My first meaningful interaction with poets came as a young adult when my friends and I would frequent open mics at poetry cafes in New York and DC. There are two defining moments. First, my mother, Deborah Willis, invited poet Sekou Sundiata to perform his opus The Circle Unbroken Is a Hard Bop at the Smithsonian. Soon after that my friend Nekisha gave me a mixtape of spoken word that included Nikki Giovanni’s “The Way I Feel” and the Watts Prophets’ “Rapping Black.” I was in awe of the courage and shameless earnestness and vulnerability in their work. I felt the sharp contrast between the optimism and determination of the civil rights generation and the oblique nihilism of mine. They all but indicted the listeners for remaining silent or irreverent when times called for social or moral action.
A few years later I encountered Audre Lorde’s “Litany for Survival.” The last few lines are emblazoned on my soul:
and when we speak we are afraidour words will not be heardnor welcomedbut when we are silentwe are still afraid
So it is better to speakrememberingwe were never meant to survive.
“Better to speak!” echoes in my mind whenever I feel like shriveling up and hiding in the corner rather than being exposed or critiqued. There is sheer audacity required to write words for a broader audience, even more to get up and read those words aloud. I feel the same is true for contemporary visual artists. To speak is almost to say “I know,” but in most cases artists are speaking about things they don’t know, or are still in the process of knowing. I feel like poetry is at its best when it speaks to this process of knowing, dangling on your heart right before it gets to your mind.
So much of my practice is a collaboration with audiences and other artists — sometimes it’s overt, sometimes subversive. As it happens, I was introduced to the notion of collaboration by Kamal Sinclair (now a collaborator of mine on Question Bridge: Black Males) who worked with a combination of poets, dancers, and musicians to write a multi-faceted, off-Broadway stage show called The Beat. It was a come- as-you-are and leave-your-heart-on-the-stage experience. That was around the time Danny Hoch wrote Jails, Hospitals and Hip Hop. I saw the written word translated into spoken word as activism.
And then there is Saul Williams, whom I first encountered on a student film shoot at nyu in the late nineties. It was an adaptation of Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues. Saul was Sonny. After two days I was basically a disciple. I’ll never forget the moment he picked up a kalimba (African thumb piano) off of a coffee table on set. He strummed it a bit, then turned it over and found an old Burger King sticker on it. He said, “Now that’s deeper than all of us” and put it down. Not two years later I was creating work about commodity culture as it related to African American history and culture.
Without a doubt, the best text-based work of mine came from an adaptation of an iconic sign from the civil rights era that read: “I am a man.” I was always amazed by the power of the image of a large group of African American men holding signs to affirm their “manhood.” It also seemed to exemplify the fissure between my generation and my parents’ generation. After all, the phrase we used was “I am the man.” How did we go from a collective statement under the repression of segregation to an apparently selfish statement for a generation “liberated” by integration?
I wanted to explore that, so I created a series of twenty paintings in which I riffed on the syntax of the sign. The paintings were then arranged into a poem format with the help of a songwriter named Sparlha Swa. The last ten of them read “I’m the man, who’s the man, you the man, what a man, I am man, I am Human, I am many, I am am I, I am I am, I am. Amen.” Rather than judge or validate myself on anyone elses standards, maybe my greatest gift is my own consciousness. I am. Amen. Or as Langston Hughes put it:
So since I’m still here livin’,I guess I will live on.I could’ve died for love —But for livin’ I was born
Though you may hear me holler,And you may see me cry —I’ll be dogged, sweet baby,If you gonna see me die.
Life is fine!Fine as wine!Life is fine!— From Life Is Fine
Hank Willis Thomas is a visual artist represented by Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. His work is in the public collections of the Whitney Museum, Guggenheim Museum, MoMA, and elsewhere.