because that is the only way we can prevent abuse. And that’s hard to tell myself. That’s hard to hear because I know that perpetrators exist in every aspect of our culture (of every racial group). Rapists are painters, television producers, musicians, pastors, fathers, brothers and friends. That’s hard to hear but I know that we cannot simply ignore them, separate our culture from their acts and will them away. This doesn’t serve anyone, not even the survivors.
As I lie here, still needing to dance, I am comforted by my restless spirit, comforted by the ancestors who push me to speak through my art, to define myself even, and especially, when it is hardest to do so. I rest in the discomfort that does not allow me to be so complacent in any personal position or sociopolitical stance that I cease questioning my own views or stop seeking to reconcile the many worlds I occupy. I rest in knowing that the beauty of my culture requires that we hold accountable those who tarnish that very beauty.