When I was growing up there was a story I loved to hear. In 1980, James Baldwin spent seven days with my parents and their friends in Washington. He held court for a week, engaging in dynamic debate that lasted into the night with food, music, and a rotating band of guests. On Sunday, he went to the church I grew up in. He assumed the pulpit for the first time since he had been a boy preacher. He spoke with witty fervor, "Your somewhat wayward son has returned home." When he cut short his remarks to an enraptured audience, my minister observed that if he had continued, "the people would have marched into the streets and started a revolution." The story had a prophetic quality, included elements of comedy and drama, and ended with a deeply political message. My godmother, who hosted him was the long-time English Department chair at Howard University. A woman who was known not just for her scholarship, but her art collection, her haute couture and a larger-than-life personality. Her "salons" included artists, journalists, activists and educators. A fairy tale it wasn't, but "7 days with Jimmy" was my first entrée into the powerful need for the voices of artists, a revelation of who I was and the place I called home.
That was the DC I was born into in the 1980s; as culturally rich and politically vibrant as anything happening in the city today. It too was not shared by every Washingtonian, but it was mine and it was very real. Today the city by all accounts is 'thriving'; economically, culturally, and socially, and I've embraced it. I have certainly benefited by being able to remain living in the city, having access to a robust and active downtown, and gaining new friends who've come from across the US to live and work here. But for many newcomers to Washington, the city they now inhabit has a redemptive quality; a risen from the ashes tale. And part of that rise is connected to their very existence now embedded in the fabric of the city. Every time I get a shocked glance that I was indeed born in the city I pretend to be amused, but more often I am irritated or just plain offended. It seems that in the 1980s and early nineties the city was an urban wasteland; a crack-infested, poverty-stricken place with little cultural value, a virtually silent place.
The reality of drugs and crime in Washington during this period cannot be denied, but as Chimamanda Adichie so beautifully articulated in her TED Talk; 'the danger with stereotypes is not that they are wrong; it is that they are incomplete'. We should not create or tolerate cavalier interpretations of who we are or the places we inhabit. What makes us so ready to accept simplified stories of others when we would never tolerate the same for ourselves? There is complacent privilege in being able to swath a place and a people with a single truth. There is power and self-aggrandizement to be gained.
For those whom crudely simplified narratives have been created to justify indefensible acts, like slavery, Islamaphobia, or the slicing vilification that poverty equates to a lack of ambition, the stakes are high. Our stories need not and should not be idolized versions of ourselves; but neither should we be ashamed of creating art that reflects being black and middle-class, white and poor, the counter-narrative, the one that least meets the mainstream demand for maintaining structures of power and privilege.
The work of making (and being receptive to) complex narratives is not the work we tend to value in our culture. It is certainly not the work of the media and television executives who too often turn to garish stereotypes to define entire groups. It's the work of James Baldwin; his brave stories of loving across the boundaries of race and class. It's the work of our poets and painters, filmmakers and actors, dancers and musicians. The arts have the possibility to enrapture us with characters, voices, and places that reveal and delight. They have the ability to reflect intricate realities of who we are, and to cultivate in us ways of listening, ways of wonder, and ways of empathy.
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