Monet Noelle Marshall's face with the text "Buy My Soul and Call It Art"

What is a soul worth? Do I have to answer that?

Not a question I thought I would be contemplating on a Saturday afternoon in downtown Durham

But I was. And it was uncomfortable.

After nearly an hour of witnessing, absorbing, and engaging with the performers of Buy My Soul And Call It Art inside the Living Arts Collective, I found myself sitting across from Monét Noelle Marshall – the installation’s creator and director. With her hands gently folded on the table in front of her, she asked me a simple question: “What is my art worth to you today?”

Monet Noelle Marshall's face with the text "Buy My Soul and Call It Art"

I like to believe that I’ve developed a stronger ability to identify and name systems of oppression and racism. I’m grateful for thought-leaders like Monét to remind this privileged cisgender white woman (me) that, in fact, I’m far from being “woke.” Scene after scene throughout the show revealed the complex web of entertainment, art, media — even the nonprofit sector — and how the white dominant culture co-opts black artists, ideas, and identities. Sometimes covertly. And sometimes in plain sight.

In the opening portion, we witnessed a young Black man performing through dance in an enclosed space; the walls were see-through yet not penetrable. There were slots, like mail slots in doors, on walls adjacent to this box (containment, confinement). And we were each given paper money to spend during our time in the exhibit. So, one person walked forward and slipped some of their paper money into one of the slots. The goal: giving a tip to the performer. A few more folks walked up and put their paper money into one of the two slots — I ended up making the choice to do that too.

But, none of the paper money ended up in this performer’s space. He looked around for it then up at us, How could the dollar bills not be there? We were then led to the other side of the installment to see two white young nonprofit professionals in their own containers, the floors littered with paper money. Yet, they complained bitterly about how the lack of funds meant fewer resources for them to distribute to the “inner city kids” — programs would have to be cut. What could they do with a donation of just $35?

Gut-punch times a 1,000 for me at this moment.

I cannot do Monét’s work justice with my words; and I don’t want to overshare in hope that she will be able to bring this powerful work to more places in the Triangle and beyond.

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Grateful to all of these talented arists and performers who made this exhibit happen

It is too easy to go through this world and accept what is at face value, especially in regards to the elements of our culture. Art, music, theater, dance, film, writing. Who has the power, in these worlds, to be seen and heard? Who is rewarded? Who is praised and acknowledged? Last year’s #OscarsSoWhite was, in my recent memory, one of the first times many people started to pay attention to the, as Indy Week writer Kevin J. Rowsey II coins, the “problematic relationship between black art and the arts and entertainment industry.” 

It can’t stop with outrage at one awards show. This is an on-going battle to control and disseminate media and seek financial gain, fame, notoriety. But don’t think that there’s nothing we can do to change this. Absolutely we can. It requires us to be intentional and do the work to use our resources in ways that support diverse, equitable, and inclusive cultural outlets.

I am committing to seeking out and supporting spaces that not only promote the work of black artists but center black artistry. I am committed to actively reading more written works by people of color; spending my money to support black and brown musicians, painters, illustrators, songwriters, filmmakers — whatever medium I elect to consume. This show also re-ignited my flame to tackle the problematic elements of the nonprofit sector. Yes, that will most certainly be a future blog post.

Earlier this year, I shared my quest to become a more mindful consumer. This is another avenue for me and for you to walk. I certainly get to benefit from the talent, hardwork, and skills of black artists.

The question is: do they get to benefit from my consumption? Or does that funnel back to those in power, those who hold the purse strings?

Here is additional coverage of Monèt Noelle Marshall & Buy My Soul and Call It Art

How can I be a part of the struggle for racial justice?

For those who lived in the United States, have the headlines over the last year made you feel like our world had turned into a movie? Let’s take it back to 1998 for a minute…

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Photo via IMDB

In all seriousness, it has been mind-blowing to me. The fear-mongering tactics undertaken by leaders, to pit people against people, is unraveling vital threads that many within our nation have put their lives on the line for – and even sacrificed them – to build. Our country has never been “the land of the free” for all. The policies passed and actions taken have been designed to ensure whites stay in power and people of color remain on the margins. [Note: I had the opportunity to participate in one of the Dismantling Racism workshops. If you have never been through a focused training on racial justice, I highly, highly recommend it.]

It sickens me to even write those words, but to try and paint a rosy picture of an inclusive or compassionate past would be outlandish, if not dangerous. As a white person, it is my responsibility to learn, understand, and recognize the oppressive nature of our systems – and then take action. Whether it is public education, incarceration, the media – all of these outlets help to feed into the narrative that white is good and black/brown is bad.

Again, it’s ludicrous – so we (white people) need to be standing in active solidarity with our fellow humans, acknowledging that #BlackLivesMatter, abandoning silly notions that “race-neutral” policies will somehow “fix” diversity. We must seek to listen first. We need to be aware of our privilege that our skin color allows us to be treated differently in this world and opens doors that remain sealed for too many – pigment is powerful in the United States.

White liberals and progressives have a responsibility to organize their communities for social justice using an explicitly anti-black racism frame. There is no need to hide behind black or people of color organizations. Commit yourself to organizing poor and working class white folks. We are capable of organizing our communities. Our children need everyday white folks to work harder to ensure that black women don’t have to worry about dying after failing to signal properly, walking while transgender or trying to protect their children.” – Charlene Carruthers, national director of Black Youth Project 100

Black people don’t need to be convinced that anti-black racism, structural inequity and skin privilege are facts; white people do… White people have to do the hard work of figuring out the best ways to educate themselves and each other about racism. And I don’t know what that looks like, because that is not my work, or the work of other black people, to figure out. In fact, the demand placed on black people to essentially teach white folk how not to be racist or complicit in structural racism is itself an exercise of willful ignorance and laziness. – Darnell L. Moore, senior editor at Mic and co-managing editor of The Feminist Wire

Recently, Stephen Colbert invited DeRay Mckesson to “The Late Show” stage. Mckesson is a Teach For America alum and is on the frontlines of activism for the #BlackLivesMatter movement. McKesson’s visit to the program made waves as Colbert brought up his own privilege during their conversation, which turned into the two literally swapping seats for a dialogue that we don’t often see on mainstream television programming.

I’m embarrassed and at times filled with shame at how late I am to being willing to recognize my privilege. I’ve admitted this in front of various rooms before. In reflection, I believe that was rooted in guilt: guilt for being White, guilt for having an upbringing where I could take part in pretty much whatever I wanted, guilt for the understanding that not attending college was never even a question or thought. I could do wherever I pleased without question. It took me nearly 30 years to begin unpacking these realizations – and it’s not over yet.

So, when I hear phases like, “we need our country back,” it sends me into a tizzy. BACK FROM WHAT? Really? I will not claim to know the circumstance of all white people, but I have to scratch my head when I hear political candidates use this phrase during speeches. Similarly, the “we’ll make this country great again” is a head turner. To make our country really great would be to NOT go back into our past that was constructed on violent extremism – denying civil liberties and access to resources. There are fragments of greatness, in principle, but these pieces have not been available to everyone.

Each day, we have an opportunity to recreate the narrative and to dismantle the structures rooted in white privilege. So I am going to do my part, whether it is writing blog posts that may make you and even me feel uncomfortable; seeking out media from sources like The Root, and getting involved in groups like Standing Up For Racial Justice.

I won’t ever claim to be an expert. I won’t ever claim to be perfect. But this is me – trying – to work towards a just, loving world where no pyramid power structure exists. I believe this can exist – but it’s going to take all of us to be a part of the movement.

You may not get the validation you hunger for. Stepping outside of the smoke and mirrors of racial privilege is hard, but so is living within the electrified fences of racial oppression – and no one gets cookies for that. The thing is that when you help put out a fire the people whose home was in flames may be too upset to thank and praise you – especially when you look a lot like the folks who set the fire. That’s OK. This is about something so much bigger than that.

There are things in life we don’t get to do right. But we do get to do them. 

– Ricardo Levins Morales

I’d love to hear about resources, outlets, etc. that have informed or enlightened you on this topic. What are you doing to for justice? What would you like to be doing that you are not already?