1. Introduction - 2 Freedoms: Kerouac’s and Lowndes’
My friend and I used to joke about the magic can of beans cooked on a fire under the stars on the side of the road. Somehow, like in On The Road by Jack Kerouac, such moments emanate with wonder, expansive possibillity. Sitting there, maybe on a log or piece of concrete, looking out at the night - each time I drove cross-country I would look out (at a rest-stop in North Carolina, the park in Grand Junction, Colorado). But the joke is, after all, it’s just a can of beans - ha ha.
“America, that is the name of my unhappiness,” Kerouac wrote in Visions of Cody. It is this precise mix of promise and disappointment that marks the Heartland.
I’ve been to the Heartland in Western Massachusetts, Upstate New York, and two hours drive north of Los Angeles. But the Heartland is not just the non-urban, non-suburban, because the meanest ghetto of St. Louis Missouri (where the libraries closed and they even stopped collecting garbage for a while due to a lack of funds) - that too is the heartland. As is the Wal-Mart parking lot in Wyoming.
The Wal-Mart parking lot which dooms the local bookstore, pharmacy, hardware store. And now even the local grocery because Wal-Mart’s huge tasteless genetically modified tomatoes are half the price of the local ones. - The Heartland: “Wow, we can do what we want!” Followed by “ohmygod, this is what we want to do?!”
I remember an image from ‘91 or ‘92 - a sign on the side of the road in Montana: “Fuck the New World Order.” The first people to recognize and criticize globalisation were in the Heartland. When Bush Sr. presided over the end of the Cold War and announced the “New World Order” the farmers in Montana saw through it instantly. It was one thing to defend freedom, but altogether another to propose explicitly to run the world. They were part of the good old-fashioned American democratic-republican tradition who recognized that imperialism was the main threat to self-government. The important critics of US imperialism (and the police-state-ism that goes with it) were not from California or New York but from Montana and Wisconsin (search the internet for Senator Frank Church of Idaho, for instance: “Means are important as ends.”)
I drove cross-country six or seven times, and for years made shorter trips around California, Nevada, Arizona, Washington. My project for the Heartland exhibition concerns Lowndes County, Alabama - a place that is in some ways “nowhere” but is also the location of world-historical political events. (Which in one way makes Lowndes a dramatisation of the conditions we all live with everywhere.)
In the begginning of 1965 in Lowndes, no African Americans were registered to vote, because a complex system of violent harrasment and intimidation stood in their way. The area was known by civil rights workers as “bloody lowndes,” and because of how severe the repression there was, some in the civil rights community thought to make a kind of example - if they could challenge white supremacy there, they could challenge it anywhere. So in 1965, a collaboration of activists from the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee and local leaders formed the Lowndes County Freedom Organization - an independent political structure dedicated to electing African Americans to political office (self-government, in essence). Activists from around the world know this story, but it has been largely ignored within most histories of the civil rights struggle, except that the symbol for the LCFO was a black panther - a symbol which was then taken by the much more famous Black Panther Party of Self Defence. My project for “Heartland” is an exploration of the LCFO - it’s legacy, it’s contradictions, it’s memory.
At the end of Dharma Bums, a spirit comes to Kerouac and tells him his mission is to remind people that they are essentially free. Is this kind of freedom connected to Lowndes County Freedom?
2. Understanding Readiness
Amiri Baraka’s eulogy for Kwame Ture, who was Stokley Carmichael concludes (watch a poem reading by Baraka here):
..what is this brother’s name? Organizer, Black Panther, Lowndes County, SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Black Power, Black United Front, Pan-Africa, Nkrumah, Scientific Socialist, Ready For Revolution, Undying Love For The People, All-African People’s Revolutionary Party…Stokely Carmichael, Kwame Ture…Comrade, Warrior, Idealogue, Thinker, Revolutionary, Leader, Hero…My Man…My Brother
I remember hearing Baraka perform it and the list repeating - I think he even said Lowndes County Lowndes County Lowndes County.
3. Ignorance and Memory in Tulsa, Oklahoma - Preparations For An Artwork
“Above all else I hate that which merely informs me without directly instructing my activity…” - Goethe (as quoted in Nietzche’s Use and Abuse of History for Life)
There are mass graves in Tulsa, Oklahoma. People know where they are, but no one will pay to have them dug up.
In 1921, there was a race-riot in Tulsa, and estimates of the dead vary widely - between 30 and 3,000. Tulsa had a very succesful African-American population - it was known as the Black Wall Street - and that area of the city was destroyed. No one talked about it for years and years. Then, in the 1990’s some historian heard a bit about it and started to investigate, leading to a truth commission which pin-pointed the possible locations of mass graves, but the no one would give permission to dig them up.
Hannah Arendt called Walter Benjamin a pearl-diver: he would dig up some small fact or episode that appeared marvelous and full of illumination. The ignored graves of Tulsa, Oklahoma could be like that. Can the people there really avoid such unsettling facts without consequence, I wonder? Or is the lesson that because such public truths serve no particular individual’s agenda, and private agendas are the real engine of the US now, those number of dead will likely stay unknown for another seventy years. Whom does the truth serve?
These kind of situations have now become the terrain of contemporary art - recovering repressed collective memory is now a fairly common strategy. It does beg the question that perhaps such symbolic recuperations are promoted because they are far simpler than reckoning with the absence of any real reconciliation. More importantly, though the story of Tulsa is shocking and outrageous, there is no particular moral to it. Like most documentary films, one just consumes it and moves on.
What I find so important about Amiri Baraka’s work is that he throws us right into the middle of human struggle, and he does so by reckoning with actual experiences of politics. Baraka, I think, would recognize that the aesthetic and political meaning of Tulsa is lamentation and vigilance, while the meaning of Lowndes County is an affirmative model, a how-to lesson in political change.
Hasan Jeffries is, to my knowledge, the only historian to seriously work on the history of Lowndes County. A piece of his can be read here. Jeffries is intervening, quite deliberately I believe, in the abstract and moralistic conventional narrative of the civil rights struggle. By pointing out the necessity of armed self-defence in the pursuit of non-violent political strategies, Jeffries radicalizes the narrative and dramatizes the real brutality of white supremacy in the Jim Crow south. His work also goes back to Nietzche’s demand that history must not just “inform” but “instruct” - that there be a moral to the story.
This is why activists and organizers are the only people who remember what happenned in Lowndes County - Lowndes holds the lesson that “it can be done” and how to do it, how the disenfranchised can overcome a corrupt order and establish self-government. (It’s hard to admit it, but it’s something the white activists from the 60’s never really managed.)
One activist who has returned to Alabama after decades away told me he moved back to be “where the people stood up.” That somehow expresses why I wanted to go to Lowndes County - to see the landscape and try to understand the place “where the people stood up.”
And given the limitations of critical art that only depicts something people in general can oppose, what would an affirmative art look like?
And of course, what do such questions mean (what are the stakes, whose interests are served) by asking these questions in the Netherlands, where many towns have a MartinLutherKingstraat, and their own history and race-relations are not at all clear, or just?