Sunday, October 31, 2010

In The Light Of Bobby Porter

Towards Fragile Peace In The Confrontation Of Vulnerability

Disclaimer: I did not know Bobby Porter that well. Much of what I may say could be construed as romanticism or hearsay. This is simply my journey towards approaching a tangible understanding born from a stirring realisation when I was an artist in my mid thirties. One day, I woke up and screamed, “I’m not going out like Bessie or Zora.” This internalisation of the history of American artists of colour, made some profound changes on my psyche.


Bobby Porter was an African-American artist in Pittsburgh who crossed genres and lived a life in harmony with his muse. Recently, he made his transition. How sad for all of us still waiting. How glorious for him. From all I know, he was a big-spirited man who just made himself a place wherever he was. Some very high brow people call that “zen,” now. In fact, there are even best-selling books called “Be Here Now.” Well, he was here. He was now. And from what I have been told, there was not a cardboard box on the planet which could label and contain him.

What is actually sad about Bobby’s journey to the ancestor’s arms is that he made it as a United States veteran. Not sad, you may say, because he lived to sing even after Vietnam. He stood up and defended our ability to choose liberty, freedom or both. His artistic life celebrated the notion of liberty. (Our founding fathers made it quite clear that “freedom” comes with responsibility, frugality and work for the sheer joy of combating the evils of idleness.) But, liberty....is a very different concept all together. And he went out there and defended both principles....liberty and freedom. Those same founding fathers who believed Bobby’s ancestors should not be free and also did their best to control his ancestor’s liberty when freedom actually arrived.) So - in spite of every historical nuance - Bobby presented a persona that through his life and artistic choices stated firmly, “we all arrive here on this planet as homo sapiens. And, we have the liberty to choose the ways in which we conduct our lives.”

So, it does not surprise me that our government could not even allow him liberty in death. They will only pay for a body to be interred, not cremated. In this day and age of discussing “greening everything from our bathrooms to our cities, this is a curious standpoint. Cremation is the greenest form of remembering that the soul has moved on and the Earth remains a limited resource from which all of humanity must sustain ourselves. Regardless of politics, the fact remains, that Bobby’s close friend had to find a way to remove him from their facility and find the funds necessary to honour his last wishes.

We live in a wonderful digital time. People can be mobilised within seconds. A heroic effort was launched on Facebook letting people know about donation centres or events around town which would take money to offset the costs of honouring a valuable community member’s wishes. Awesome!

However, this got me thinking. Why are we as an artist community not tapping into those resources which allow us to care for our own? Six years ago, my friend’s house burned down. I learned that in order to get relief donations broadcast on the news, we had to set up a “relief fund” through a reputable bank.” Getting the relief fun set up took one hour. Once it was set up, I was able to contact all news media sources and they gladly did “follow-ups on the tragic fire and how you can help.” My friend was able to rebuild her life. I learned a lot from that.

We now have excellent resources such as, “Caring Bridge” and Helping Hands” and “Kickstarter.” And here is where I begin to question our - defined as the artistic community - commitment to liberty but not freedom.

Every time an artist gets sick or dies...it is always a mad scramble to fix it. And so many wonderful energetic souls step up. It and always seems to happen. But, we don’t we plan for these eventualities?

Some of us may be off the scene for a period of time and want to help. But can’t because we are no longer able to whip by “this show” or swing by “that venue.” Yes, in fact, some of us have traded our liberty for freedom. We have living wills, regular wills and great detailed plans for “controlling our artistic work” long after we’ve gone. (With allocated administrators and folks we deem appropriate to the task of honouring our artistic vision. Laugh all you want, but, Langston Hughes was one smart cookie. And whomever is his beneficiary is doing just fine.)

Just because some of us think like this, doesn’t mean we don’t want to help. It just means as artists, each of us choose their own path. Some paths value liberty. Some paths value freedom. Some paths value a balance between both. But, we are all out here together sewing our souls onto our sleeves and asking the world whether it moves them or not.

Even before Abolition, Black folks knew that “shit happens.” I remember reading about a Free Men’s Society in Philadelphia circa 1830. Every member paid one nickel a month. (Approx. $20.00 today) And when it came time to bury someone or help someone or send someone down south the free a free man who was taken by unjust laws., they had it! There was no corporation trying to minimise risk for shareholders. There were people in this community who had a need. Period. And if the coffers went dry, well, I suppose they fund-raised. (I apologise for not citing a reference. Those books are no longer littered up with bookmarks. In fact, they all live in a closet at the top of the staircase because I care so much about “neat” and “tidy.” No longer do I feel a compulsion to immediately reference a source and make a footnote on my musings. As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to validate my own knowledge. Look it up yourself.)

So what do people think about getting behind the knowledge that “shit happens?” What do you think about organising and pulling our resources together so that we are prepared? What intellectual, emotional, physical, financial resources would you contribute to making sure that this never happens again? Because - I’m not going out like Zora. And I know you don’t want to either. And I know that betwixt all of us....we may just build a better legacy for Bobby and all artists ...whether they are of colour or not.

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