It was conceived as the beginning of a conversation about how to raise issues of social and economic justice through music, journalism, literature, TV, theatre and film.
The venue was Jimmy’s Uptown–a hip Harlem restaurant/jazz club at 130th and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. Organized by the Center for Community Change, a New York-based group dedicated to empowering low income communities, yesterday’s afternoon gathering brought together actors/activists Danny Glover, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, former congressman Ron Dellums, pollster Celinda Lake, writer Nelson George (Hip-Hop Nation), hip-hop artist Boots Riley, screenwriter James Kearns (John Q ), film producer Lee Daniels (Monster’s Ball), and about a dozen other writers, journalists, musicians and cultural activists.
Glover, speaking first because he had to leave early for rehearsal, reminded people how Dellums, when in office, had helped reframe the language around apartheid, giving people a sense that their voice and vision mattered. “We need to change the language,” Glover said, “and create one which excites people, one which makes people feel we’re speaking to them.”
Glover sounded like many progressives these days in talking about how we must take a page from the Right’s playbook. “We need to become active at the local level, on schoolboards, in sheriff’s races, all down the line, like the Right. They have their think tanks, their language, their message. We need to build our own, and create a different dynamic.”
The conversation ranged widely. Dellums invoked Martin Luther King, Jr., “that master of words,” in reminding people how important it is to transform the antiwar movement into a movement for peace and justice. “Peace is more than the absence of war; it is the presence of justice.”
Others raised questions: What words can we use to convey our message? How can we best engage young people in a political process that appears increasingly neglectful of their needs? What is the poem that can move people on the question of poverty, the rap song that will encourage people to vote, the script that compels Americans to consider the benefits of peace?
“What’s been lost,” Nelson George told the group, “is our ability to tell stories. We need a narrative, a story. I remember, as a kid, watching the civil rights movement–the March on Washington, Selma. There was a sense of momentum, of progress, some of it refracted through the media. That spirit was lost, and Hip-Hop replaced the momentum. It’s time to create a counter-narrative, to counter the Right’s ‘welfare queen’ crap. We need a sense of optimism, some achievable goals, a message, and an empowering narrative. We have the storytellers and stories to tell.”
Ossie Davis, who’s seen about everything there is to see in his 86 years of life, began by telling the story of a pygmy philosopher, who was once asked: How do you eat an elephant? One step at a time, the thinker replied.
“One reason the Right rolled over us in these last months,” Davis declared, “is that it controlled the definition of patriotism with television, images, language. I’d like our fellow hip-hoppers to come up with our own definition of patriotism. No stiff declarations, please. We can use humor. Raise tough questions. Expose the corruption and absurdity of those who say if you didn’t support the war you’re unpatriotic. We can be clever too–use a song, a joke or an argument to define true patriotism–so it speaks to brothers on the street, in jail, in the military. We have to do it. People in Congress ain’t going to do it for us.”
Davis concluded with a challenge. “Here’s a test for all of us. We should be able to meet a brother on the corner and explain the whole damn thing to him before the light changes.”
Who’s ready for the Ossie Davis test?