“The resources available to us for benign access to each other, for vaulting the mere blue air that separates us, are few but powerful: language, image, and experience, which may involve both, one, or neither of the first two,” writes Toni Morrison in The Fisherwoman. “Language (saying, listening, reading) can encourage, even mandate, surrender, the breach of distances among us, whether they are continental or on the same pillow, whether they are distances of culture or the distinctions and indistinctions of age or gender, whether they are the consequences of social invention or biology. Image increasingly rules the realm of shaping, sometimes becoming, often contaminating, knowledge. Provoking language or eclipsing it, an image can determine not only what we know and feel, but also what we believe is worth knowing about what we feel.”
This year we have seen our full share of images that have sought to contaminate knowledge and eclipse language about race and gender, yet again. Freddie Gray in handcuffs for running while black in Baltimore, Maryland. Ahmed Mohamed in handcuffs for building while brown in Irving, Texas. Sandra Bland in handcuffs for allegedly failing to use her turn signal in Waller County, Texas. Unaccompanied minors like 15-year-old Tadessa and 14-year-old Antonio in handcuffs for fleeing gang rape and violence in Central America. To make matters worse, bigotry trips off the lips of leading political candidates, and shrinking sound bites break skin, again and again about our only sin, about our inherent criminality, about the beautiful walls that must be built to keep us out, for "why should we want to close the distance when we can close the gate?"
It is refreshing at the end of 2015 to be able to showcase art that tells the truth and “triples the spine.” Kweli's December double issue looks at the idea of silence and people not being able to say the things they wish to. We launch as the country wakes up to the story of Jannie Ligons, a 57-year-old grandmother who was the first to break her silence about Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, a serial rapist who "deliberately preyed on vulnerable black women from low-income neighborhoods." His victims ranged in age from 17 to 57. Few media outlets covered the case of this serial rapist, which in itself speaks black and blue volumes. “America is essentially illiterate when it comes to black bodies,” said poet and visual artist Rachel Eliza Griffiths during The Eyes Have It—especially black women's bodies. Racial surveillance is still the rule and mythologies swirl about our inferiority and criminality; a chokehold(over) from centuries of American slavery in the Deep South. But Griffiths counters a historical illiteracy with still and moving images of black women, confirming at once their humanity, complexity, beauty and intellect. Notably, Griffiths was the first photographer granted access to the William Faulkner estate in Oxford, Mississippi. “A woman of color, Caroline “Callie” Barr Clark (1840 - 1940), took care of Faulkner and his family for many generations and had a cabin back behind the estate,” she reminds us. “There was the big house and then her cabin. And I was permitted to have models and light and to go into her cabin and shoot and work all over the Faulkner property and kind of bring a new narrative, literally, to that story of Faulkner, Oxford, Ole Miss and all of that.” In a time when black and brown bodies are still seen as suspect, and media outlets routinely frame us as other, or invisible, Griffiths' images serve to shape knowledge and provoke language about our humanity.
The writers featured in this special issue join Griffiths in this effort. In Migrations to Medina, Maimuna Islam explores a Bangladeshi-American family paralyzed by grief against a complex backdrop of race, faith and love. “After her father died, Agra disappeared—first behind her silence,” Islam writes. “Then, with no warning, the following May she took a leave of absence and left for Bangladesh.” The many silences between mother and daughter, especially in a post 9/11 world, seemed insurmountable. But as is often the case when silences are broken, “all that history” of home and migrations, all that ancestral memory proved to be just what was needed to breach the distance between them.
We hope that you enjoy the art on full display in this issue. The characters before you are all worth knowing, from Segundo, the differently abled boy in Guácala by Geimy Colón, to Tatiana, the missing girl at the heart of the story by Kalisha Buckhanon, "her hot chocolate skin a maze of heat bumps and pockmarks," tap dancing her way through dreams of a future despite the reality of "eviction notices, overdue gas heating bills, and candle-lit homes until next payday." We hope that the words and images encourage you to ‘vault the mere blue air that separates us,’ to really see one another and to deeply listen beyond the sound bites. For there are no strangers here. As Toni Morrison reminds us "[t]here are only versions of ourselves, many of which we have not embraced, most of which we wish to protect ourselves from. For the stranger is not foreign, she is random; not alien but remembered; and it is the randomness of the encounter with our already known—although unacknowledged—selves that summons a ripple of alarm. That makes us reject the figure and the emotions it provokes—especially when these emotions are profound."
December 18, 2015
Cover art: Maceo Montoya
Virginia by Michelle Moncayo
Simplicity Pattern 2324 by Shauna Osborn
clock out before you hit 25. don’t drive my labor up by Shakeema Smalls
one-sided conversations with my mother by ire’ne lara silva
Meeting the Man on the Street by Nancy Agabian
Tatiana by Kalisha Buckhanon
Guácala by Geimy Colón
Everywhere, Signs by Anita Felicelli
Knowledge, Wisdom and Understanding by t’ai freedom ford
Before He Rises by Alma Garcia
Migrations to Medina by Maimuna Islam
Neech by Rajiv Mohabir
The Eyes Have It: Nikky Finney, Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Parneshia Jones in Conversation with Saretta Morgan