Photo: Marc Bamuthi Joseph is the vice president and artistic director for social impact at the Kennedy Center.
This week's special guest is the vice president and artistic director of social impact at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Marc Bamuthi Joseph. An honoree of the United States Artists Rockefeller Fellowship and founding Program Director of the non-profit Youth Speaks, Marc joins us to discuss the future of social impact and the arts. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.
The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
Matthew Mugo Fields: Welcome to Shaping the Future, a production of HMH. I'm your host, Matthew Mugo Fields. Here, we'll examine leading issues in education, and I'll be joined by experts, innovators, and leaders to discuss how we prepare our students for an unpredictable future.
Our guest today is Marc Bamuthi Joseph. Marc—or Bamuthi, as some of us call him—is a spoken word poet, dancer, playwright, and educator who frequently directs hip-hop infused plays and operas. Yes, he also makes operas. He's been named a National Poetry Slam champion, TED Global Fellow, the inaugural recipient of the Guggenheim Social Practice Initiative, and has received numerous other awards. Today, he's the vice president and artistic director of social impact at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
Given Marc's unique perspective as an educator, artist, and an administrator at one of our nation's leading cultural institutions, I was thrilled to have him on the podcast. We discussed everything from creating a curriculum for civil rights, to the role of art in facilitating public healing, to the future of social impact.
To bookend in this episode, we've got two poems written and performed by Marc. We'll start the episode with the poem, "Fear," and close things out with a second poem entitled, “A Right to Love.” Now, here's “Fear” by Marc Bamuthi Joseph.
Marc Bamuthi Joseph:
I’m watching that movie where the white girls have so much internalized self-hate That they do something catastrophic to spite themselvesWait, no; that was the 2016 election
I’m watching my life, where the Black boys have so much internalized self-hate When we see ourselves, we are afraidDread is an odor in the airLike how September 11th smelled like jet fuel below 14th StreetFear in my nostrils
Most of the time this is not true for me, but I read,And I can count to 3…
One in four of us statistically are system involvedAnd I know it ain’t me
And if you don’t look like me, I understand why you don’t wanna be comin’ home alone from the movies and three Black boys come down at you on the sidewalkYour head fresh with the memoryOf the silver screen melanin tropeOne of ‘em didn’t even notice me untilI was under his noseUnbeknownst we was physically closeHe looked at meQuizzicallylike I could read the questions he posedall askance like the posture of of a fro done let gothe archetypal profile of American wildI said, let me just cross over man before they go wildAlthough literally coulda been my childintegrated into my brain is a pretty wide frame for both love and hateand I both love and hate the boys as they approachtheir silhouettes not exactly like my own kids but hella closemaybe I’m most afraid of what you best knowand so…self-hate and self-preservation I believe in the best of us but distrust the manic muscle of the worstThe untamed thirstThe Black boy curseAll the parts of the myth that are trueThe part where between 15 and 39 the leading cause of Black male death is homicide My son is 17 now, welcome to Year 2Where your dad thinks about crossing the street when he meets someone who looks just like you…
The threat is your inheritanceRejecting it is perilous Sometimes the guilty stand paralyzed and the innocent run
These boys approachAnd do neither they just laughOver something…juvenile…because they’re juvenilesWhich makes them old enoughTo have to act tough even when they’re laughingA toxically masculine practice an act of masculine malfeasanceThe manufacture of the funk chemical that smells like there’s a reasonSmells Like teen spiritAnd gunpowderBut tastes like teens tripping over lines that mark powerThe worstAnd I am no betterA grown man afraid of the shadow of his youth
Back in the day me and the boys cross colors and timberland bootsNative tongues gangsta boogies primo and GURU gang gang starry nightsLaughing with my boys cuz lady, don’t you know I got a 3.9 GPA and I can run hella fast, but I cannot fight
What’s the opposite of an open wound?
An opening of joy?
16 was like a lover whose eyes can open you up before she closes the door it’s the interval between the first touch and the first break and the close and the slow pain and the short memory
I don’t extend that humanity to these boysNo love. Lost
I’m grown and they fit the profileLike I didFearing myselfThe rite of passage
Matthew: There you have it, ladies and gentlemen, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who is a real artistic treasure, one of my good friends. And so, let's get that out of the way and stop pretending we don't know each other. We've known each other probably most of our lives.
Marc: At least half.
Matthew: At least half.
Marc: That means we are getting older.
Matthew: Yes, it does mean you're getting older. So I'll let you do it. Why don't you break it down for the people out there, how we know each other.
Marc: All right. We are both alums of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia; we are both Maroon Tigers. We are both also alums of a traditional—let's call it a rite of passage based in Atlanta. So, we have a kind of educational pedigree, or intersecting educational pedigree in common. We also have a number of share principles and people that we call family, brothers, and sisters in common as well.
Matthew: And that's how we both got three names.
Matthew: You’re Marc Bamuthi Joseph and I'm Matthew Mugo Fields.
Marc: That's how it goes.
Matthew: That's how it goes. That's how it goes. So, Marc, I am so excited to have you with us on this podcast for many reasons. You are a profound and acclaimed artist. You are also of that rare breed of artists who also is an administrator within the arts. Your current post is at the Kennedy Center where you lead social impact. And that's really going to be the centering of our topic for this discussion, which is the future of social impact and the role that the arts and education can interplay to make that happen. But for our audience, the other relevant point about you is, you actually started your career as an educator, as a teacher. I first want you to say a bit about Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the learner, the student, your sort of academic journey, how that led you to become a teacher, and where your artistic sensibilities existed in that journey. So, tell us about young Marc.
Marc: Sure. Well, I was born and raised in New York City, I am a first-generation American. My parents are both from Haiti. My learning journey really begins with hustle and no room for error.
Matthew: I know that’s right.
Marc: You feel me? The “no room for error” is about an accountability matrix that not only was about the kind of normalization of high achievement, but also Haiti being the poorest country in the hemisphere, and as I was growing up in the 80s and early 90s—it’s particularly fraught with political volatility. And there was no justification for not seeking growth, not seeking something better. I was definitely aware of that. So my learning journey is political, it’s geographical, it’s temporal, it’s ancestral and it's highly emotional. It's highly emotional. But my learning journey also is in creativity and art. I grew up—I was born and raised in the same place at the same time as hip-hop culture. I learned from (James) Baldwin, yes. And I learned from Ntozake Shange, yes. And I learned from Toni Morrison, yes, but I also learned from Chuck D. I also learned from KRS-One. Later on, I learned from Black Thought of The Roots. I learned from Lauren, I learned from André 3000.
The hip-hop kind of propagates an attenuated listening, and an affinity for storytelling and an engagement with political consciousness that is rooted in narrative and the aesthetics of the fly African diaspora. So my learning journey also is there. I was particularly moved by Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, which came out when I was 13 years old. And that was really when I began to see how Black images and Black storytelling could come together to have political effect. It was one of the reasons why I was attracted to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. I had incredible teachers at Morehouse. Dr. Melvin Rahming and Dr. Daniel Omotosho Black, are two of my favorites. And because I had great teachers, I wanted to be one as well.
So, I got a teaching fellowship right out of Morehouse that brought me to the Bay area where I taught at an independent school north of the Golden Gate Bridge, and while getting a master's in education, co-founded and developed a youth literacy organization called Youth Speaks, which later spawned a national poetry festival called Brave New Voices. We cannot take credit for Amanda Gorman at all, but what we can say is that the National Youth Poet Laureate program came out of alliance with a brother named Michael Cirelli, Urban Word Youth Speaks in the Brave New Voices festival. I've been involved on these tracks just all my life.
Matthew: You touched on it, but I just want to double click on it a little bit. You said because of the impact certain educators and teachers had on you, you wanted to become a teacher. What was, and what is, your sort of illuminating set of principles and ideas as an educator, and what did you bring to that part of the work, keeping in mind—and I know this because I know you—that you were not just teaching and starting Youth Speaks nonprofit, but at that time, you were, like, National Poetry Slam champion. You were on TV. We were watching you on Def Poetry Jam, cheering you on. What was sort of your guiding principles as you did that part of the work?
Marc: Inquiry was, and is still. I'm definitely an acolyte of Paulo Freire. I definitely formed an opposition to a banking model of education. But also, these are all tenuous times, right? There is no end of history. But when I was an undergrad, and the Millennium was approaching, there were a lot of questions that we had—not only about our own personal wherewithal, but just the direction of the planet. As surveillance technology started to develop, we were wondering, how do we continue in the spirit of civil rights activism in the face of these emerging technologies? And what is our role going to be? And I knew that my kind of weapon of choice, let's say, in terms of civil rights activism was going to be the propagation of culture. So, if that was going to be my lane, and I'm working with young people in developing a kind of pedagogical framework or foundation—if that was going to be my lane, I had to begin to ask myself, what is the best way to nurture voice?
Because in the tradition of civil rights activism, and in opposition to or in counterpoint to the silencing of marginalized voices and marginalized opinions, I had to develop a way pedagogically to try to help expand the kind of radius of voices or radius of individuals that felt like their voices mattered. And so, Pedagogy of the Oppressed was a seminal work for me in that space. The idea of leading with questions and leading with inquiry in order to propagate vocabulary, to engender vocabulary, and shared linguistic spaces, so that achievement or cultural manifestation could be articulated in the voice of the less fortunate or the marginalized—these really became the footholds for me thinking about how the questions that I asked a group of people were invitations to self-discovery, and that the maturation of written and spoken word that came out of those questions were really what I was after. So, inquiry first, inquiry as the bedrock.
Matthew: It also creates room for students to show up the way that you showed up and bring more of themselves and drive in levels of engagement with academic material certainly, when you can just—
Marc: ... It's mad hard. Yes, it's mad hard because nurturing originality might sound great on paper. But just the way the politics of the classroom go, man, you don't need 30 originals—
Matthew: I was about to go there on you. Tell me what your classroom management set of routines and practices were, and tell me how you scale that across a whole school district because I know a lot of folks—that's what they're thinking about when they hear that. "Inquiry” sounds great. It also sounds like a heavy lift.
Marc: It is a heavy lift. It's obviously best manifested in close quarters with appropriate teacher-to-student ratios. But what I found in terms of the inquiry was that I tended to start, and tend to start, with questions that emotionally implicate the folks on the other side of the question. I traditionally have had an easier role than your typical classroom teacher who's working with the same group of folks and sees them five times a week and so forth.
I have to capture the attention of groups of students immediately and achieve a lot in the 60-minute period, maybe a 90-minute period. And a lot of that is about getting young people to write, but it's also about getting people to trust me right away and what I tend to do is to deflect off of myself, and I try to find questions that implicate the listeners or implicate the room, intellectually and also biographically.
What's the last thing you said to the first person that you loved? Or what's the first thing you said to the last person that you loved? Those kinds of questions tend to have the effect in the room. They bring love into the room. And then we develop whatever the lesson plan is from there.
Matthew: Those are some heavy questions.
Marc: They are heavy questions.
Matthew: Those are heavy questions.
Marc: But this is what we do, right?
Matthew: It's brilliant. I get it.
Matthew: Hey, I want to shift now to this idea of the future of social impact and your current work, because you, at some point, made the leap. You were part slam poet, part performer, playwright, teacher, and co-founder of this youth organization. At some point, you really became a practicing artist, and was putting in work all over the country and all over the world, and also an administrator at cultural institutions.
Matthew: Tell us about that part of your journey, and about the way that you see the opportunity to shape the future of social impact from those kinds of places.
Marc: That's awesome. I've never not had 13 jobs. I've never—
Matthew: You're a true West Indian.
Marc: Yeah. I've never not had all these jobs. I never properly learned not to over-program myself. We can have a whole conversation about that, too. But part of what that meant was I needed—just from a temporal sense, just in terms of time management—I needed everything to be of service to everything else. And I needed everything that I did to be in service of a broader social justice goal. My learning journey begins with who it is that I’m accountable to. It begins with a kind of dissection of where my power is, what my privilege is, and what freedom is. I’ve always thought about the relationship between freedom, privilege, and power.
As I moved into institutions where there was a fair amount of power and privilege, I had to think about those institutions as levers for a kind of broader freedom aesthetic. I started to believe because I am the child of educators, essentially, I started to believe that freedom was something that you could design— that if we can design systems to incarcerate, and we can design systems to deport, then we can also pedagogically design social justice. We can pedagogically design freedom. And that art, because it lives in the place of inspiration and in the public imagination—art was a really beautiful conduit in order to achieve that end, whereas many of my peers at a place like Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, and pure organizations, were thinking about the work on stage as being of a most principal value in terms of its aesthetic output. I was a little less concerned with what the thing was on stage and a little bit more concerned with who it moved, who it spoke to, and what it impelled.
And I also started thinking at a really good party, where after a really good show, after the lights come up, there are always a whole bunch of people that just don't go anywhere. That are in this place where they're inspired, and they just need to sit with that feeling. And I started to think, what if I take those audience members, and I find them a year before the show? And I asked those audience members the same questions that the artists were thinking about, that inspired whatever it was that they just saw? In other words, what if I can create a parallel process where the artist is engaging a question and different members of creative ecosystem of—let's say, non-artists or non-cultural workers, were also thinking about the same question.
We're thinking about, what is on the other side of your body's joy? Or what is on the other side of your body shame? At the same time that the playwright Young Jean Lee was thinking about those same questions—how could I use my institutional space as incubators to nurture cultural production for non-professional artists? And maybe more to the point, what is the point of a cultural institution if it is not asking those kinds of questions? In other words, what good is a place like the Kennedy Center if it is only a citadel for prefabricated culture? These places have to be incubation spaces for the culture that is to come. So, when you ask, “what's the future of social impact?” the body politic will decide that. But there have to be places outside of K-12 education, or outside of formal academic institutions, that continue to prompt the body politic forward.
And so, I started to think in the Freirean way that these institutions were actually spaces where we could further ask our public questions–that we didn't think about our audiences as specific, kind of transactional bodies, but we thought of our audiences as conduits for whatever social vision it is, or whatever future we wanted to make together.
Matthew: That's a bold and ambitious goal. How have you done on it, my man? How have you done?
Marc: I'll tell you in the year 2121. I'll tell you how we've done as we are shaping the future. We have not made the future yet.
But I do think that we're experiencing this to some degree with vaccines now, right? Like vaccines used to be chemical compounds that were discovered. We've seen with all these vaccines, these are not discovered; these are engineered. We can engineer healing apparatus. And I believe that we can engineer social structures in the same way, as long as we have the resources and the political will.
I will say that at a place like the Kennedy Center, so far, so good. I haven't been there a long time. But I am realizing that approaching this work structurally and systemically is beginning to take hold in the organizational culture. It's a massive lift. This is a huge organization—50 years old, it is both a place for cultural performance, but it is also a federal memorial to the 35th President John F. Kennedy, which is just offhand, which is why there are congressional appropriations to the Kennedy Center. It's not just because we show Hamilton; it's because the Washington Monument gets appropriated funds. The Smithsonian gets appropriated funds.
Matthew: I actually never knew that. Now you’ve taught me something. Okay.
Marc: Hallelujah. Man, that’s all I've been trying to do, because I know you, dawg.
Matthew: Yeah, so check it. So, you have this interesting idea about the role of art to facilitate public healing. The last year has been a challenging time—you have the pandemic, of course; the accompanying economic fallout from the pandemic; you've got renewed energies around social justice, driven by outrageous acts that have now been filmed and caught on tape. And oh, by the way, if that wasn't enough, you have an attempted insurrection very recently. What role can the arts for social impact play in bringing about what I think you call public healing?
Marc Bamuthi Joseph: Yeah, we've spoken a lot about public health, and the infrastructure of public health. I feel maybe there hasn't been enough conversation about—because of all the phenomena that you just described, we are engaging in a mass traumatic event, the explosion on the racial timeline, all these coinciding coincidental crises. And when I think about the first days of the pandemic now, where would we have been without art? What would we have done? How many grandmas TikTok-ed? You know, music and books and what happened to Netflix. What about the proliferation of podcasts itself? All these different ways, all these different mediums of communicating.
So one, there's this idea this art and creativity was a stabilizing force when we most needed it. Two, there’s this notion of “the after,” and how we psychologically prepared to be in close proximity again, as much as I personally long for being in, let's say, a music hall and hearing a drum solo, am I going to be comfortable sitting next to somebody while that drum solo takes place? Yeah, the vaccine is part of the public health infrastructure, but that comfort, that re-entry both psychologically and physically, where's the infrastructure for that? Who is developing the kind of Marshall Plan for public healing as we re-enter the public square, and my belief is that because art has been such a stabilizing force, that art can also be an instructional force as we think about re-entry or re-integration into public space.
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Matthew: To your earlier point, all the more reason why we need to expand the voices and who the art reflects, and who gets to make the art and we want to welcome everyone back.
Marc: We do want to welcome everyone back. And in order to do that, I believe that cultural institutions have to be much more intentional. And this is where systems design and design thinking come in. Because I think cultural institutions historically have provided the symbolic gestures—here's a queer body on stage, here's a Black body on stage, here's a female-coded body on stage. You come, you see, you leave. My belief is that we can't just do this work symbolically; we have to do this work systemically, and thinking about inspiration itself as something that is in need of infrastructure, that is held by network cultural institutions. So, we have a Department of Education, we have a National Endowment for the Arts, I would love to see like a National Office of Inspiration.
I don't believe that we can be fully invested as citizens in the United States unless there's someone that's also stewarding that role in the country. And so how inspiration works in service of public healing is my current gig, and making sure that these ideas are rooted inside of the infrastructure and thinking of my cultural institution itself is also what I'm heavy at work on.
Matthew: And what can schools and classrooms do more of, do less of, to aid in that work?
Marc: I will say, my graduate work is in secondary education. And I move from that bias; though, primary education, early education, and what goes into primary education and early education are also at the center of this, but I have to ask myself, who are we trying to make? So, an example—this highfalutin independent school that I went to—I was invited to speak to the arts faculty there shortly after the murder of George Floyd. And we talked about curriculum. And I said, “You know, this school is less likely to produce someone who kills George Floyd. This school is more likely to produce Amy Cooper who called the police in the Ramble in Central Park.”
Matthew: In Central Park. The guy who was the birdwatcher, yeah.
Marc: Exactly. So, Black man birdwatching; this woman had her dog off leash. [Christian] Cooper was like, "Yo, you have your dog off leash. You're really not supposed to do that." She calls the cops. In terms of the scholastic responsibility, my belief is that we have to do a better job not just on the curricular level, or not just on the kind of topical level—read more plays by women authors, read more books by Black authors—not just that. But we have to think about citizenship, and maybe the specific relationship between law, economics, and race. I don't think that the history of those things are bound well enough in our current curricular structure.
We begin Women's History Month; we just left Black History Month, and that is how we pedagogically treat those bodies that are out of center. It's like the Hallmark calendar. It's Martin Luther King Day. So we're going to talk about Martin Luther King. Okay, it's Black History Month. Okay, now it's June. Okay, now, right? So, we tend to do it in this way and we don't fully make the integration of these different liberation struggles and these communities that are outside of center—we don't do that well enough in terms of the economic impact, the impact relative to law and so forth. I would advocate for schools to think about the outcomes of citizenship and the historical braiding, the historical integration that we need to make in order to produce not only the most knowledgeable citizens, but citizens that have an idea, or just bodies that have an idea of how all these things work together towards a more equitable future.
Matthew: Well said, I mean, obviously, you're not saying Women's History Month and Black History Month are not things we shouldn't be celebrating. What you're saying is, there needs to be a normalization and integration of those things into the broader narrative.
Marc: Exactly. We need to normalize Black genius, we need to normalize the achievement of women, we need to normalize “other,” and sometimes we have to pull other out in order to normalize it. What we don't do well enough, in my belief, is in an intersectional way—and this is why intersectional-ism is so important—in an intersectional way, narrativize for our young people, just how it is that all these struggles, achievements, and acts of genius are tied back to the founding of this country. We have to go back and forward—that it's not just that the genius act or the act of achievement is incredible. It's incredible against the backdrop of whatever was going on in the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th centuries. There's that narrative.
But then there's also this thing of, how do we undo the kind of social pathologies or the systemic pathologies that have created the need to itemize or segment these populations as the way we do? It's super deep. It's super hard. But my belief is that is actually why we have school.
Matthew: That's why we have school. And I would add, and that is why we have art, too, my friend, to help us.
Marc: I would add that, too.
Matthew: When I first met you, you were this just interesting hybrid. I was like, I think this cat has the highest GPA in our class. He's the best dancer in our class, because he was professionally trained, and was on Broadway, dancing as a kid. And you used to run these poetry events on campus that everyone attended back in those 90s, as you said—that sort of hip-hop infused moment of culture. And I remember thinking, wow, this guy is—the term back then I guess was “Renaissance Man.” I guess nowadays you'd say “polymath.” Where did that come from in you? And how was that nurtured? There are a lot of educators out there who are going to want to know, how do you reproduce this?
Marc: That's a really beautiful question. And thank you for that affirmation, brother. Let's start with the last of these places: the hosting of poetry events, which I'm sure has been going on since time immemorial. You and I both cut some teeth in the Bay Area and shout out to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who just passed away. But Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg's Howl in 1955, and went to the Supreme Court in the McCarthy era, to validate the publishing of this poem, which at the time was thought to be profane in all the wrong ways. But Ferlinghetti made space for free speech. And so many educators have the direct responsibility to tactically compose curricula and lesson plans to achieve a very specific end, whose byproduct very often is more cultural, or a byproduct that lives outside of a kind of two-dimensional reflection or assessment of the integration of epistemologies.
I come from a place where assessing the quality of an experience wasn't just about a kind of two-dimensional measure; it was about making space for something else to happen. And you didn't do that by thinking in any kind of linear way, in the same way that we don't track only visual learners, or only kinesthetic learners. We think about educating the entire child. We think about educating everyone in a room by using all the means at our disposal. So, it was more that, man. It was more like, how many different ways can I facilitate an environment for maximum cultural growth? How many different ways can I invite people to build something together? Do I need to use my body in order to tell the story? Do I need to use music in order to tell the story? Is cinema the most useful tool? And in my educational process, in the fabrication of the spaces, that’s always how I’ve thought—a little less of, let me dance, because I like to dance, and more, what can I use in order to invite the most people to the table?
Matthew: That's right. Now, as you were speaking, the thought that crossed my mind and its relevance to the work that I've been doing, and that many of us do in education, and certainly at HMH, is this idea of making things multimodal. And so, the research behind what people commonly refer to as the learning styles in shorthand has actually been disproven over time, because those were rigid categories that suggested that there were these distinct types of learners, while in fact, most of us learn in a variety of modalities. So, I tie that to you and your development, because you developed this really diverse set of skills and interests that were nurtured and were deliberately sort of multimodal. I know you were fortunate to go to an elite private school in New York City.
Matthew: Was it there where this was nurtured? Was it somebody in the community? Was it a church? Where did it come from? Who said, yes, this is what you can be.
Marc: I remember writing a kind of offshoot of Julius Caesar. Maybe I re-wrote, let's say Act 3, Scene I of Julius Caesar in an English class that was more in the vernacular of hip-hop and hip-hop culture. I do remember that I had a professor who was really excited about and he was like, “Oh, my God, that's so postmodern.” And I was just like, “well, isn't this just what we do? Isn't this who we are?” So I have to say that my peers nurtured me. I referenced a whole bunch of MCs earlier, and when they were making their work—when André 3000, and Big Boi, the members of the multi-platinum—
Matthew: Most successful hip-hop group of all time.
Marc: Of all time. They were saying some genius things at 16 or 17. The bar was really high for where I came from, but you reference Broadway. The person that I understudied on Broadway was Savion Glover, who has gone on to be the greatest tap dancer of all time.
Matthew: Arguably, ever. Yeah.
Marc: And I didn't learn very much tap dance from Savion. But I did get my first Boogie Down Productions tape from Savion. When we were out of the Minskoff Theater—so we were on Broadway, we were doing this thing, Tony Award winning Tap Dance Kid, and we’d come out of the theater, and there’d be these cats making money, hustling, spinning on cardboard right outside of the theater. And so, I never learned walls properly. I never learned silos of culture. I'm having difficulty now because my most prevalent form, my most pervasive form right now, is opera and writing opera librettos. And it's really hard for me to try to translate a vision of what I think opera is, what I think opera could be, to the rigid conventional forms of how traditionally, opera librettos are presented.
And so, I have to work with the composer, I have to work with a dramaturge, and I have to just explain myself in these different ways, because there isn’t really yet a way of notating opera librettos the way that is consistent with the kind of way of presenting that you’re talking about, which is to inscribe within the two-dimensional form, a five-dimensional experience that is also integrated into the dramaturgy of the work. So I won't say that it was nurtured in one place. It was the norm.
Matthew: My good friend, Chris Emdin, who's also HMH author, I know you know Chris's work.
Matthew: He talks about this notion of basically the goal of education and learning, particularly in this modern context, is about allowing young people to access and show up as their full selves, whoever they are in academic spaces. And it strikes me that you weren't going to let school just be school; you were going to show up in those spaces, and there were going to be opportunities for a broader sense of expression of who you were.
Marc: Absolutely. I mean, I also had dance teachers who also checked me on my ego, which was very important, because I also learned not to segregate academic achievement or even cultural achievement from personal principle. We are affirmed in these spaces, and maybe because we're affirmed, because we develop this trust in our mentors and in our educators, we seek to put in proper alignment, high character achievement with high academic achievement, and these weren't just spaces where my body or my person were affirmed. These were spaces of affirmation, where a principle was affirmed or the set of principles was affirmed. And I think that goes back to, okay, well then what are the environments that I want to make? We also feel a sense that joy is centered and access is centered and hierarchy—social, cultural, academic, intellectual, or otherwise—is not something that we want to promote, that we actually want to promote these kind of open spaces where the public imagination gets to thrive.
Matthew: I deliberately did not ask you any questions about the poem you opened with, because I wanted to wait. Couldn't help but notice, it was a reflective poem; you talked about your own internalized versions of these stereotypes that you were once—likely still are—subject to, but you also practice yourself. Give us the history, what's the breakdown on that poem, and then I'll let you finish with one more poem before we let you go.
Marc: I've been thinking about hope a lot. I'm looking at the view that I've had for most of the pandemic right now. I've been mostly in the same place. The things that I take into my body, the things that I take into my visual diet, is a little bit more limited than it was, let's say in 2018, 2019. So, what are the aesthetics that we're ingesting and how does that play against our broad psychology? For many of us, the aesthetics of—and the familiarity of—the beauty and greatness of the other is not germane to our day-to-day experience. So, as I was growing up—I said I was the child of Haitian immigrants—Haiti was, and maybe still is the bottom in terms of cultural affirmation, certainly in the West Indian community. I learned from a very early age and for many years afterwards, both by social experience and also by visual aesthetic and commercial experience, that it was not cool to be Haitian.
Marc: Many of us learned it is not cool to be dark-skinned, or it is not cool to be androgynous. We learn from early ages what is acceptable, what is beautiful, what is lauded. And, in our commercial culture, the body of a Black male is a contested site. The body of a Black female is a contested site, and for many different reasons. But the body of a Black male is a site to be feared, is a—
Matthew: Even for Black people, as your poem indicates.
Marc: Because those are the aesthetics of our popular culture. I spoke about what I'm taking in right now in the year 2020, in the year 2021. What I grew up taking in wasn't radically different. And so, when you grow up with that, even among your own, there's a way that the image of young Black men coming towards me is very familiar. I went to school at an all-Black, all-male college, it's not like I don't love Black men, that I haven't learned to love and be in the company of Black men. But still, there's a psychological seed.
And so now that I have a son, who is now 19 years old, I see him and his boys rolling, and I'm privy to their laughter. I'm privy to their joy. I'm privy to the aloof sense of a 19-year-old kid. We remember who we were as bodies. But I'm also aware that a stranger witnessing the same act of laughter, who has been programmed because of the aesthetics of popular culture, might consider that laughter in a more menacing way, in a more threatening way. And the poem exposes the contradictions there in the humanity that we do or do not extend to the other, and the constant work that we have to do whether we're in the demographic group or not—the constant work that we have to do in order to evolve past that.
Matthew: Oh, man, this has been fantastic conversation. I always learn when I sit at the feet of wise people like you, my friend, and I want to just thank you for sharing your wisdom. And thank you for all the great work that you're doing and the way in which you are shaping the future of social impact and leveraging your art to do it. So, thank you, man. And if you will honor us, I would love for you to take us out with a little bit of word, as they used to say.
Marc: I know, man. A little bit of word. Matthew Mugo Fields, it's been an honor man, I've always looked up to you. This is a proud moment for me to just be in the space with you and to take our off-camera, off-mic conversations to the people. So, thank you.
Matthew: Yeah, likewise.
Marc: This is a poem from a work called The Just and the Blind.
Seven years ago I was sitting in a shotgun house in 3rd ward Houston, on the phone with Dr. Michael Connor, asking him if it was ok if I proposed to his daughter. A few months before that I was sitting in my bedroom in Oakland, speaking on the phone with my mom who was in New York, asking her if I could propose to Kanoe with the same ring my dad used when he proposed. I asked for permission to love…
My last solid cry probably came about 6 months ago when I first learned about Jamarria Hall. Before he could legally vote, Jamarria was suing the state of Michigan in federal court. He and a group of students from Detroit’s worst performing high schools filed a class action lawsuit in August 2016, alleging that the public school system in Detroit denies children their constitutional right to literacy under the Fourteenth Amendment. Incidentally the named defendant in their lawsuit is the same governor who sits on hella Great Lakes and can’t get water right.
The idea of a ‘constitutional right to literacy’ broke me open and exposed to the conflicts of my own civic instincts. A right to language? Like a right to clean air? Or a right to love?...
How does a Black boy become an American? How does he learn his role to play? And what if that role, in part, is to stand in his country’s closet, waiting for someone to imagine him as a monster in the dark? If I take everything that I love about being Black and everything that I love about being an American, are those things themselves in a right or loving relationship? If not some legal charter, who gives us permission to be our greatest, loving selves…
In love, there is no lack
The coiled tension
Bought in a prism
Theorem of blue
Who am I human if not free
Where do I fit if I cannot roam…Outside myself
I lovingly sing myself, An anthem for quiet grace
In defiance of silence we claim the rite to love… We who make rage into color, make love into sound. We who see the world as it might be, and make it irresistible to the reticent, with or without sanction or permission.
And if I die for the rite to be love
Should the day come when my light is captured
bury me in the struggle for freedom
Matthew: And it is a beautiful, beautiful struggle, much like your work, my friend. Thank you, man.
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