We think about race in America in glimpses. Multiple lenses are needed to illuminate the long histories of injustice, oppression, and cruelty in this country. Colson Whitehead’s latest novel The Nickel Boys takes place in the Jim Crow era but has definite resonance now. Its particular look back is like a jazz riff on contemporary inequity. It’s a tale well told about our society’s lack of concern for those who are poor, those lacking caring guardians, those lacking adequate education.
The megahit film Black Panther, released fifty years after the cultural rebellions of the 1960s, has elicited much praise. The loudest praise concerns the bottom line. It is among the ten highest-grossing films ever made. Many of its black fans praise the fact that the director, Ryan Coogler, is black and that the cast and creative team are almost entirely black. It has been difficult to get such a movie made. Coogler did it. It is only right that these fine artists were able to grab an opportunity and succeed glowingly. The movie’s financial success is a kind of claim on power. Will “No Justice—No Peace” be replaced by “Wakanda Forever”?
The men and women in prisons across this country have an American song to sing, a story to tell. Even as there is an increased concern that our society has become too punitive, few of us know what that song might sound like. Arts programs in prisons—rare enough to begin with—are often temporary and vulnerable to cancellation. (The same is true of schools.) Apparently the overseers of notorious Parchman Farm prison in Mississippi in the early twentieth century saw the value of music. Work songs and field hollers were at the very least tolerated, because they moved the work along at a pace, and toward a profit.