But I tell you that men will have to give an account on the Day of Judgment for every careless word spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned. Matthew 12:36-37
There are several creative processes involved in community organizing which can deem certain community organizing efforts works of art. One such process is the delicate art of dialogue. According to the Bible, words can either build up or destroy. Proverbs 18:21 says that “the tongue has the power of life and death.” Such seemed to be the case with community organizer Saul Alinsky. The April 1972 issue of Playboy Magazine featured an interview with him. In it, Alinsky proclaimed, “If there is an afterlife, and if I have anything to say about it, I will unreservedly choose to go to hell.” Two months later, at the prime of his career, he unexpectedly died of a massive heart attack at the age of sixty-three. I hope, for the sake of Alinsky’s soul and for those who loved him, that God deciphered that Alinsky was merely trying to be provocative and didn’t really mean what he said.
It was apparent to me early on in my community organizing that I should be careful what I say in public and in the press. In 1992, shortly after guest-starring as the main character (the zany and pregnant Mrs. Minifield) in the second-to-last episode of The Cosby Show, I created and ran an educational and motivational youth mentoring program for the 8th grade class of the St. Aloysius School in Harlem, New York City, around the corner from where I lived. Several of the children were at-risk youth. Part of the project involved my bringing in, every week, highly accomplished Black and Latino professionals in various fields to speak with the children at length. Several of the guest speakers were celebrities, including some of the actors from The Cosby Show. The project garnered attention in the press, with articles in six high-profile newspapers. Thankfully, I did not say anything that I regretted, though I was young. I did, however, learn that the press will sometimes publish words that you state are “off the record.”
Today, after more than 20 years of continuous community-organizing volunteer work in the arts, education, entertainment and youth sports; I find myself focused on a professional networking art movement I began in December 2011, called BAILA (Black Artists in Los Angeles). The purpose of BAILA is to illuminate the work and advance the careers of Black visual artists in the L.A. area. BAILA’s ultimate goal is to serve as a catalyst in the erasure of the gross marginalization of Black visual artists across the nation.
I bring various elements of my visual arts practice into the BAILA work-effort which involves my organizing and facilitating educational roundtable discussions between BAILA and mainstream art organizations and professionals, independently curating art exhibitions for the group, video and photo archiving BAILA happenings, organizing studio visits, workshops and critiques for BAILA members, writing and publishing, and mentoring BAILA youth and adults.
The format I designed for the roundtables is artistically aesthetic — visually, procedurally and diologically. At times, the unscripted roundtable conversations have resulted in a dramatic display of reactions. Out of serene discourse; spontaneous symphonies of emotional expression have erupted, catapulted by incendiary, subconsciously racist remarks, blurted from the mouths of well-meaning Caucasian art museum curators. Dissonant gasps of disbelief emanate from the throats of Black artists, resounding in unison, as arms fly up beckoning comments, and smiles turn into frowns, while the faces of the perpetrators turn red in bafflement over what they could have possibly said which would elicit such a unified response from a room full of nearly one hundred Black visual artists.