Kameelah Rasheed

October 3, 2007

Slavery reparations, an issue columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson described in 2002 as “once a fringe issue touted by black separatists, zealots and crackpots” and “shunned like the plague” by so-called “respected mainstream civil rights leaders,” is finally reaching some level of attention in the national public policy debate. While Hutchinson’s language is laced with pejorative value judgments of reparation activists, the point is clear: reparations discussions are marginalized and the arrival of this topic in national debate is something we should all pay attention to.

At the July 2007 CNN/You Tube Democratic presidential debates, a young man identified as “Will from Boston, Mass.” asked if African Americans will ever get reparations, adding that he knew candidates would “run around this question, dipping and dodging.” John Edwards replied with a prompt “No … but I think there are other things we can do.” Barack Obama called for reparations in the form of reinvesting in our schools. Hilary Clinton took a “pass,” leaving me to rely on her past denouncements of reparations. And Dennis Kucinich, in a biblically laced soapbox message, noted that he was for reparations, but believes there should be an akin reparations program for poor whites.

It is important that presidential candidates are at least talking about reparations, even if abstractly and evasively so, but are national policy debates and classrooms the only spaces where these discussions can happen? Some argue, yes, keep policy dialogue in its “proper spaces.” However, many artists are using performance art to create a broader dialogue and bring more attention to social issues. It is an attempt to disrupt the monopolies on “legitimate” discussions and where they can take place.

In 1992, artists Guillermo-Gomez Pena and CoCo Fusco toured the country trapped in a 10-by-12-foot cage as members of unknown, but fictional, “specimens representative of the Guatinaui people” in the performance piece “Undiscovered Amerindians.” In a satirical commentary that far too many people missed, Pena and Fusco brought attention to the colonial encounter, live human spectacles like Sara Baartman and the countless examples of carnivalized “natives.” Between 1986 and 1990, Adrian Piper passed out offset lithograph calling cards at social gatherings when someone made an unwelcome sexual advance or someone unaware of her racial background made a racist joke. One calling card read, “I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you … just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.”

However, can we encourage broader discussion on slavery reparations through performance art?

Damali Ayo thinks so, which is why she organized the collective street performance “National Day of Panhandling for Reparations.” On Oct. 10, 2007, people of all races from across the nation will occupy public city spaces for an hour or two to collect, or rather to panhandle reparations in the form of money from white Americans for the enslavement and free labor of Africans and African Americans. As part of the street performance, the money will be immediately paid out to black passersby and both parties will be offered a receipt.

The National Day of Panhandling for Reparations began in 2003 as a street performance by Damali Ayo. In “living flag: panhandling for reparations,” Damali panhandled for reparations on the streets of various cities across the United States. As this project goes national, she is fielding questions from those who cite her performance as a reenactment of shuck ‘n’ jive coonery that “takes credibility away from any real discussion surrounding reparations.”

Such comments bring us back to a question of who gets to decide what is legitimate discussion, where it can take place and in what form. The monopoly of what counts as “real” discussion needs to be interrogated. “It is devaluing of art to say that this isn’t part of the very real conversation,” says Damali in an interview with Heather Day, especially as she notes when this performance makes “it more real” because it “removes the theoretical” and brings it to the streets. Adding a “grassroots element to the already present academic and legislative conversations,” Damali makes the conversations more accessible and invites passersby to engage in conversations that seem otherwise out of reach. They may not like what they are invited to talk about, but they are at least given the opportunity.

Conversation and more dialogue are what Damali wanted, and she got just that. In response to seemingly cursory responses, she says that “… people give art a quick glance, then react. We live in a sound-bite society, and art just doesn’t fit into that mindset. Art asks you to slow down … this work especially, literally asks people to slow down, to stop and take it in as they walk by the street.”

As Damali is noticing in the feedback, many people have not taken the moment to slow down enough to even read the basic info, watch the video or even listen to the audio she has provided on her site. So, let’s slow down a bit. In many ways, the preemptive responses have become part of the preshow performance that exposes a general unfamiliarity with reparations and the role of satire in art.

Damali acknowledges that slavery reparations are not just a monolithic initiative. They are not only an individual payout for the labor of enslaved Africans and African Americans, but a symbolic gesture to acknowledge slavery as a moral and legal wrong, and to some it is a government commitment to policy changes.

This acknowledgment thwarts detractors who question the legitimacy of Damali’s performance because, according to statements on her website, she supports Barack Obama, a presidential candidate who is hesitant on traditional individual reparations payouts in favor of a more policy-oriented approach. “Obama’s assertion that aiding struggling schools is part of a comprehensive reparations plan is not entirely off track … However, I’d hate to see reparations end up as just another touchy-feely, poorly designed then failed government gesture,” says Damali.

Whatever you deem the desirable route for reparations, what has become troubling is the way some people have missed the satire and assume that Damali is actually proposing panhandling as a solution for reparations.

“As an artist, my job is to get the conversation flowing … I don’t write the policy, I leave that to the experts,” says Damali when speaking to Day. While leaving policy writing to the “experts” is debatable, the point is that literal interpretations have trumped symbolic interpretations of the performance.

Critics have argued that the performance will trivialize reparations, especially because of the panhandling aspect, but Damali sees it differently. Damali writes in her performance statement, “Panhandling shows the last resort of African Americans after our government has ignored or denied all previous requests for reparations.” Panhandling becomes a dark satirical commentary on the fact that “we are nearly at the begging stage” and asks, as Damali asks Day in a recent interview, “How many ways and times do we have to ask, especially when we shouldn’t have to ask at all?” Damali cleverly uses the perception of panhandlers as beggars as a backdrop for the performance.

The response to this aspect of the performance also says a lot about the perception of panhandlers as beggars and not people who are often cast aside by society due to poverty, homelessness, or mental illness. It also speaks to the way panhandlers are often rendered invisible and invasive. This functions as strong mirror symbolism for the ways in which the reparation issue has been rendered invisible and seen as an invader into “legitimate” policy discussions. This performance has the potential to make people confront an issue that they have so conveniently buried in the back of their minds. Occupying public space moves the conversation from the private to the public space.

Criticism comes from another corner as well. It seems that some resistance to this street performance comes from a question of what such a performance can do to the already tarnished images of African Americans as lazy, irresponsible and waiting for a handout. Much of these fears of misrepresentation were satirized in Season 1, Episode 4 of Dave Chappelle’s skit on reparations, where $1 trillion was distributed to African Americans as individual payouts were used to buy gold, diamonds, fried chicken, Cadillacs and record label companies.

Linked to this apprehension is the fear that white donors will feel that they can relieve themselves of white guilt about slavery and social responsibility once they receive a receipt. While this is a possibility, such a situation will at least open up discussion about whiteness and privilege and, as Damali notes, “how much work we have to do on racism in this country.”

The performance may not lead to the sudden implementation of reparations programs or unite all Americans, but it has at least got us talking — even before the actual performance. Some have called the performance shortsighted and irresponsible activism. “Social movements succeed when multiple channels are involved,” writes Damali. A street performance piece alone can’t do all of the heavy lifting. Such a performance has to be complemented by other efforts.

When I asked Damali if artists have an obligation to address social issues through their art, she responded, “I believe that art should reflect society and do so in ways that encourage us to evaluate ourselves so we have the opportunity to change.” In an insightful and punchy last note, she adds, “If it doesn’t, I’m more likely to call it decoration.”