Arts, equity, and the whitewashing of Riddle Fest

I learned something this week: There are no artists of color performing at the upcoming Riddle Festival, an annual event celebrating Lesley Riddle. What you need to know here is that Riddle was an African-American musician from Burnsville who greatly influenced the Carter Family. So think about that for a minute: The first family of country music has a black musician to thank.

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Lesley “Esley” Riddle, right, with guitarist Brownie McGhee.

This is not the only story where mountain, Appalachian, country, folk and roots music — much of which seems so of the domain of white folks — is actually closely tied to and even originating from the creative efforts of people of color. But because the white narrative has long been the dominant narrative, people of color tend to be diminished or overlooked or left out altogether. Or not invited to participate in a festival commemorating a person who looks like them and represents the history, hopes, talents, and ingenuity of their community.

I don’t think the organizers behind Riddle Fest intended any harm or slight, but I do think these kind of oversights pile up, one on top of the next, until we really can’t see past them anymore. Words like “appropriation” get bandied about — for good reason — but I see a greater harm. Yes, when white musicians record and profit from the songs of unrecognized musicians of color, it’s plagiarism and intellectual theft. If the original artist isn’t being uplifted and his or her family compensated for payment that the original artist never received, the crime is compounded. But there’s also a social implication: Not only are we white folks complicit in perpetuating white supremacy (I know: The term calls to mind Klan robes and skinheads in red boots — it actually means maintaining a narrative and system wherein the needs of white people are valued above, often at the cost of, the needs of all other groups), we are deteriorating the rich tapestry of our collective human story.

By writing some people out of that story, we lose track of their contributions, their talents, they unique points of view, their voices in the choir. We paint with fewer colors, sing with fewer notes, dance with a limited vocabulary. I could go on. But think of all the musicians we don’t know about because they were be written out of our collective history in order to maintain a prominent and dominant place for white artists. Think about this: Old-time music wasn’t only made by white folks. But can you name a black artist (other than members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) in that genre? And aren’t you curious to know who those under-recognized artists are, what they sound like, what tunes of theirs could be shared right now?

So it’s important that Lesley Riddle was a black man, and it’s important that the black community is part of any celebration of him, and any carrying forward of his music. It also matters that while Riddle was key to the Carter musicians becoming The Carter Family, the Carters were early inductees to the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame, but Riddle has yet to receive that distinction. In fact, only one artist of color — Piedmont blues dynamo Etta Baker — has thus far been inducted into that organization in its nine-year tenure.

We need to collectively care about these disparities and not allow them to stand. There’s too much at stake. Too much art, and therefore humanity, is being lost to the revisionist history we have — even if unwittingly — agreed to.

 

Weekly reading 7

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“Skull House, Mississippi, 2014,” by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

You guys. I love Junot Díaz and really love both this writer’s use of a Díaz quote and just where he’s coming from in general.

• “Dragons Are for White Kids with Money: On the Friction of Geekdom and Race” by Daniel Jose Ruiz in The Millions: “There is progress; we now have an unapologetically black super hero series in Luke Cage. There is BlerDCon (Black Nerd), and Blerds (the term is typically inclusive of any non-white nerd) even get a shout-out in a song (thanks Childish Gambino).”

• “The Loneliness of Donald Trump” by Rebecca Solnit at lithub.com: “Instead of the dictator of the little demimondes of beauty pageants, casinos, luxury condominiums, fake universities offering fake educations with real debt, fake reality tv in which he was master of the fake fate of others, an arbiter of all worth and meaning, he became fortune’s fool.”

• “Let’s Play: Intuition, Imagination, and Black Creativity” by Maggie Millner at PW.org: “There’s a diversity within the black arts community that we don’t always acknowledge. … There’s no one way to be black or to celebrate our lives.”

Weekly reading 5

The post is late but the material is still worth a read…

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• “University Students Want Free Tuition For Blacks As Reparations For Slavery” by David Krayden in dailycaller.com: “The Western Kentucky University student government passed a resolution, 19-10, that advocates the recognition of slavery as a “debt that will never be paid” and offer free tuition to black students as compensation.”

• “This Mother’s Day, Black Lives Matter Activists Will Give More Than 30 Women Their Freedom” by Dani McClain at The Nation: “Black people didn’t wait for an Emancipation Proclamation or the end of the Civil War to act on their own behalf. … Instead, they sometimes bought their own and each other’s freedom, and in doing so left a blueprint for how to directly challenge mass criminalization today, even as policy battles are in progress.”

• “This racial justice jam, or White folks trying to figure it out” by Shay Stewart-Bouley on her blog, black girl in maine: “Racism in this country is largely a white problem, but white people solving it alone won’t work.”

• “How Watermelons Became a Racist Trope” by William Black in The Atlantic: “These symbols have roots in real historical struggles—specifically, in the case of the watermelon, white people’s fear of the emancipated black body.”

THINK ABOUT IT:
“A lot of times equality can feel like oppression for those who are losing their advantage, but that’s not a reason we shouldn’t fight for equality.” — Western Kentucky University student senator Lily Nellans

Collaborative chapbook

Last week I was part of an art show/performance that was the end result of an 11-day collaborative challenge. The Center for Craft, Creativity and Design selected 11 artists (a combination of writers, crafters and visual artists) to team up and create work based on the CCCD’s exhibition, The Good Making of Good Things: Craft Horizon’s Magazine, 1941-1979.

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I was paired with weaver Danielle Burke who’s focus in Appalachian coverlets. We were both inspired by a February, 1974 issue of Craft Horizons in which writers were tasked with creating prose around the art of long-dead makers whose works had outlived any knowledge of the ancient artists who made the work. Continue reading

Weekly reading 3

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• “Reclaiming Our Roots: The Story of Tamishan” by Melissa Henry in The Urban News: “The stories of how these African Muslims had succeeded in preserving key elements of culture, some even convincing their owners to set them free and allow them to return to their native lands, amazed and inspired me.”

• London-based spoken word artist Kate Tempest performing on World Cafe. Holy crap. Continue reading

Bus ride to Glasgow

An essay constructed from notes written in Scotland, March, 2013

The bus departs from the station in a belch of diesel exhaust. Only the locals board there. Tourists are oblivious to the city busses as they wait for their carefully mapped day excursions. Some plush coach that picks up at the Quaitch Guest House.

72415_10151514836280218_601959733_nQuickly multistory apartment buildings give way to squat stone cottages with neat white doors. A pair of bay windows on each, because light matters. Old mixed with new, sometimes gracefully, but the city’s growth at its far reach is an ugly gash of mud and large equipment. Power lines across a gray sky, bus shelter at the end of the world.

Norton House Hotel, Ratho Station. A guy boards with a short Mohawk and someone’s initials — perhaps his own — inked behind his ear. D.W. in script. Villages rise and fall beyond the bus window. They are stunted and napping, like villages everywhere. Towns don’t buzz like cities do. Cities never sleep. Towns keep hitting the snooze button. Continue reading