2016 has left me breathing deep–occasionally gasping–to keep my head above the undercurrent of sadness and anxiety. Our world’s wounds sure have made these shoulder’s sag. Which is why I was glad to get coffee with my friend Zhailon over Christmas break.
Zhailon is a Southern boy-turned-actor living in New York City. I’m his friend holding down the fort as a community arts director in Shreveport, LA, where we both grew up. Our daily lives are very different, but one question has synced with our pulses this year:
How do we respond to the division, the violence, the shock, the fear?
For both of us, the answer is art. My medium is writing. His, aside from the hustle of landing shows, is a campaign called “Words on White”—a collaborative effort started with his friend and fellow artist/activist, Rob Newman. They are young (22 & 23). They are male. They are black. And they are contributing something vitally important to the conversation on race in America.
“Art keeps me going, ” Zhailon says halfway through his dark roast, “It reminds me that hope is not illusive. It is as present and material as anything out there. It is everything that happens after you realize that the story’s not over. I get out of bed in the morning because of the possibility of life—the possibility that I could walk outside and my entire world could change. I’m doing work that is giving people the opportunity to find vocabulary again for healing. I’m helping people find a voice, because I know what it’s like to not have one.”
And Words on White seems to be doing just that.
While heading to bed the week of the Philando Castile and Alton Sterling deaths, Zhailon’s friend spoke the words that have trailed off the lips of many in our country who have stared at the news for the last eighteen months: “What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know, ” he replied and went to sleep.
A divine deposit is how he describes the idea of Words on White that he received the next morning. Together, with friends (and their collective desire to explore a conversation about social injustice), Zhailon worked to create an environment for raw emotion and processing. The staple elements of the first Words experiment were the ones that have remained for all those that have followed: a community canvas, live artists, and some sort of text regarding race that is then elevated by actors reading or painters painting etc.
For example, at their pop up event in Central Park, a 40ft community canvas, on which different artist would perform, was unveiled. Among the contributors was a ballet dancer (a white woman) who put paint on her ballet shoes and danced out her feelings about the state of the world. Once the artists finished their demonstrations, the audience was then invited to approach the canvas and write anything they wanted–anything they were thinking or feeling pertaining to the artistic experience at hand or the suffering at play in the world around them. The experiment was unifying, and the events that have followed have been just as powerful.
Sometimes, he described, children will come and draw rainbows and flowers as if–though they have no clue what is actually taking place–they know that the moment calls for something cathartic. Sometimes those pictures fall directly beside the words, ‘Blood, blood, blood, blood, blood, rape, ’ which will fall directly beside a prayer written in Arabic.
“It feels like it is my own kind of ministry and activism. The community canvas becomes an altar and the audience’s invitation an altar call, ” Zhailon reflects back on the 15+ experiences that they’ve curated. He references the actors, artists, law students, ministers and Wall Street workers who have joined him and said, “It feels like this…this…is me saying, ‘Your will on earth as it is in Heaven.’”
The healing starts in that moment when a woman in Hijab and a black man in a suite pause from their writing and gaze up to look each other in the eye, he shares. “And this is what the artist knows: the opposite of war is not peace, it is creativity…”
“The opposite of death is not life, but resurrection, ” I reply. Our conversation had stirred my weary soul and reminded me of truth in which we can put hope for our coming year: beauty may very well restore us.
We look to the artists in times like these because the artist is practiced at making discarded things new. She takes on the role of prophet, not because she is saturated in advanced spirituality, but because she has developed the eye to see that nonsensical loss and dehumanizing violence still hold the ability to be folded back into themselves in a story of resurgence…in a story where Love itself came as a refugee, was executed, then showed back up a few days later to remind us that not even this means its over. We look to the artist because, not only does she make space for truth-telling; she also believes that a Creator created her to create. The artist validates the vulnerably exposed wound and knows we have more to do.
We look to the art because of its mystery in uniting us through mediums that give us the words we didn’t think we’d be able to find. With our hands, our legs, our lungs we breathe out the laments; we breathe in the next steps. We look to the art because it breaks down our defenses in ways that debates and declarations cannot. In a country divided, in a world at war, amidst people who are afraid that they’re basic human rights are under threat, art becomes the vehicle for the Counselor who “helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.”
“Art is what saved me, ” Zhailon says. And, here at the end of a heavy 2016, I believe him. It may be what saves me too.