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Thursday, September 29, 2016

On being a "revolutionary artist"

This week, writer/filmmaker Ava DuVernay premieres her documentary The 13th, which explores the history of and profound racial bias in our system of mass incarceration, at the New York Film Festival. (It debuts on Netflix and some theaters Oct. 7.) 

Director Ava DuVernay

Also premiering this week: the Netflix series Luke Cage, where showrunner/writer Cheo Hodari Coker chose to make Cage’s superhero costume a hoodie as a way to honor Trayvon Martin and bring racial bias to light. (Not to mention how rare black superheroes on TV have been.) Both approaches are an act of artistic revolution.

 What makes art “revolutionary”?

My first experience with revolutionary art was Alex Haley’s Roots. I read it when I was 11, and Kunta Kinte’s defiance gave me air and light. I began recording my own family’s oral histories and hand-writing a story about a young girl’s experience on the Middle Passage. Haley gave me the desire to better understand my world and a mission to try to right the wrongs of history--through my writing.

Today’s social-minded writers and artists are faced with a prime opportunity to help change the narratives of exclusion and disempowerment and create the stories WE think should be told to help build a better world.

When we think of social justice activists, we often think of people like my parents--my father, John Due, still a civil rights attorney at 81, or my late mother, Patricia Stephens Due, who spent 49 days in jail after a sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960 and was arrested multiple arrests in the 1960s. Or, we think of the Black Lives Matter movement and other activists staging protests in Charlotte and across the country. Or San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the National Anthem.

My mother arrested in 1963

Whether or not we attend a protest or ever leave our computers, artists are revolutionaries too. But how can we create world-changing art without Message overwhelming Story? What are effective storytelling techniques to help readers embrace your passions? How can your own work be more inclusive? How do you write The Other?

Starting Oct. 7, my husband and collaborator, Steven Barnes, and I are offering a six-week webinar course: “Revolutionary Art: Writing for Social Justice.” With a combination of lectures, recorded interviews, and appearances by artists such as writer/producer Reggie Hudlin, six 90-minute segments will help artists gain clarity on the ways art can be revolutionary and help advance the national conversation on social justice.  (Since all sessions are recorded, students can listen when they have time and take the course at their own pace.)

My novel-in-progress has been one of my most emotionally difficult writing projects, but one I think could also be important: it’s about a 12-year-old boy sent to a children’s prison in Florida in 1950. The novel will have ghosts, but the true horror is in the prison system itself, the quiet bureaucracy, and a town’s conspiracy of silence. (This novel was inspired by the real-lifeDozier School for Boys, where my great-uncle died in 1937.

Although it’s a historical novel, I hope readers will see the many parallels between Jim Crow criminal justice and our criminal justice system today.

My short story collection, Ghost Summer—which just won a British Fantasy Award—introduces this novel’s fictitious town of Gracetown, where history lives in the soil and my characters must battle monsters both from without and within. Not all of the stories in the collection are set in Gracetown or have social justice themes, but all of them raise questions about what it means to be human—and since black characters have historically been so underrepresented in literature, even a declaration of humanity is a still a revolutionary act.

What does your revolutionary art look like?

Even as I grew up hearing stories of my mother’s heroism in the face of teargas and taunts, she made sure I understood that art is an important tool in activism. She knew I wanted to be a writer from the age of four, and she pointed out that the NAACP assigned a lot of resources to the Beverly/Hills Hollywood in the 1960s because the civil rights organization understood the importance of IMAGERY and STORIES to help create change. My respect for my parents and their passion for civil rights was so great that if they had even hinted that writing was a waste of time, I might not be a writer.

My parents believed I could raise my voice in my own way. You can too.

Writing for social justice need not be literal—like N.K. Jemisin’s novel The Fifth Season, which recently won a Hugo Award and is packed with imaginative fantasy world-building—but was inspired by Ferguson. And often, the mere insertion of characters from disenfranchised populations in our art can have a profound impact on creating new narratives.

We are superheroes. We are wizards. We are world-changers.

Steve and I both have taught extensively: I’m currently teaching Afrofuturism at UCLA, I’m on the faculty for the summertime VONA writers’ workshop for writers of color, and I’ve lectured at the Geneva Writers Conference. We both just returned from lecturing on a fantastic Caribbean cruise for writers, where we found a tribe of writers of all races and background who want to make a difference. Next March, I’ll be honored to appear with Dr. Angela Davis and other panelists at Black Women Rise in West Palm Beach, Florida.

I sign petitions, write letters, and contribute to causes when I can, but my primary voice is through my art. And in striving to make my characters as real and human as possible in the face of unimaginable odds, I hope to present a blueprint for change for all of us.

The course starts soon. Listen to the free sample and read what we’re offering. And please pass on our URL to a friend: Hope to see you there!

Tananarive Due is an American Book Award winner, NAACP Image Award Winner, and British Fantasy Award winner. She teaches Afrofuturism at UCLA. Her website is