Last Friday, my and Grant Cooper’s new company, Winfield Artists, L.L.C. had our first official promotional event at our office space in One World Trade Center. Our journey to forming this company has been organic and inspired. With humble beginnings at a book signing party in Grant’s brother Darrell Cooper’s backyard in Brooklyn, we have developed a repertoire of programs and have our sights set on utilizing Grant’s expertise in scenario-based training in many kinds of organizations.
We shared our vision for the present and future direction of the company with our audience of friends and colleagues and Friday. They were tremendously supportive, and full of great connections and ideas! Stephen Luz even dedicated a song to us!
We are grateful to everyone who attended. We strongly believe in the quote from Paul Robeson that we have adopted as our guiding mantra: “Artists are the gate keepers of truth.” We intend to remain true to this observation through our work at Winfield Artists. Visit our web site for more details! Here’s to a successful launch and a bright future that brings light to all of the lives that we touch through the arts.
View our toast to Winfield Artists here!
This week Grant Cooper and I took a group of students from the Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts to Lincoln Center to see Raoul Peck’s new film on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro.
The film’s release in New York beautifully coincided with the discussion series on the writing of James Baldwin that we are facilitating on Monday nights in February at the high school. All of the students who went to the film with us have been attending the discussion series, and delving into Baldwin’s poetry as well as essays like “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me What Is?” and “A Talk to Teachers.” The conversations with parents, students, and educators has been lively and substantial.
It was very gratifying to see the young scholars connecting with Baldwin’s writing which is at once both present and prescient. On the subway heading to see the film, one student pulled out of her book bag a worn hardbound copy of Baldwin’s novel Just Above My Head that had an impression of his signature on the cover. She was so proud that her father had uncovered the decades-old book from his library to share with her. Seeing her love for the volume, another student chimed in, “Maybe I can see if my grandmother has any Baldwin books at her house!” For young people who have grown up in the digital age, it was indeed heartwarming to see them effuse over a book.
The film was very well made, interlacing images against the backdrop of Baldwin’s powerful words. At some moments, the phrases pierced through my soul. At other moments it was footage from the present-day woven against Baldwin’s searing observations that were jarring. In doing so, Peck was able to deftly illustrate Baldwin’s uncanny genius for clarifying the moment in which he lived while simultaneously seeming to predict events to come. Because he knew America’s past so well, he understood what would transpire if that past was not acknowledged. The close of film haunts one as the credits begin to roll. Baldwin points out that the history of the United States is the history of African Americans. Until that is understood and fully reconciled, one is forced to wonder, can true progress be possible?
The students were full of questions after the film. They formed a circle around Grant with their inquiries. They had mixed emotions, and rightfully so. It was not an easy film to watch. But they sensed its importance. Some people mourn the fact that Baldwin is not with us today to see us through our current quandaries. But he left behind enough for us to help us understand where we are today. Why not jump for joy for Baldwin? And be grateful for the time that he was here.
On Friday, Grant Cooper and I performed our show “Black Comedy: No Tears, Just Politics” at the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts sponsored by the Arts Council of Princeton.
We had a full house with a lovely audience that was very responsive to the show. Cooper did a set of original comedy that was very well received, and then we both discussed historical examples of activists and comedians who blurred the line between comedy and politics in their work. Especially gratifying was the question and answer period with the audience. One man asked whether making people laugh about important issues (like racism, stereotyping, microaggressions) trivializes serious problems. Perhaps some people, he suggested, would miss the gravitas of a situation when being analyzed by a comic. It was a fair point, and another audience member immediately responded by observing that rather than making light of an issue like racism, comedy can help open the way to engage in a meaningful, serious dialogue. All in all, the audience really seemed to embrace our message of using the arts to connect people and break down barriers by shining a light on today’s culture.
It is always a joy to be in Princeton, New Jersey the birthplace of Paul Robeson. In an interview in today’s New York Times, long-time activist (and a personal hero of mine) Harry Belafonte admitted, “I don’t know where to go to find the next Robeson.” He said he feels like there is no movement now. I’m sure that a lot people feel the same way. It is so vital to, as C.L.R. James would say, look for the future in the present moment. Events like the recent women’s march, Marianne Williamson’s Sister Giant rally in DC, and Raoul Peck’s film I Am Not Your Negro about James Baldwin are helping people to grapple with the current political and social crises facing the US. No, we don’t have a Paul Robeson right now. But each person who is so moved can contribute some positive momentum according to one’s talent. As an educator/artist, I feel that there is no more important use of my skills than reaching out to young people and community groups to get people talking and thinking. Thinking about James Baldwin, thinking about Paul Robeson, thinking about our culture through comedy. Maybe all we can do right now is heed activist/ comedian Dick Gregory’s mantra: BE PART OF THE LIGHT.