The Revolution Within

by Nikkole Salter

“Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?!!” – Chris Tucker as Detective James Carter in “Rush Hour”

One of my favorite Chris Tucker moments comes in the movie “Rush Hour” when Chris’ character asks Jackie Chan’s character, “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?!!” 

When I saw that moment the first time, I laughed hysterically. I’d like to think that I wasn’t laughing at the problematic mockery of immigrant speech — that’s not funny.  I’d like to think that I was laughing at Chris’ delivery and the deep recognition that even when words are said from English speaker to English speaker, we often don’t understand the words coming out of anyone’s mouth.

Have you ever seen the “cultural iceberg” graphic?  It’s an image of an iceberg as a metaphor for culture, indicating how the parts of culture you can see — the behaviors and practices — are but the outcome of cultural foundations — attitudes, values, beliefs, assumptions, perceptions, etc. — that constitute what you cannot see.  

Cultural expressions are merely best practices for a well-lived life that a group of people have, over time, codified.  Culturally speaking, then, language represents the best way to communicate, but the structure of the language is a mere reflection of those underlying beliefs, values and perceptions indicated in the underwater portion of the iceberg graphic. 

Put a pin in that.

Do you remember taking classes in grammar?  Are those even offered anymore?

I remember being in grade school, with my grammar book, and my teachers — all lovely white women — instructing me how to put together a sentence “properly.”  In those classes, I learned there were subjects and objects in my world — the actors and the acted upon. I also learned that there was such a  thing as the King’s English, which I should aspire to speak, for in the implicitly Eurocentric, white supremacist world into which I was born, speaking it would help protect me from poverty and help to sustain, and even increase, my value in society.  

That class implicitly taught me about those parts of the Western world’s cultural iceberg that are beneath the surface, as indicated by the structure of the language itself. I learned that in order to demonstrate fluency in the English language, there were rules — both official and unspoken — that must be followed. I also learned there were many exceptions to those rules, and that knowing when to follow the rules — and when to “not never” follow those rules — was the difference between belonging or not; between being considered an “articulate,” “clever” and “cool” asset or a “dim-witted,” “dumb” and “awkward” detriment.  

Further, I learned that the same word, written or spoken in different contexts, could mean different things. Take a word like “revolution.”

It has two meanings: 1)  A forcible removal of power of a government or social order in favor of a new system of power, as in “We’re in the midst of a revolution in the American theatre,” and 2)  The movement of an object in a circular or elliptical course around another or about an axis or center, as in, “One revolution of the Earth around the sun takes 365 days.” 

Revolution is applied force of will.  Revolution is a circular process.

So, when we, descendants of the people who endured the trans-Atlantic slave trade, when we, descendants of Africans, say “revolutionary theatre,” in the language unceremoniously imposed upon us by the power of enslavement and colonization, what are we talking about?  

And if we’re talking about, say, forcibly removing the Eurocentric/white supremacist systems that order and govern the American theatre in favor of a new system and a new narrative, 1) What is that new system?  2)  What is that new narrative? and 3) Can the forcible overthrow of the current system, a new system, or a new narrative even be achieved using the same language underpinned by the same culture that believes in the scarcity of resources, egocentricity, hierarchy of nature and the supremacy of “whiteness”?  

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein offered, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”  I ask you, can we, Black people, overthrow the limitations placed upon us by the current power structure within the American theatre by thinking, speaking, writing, musing and dreaming in English?

Most literally, brothers and sisters, do we even understand the implications of the words coming out of our mouths?

Talking Circles

Language is presented to us in the Western world as so black and white; so absolute.  

Contracts use language that inextricably bind people to obligations.  Witnesses use language that impacts the freedom or lack thereof of a defendant.  Historians use words to chronicle the narrative that defines who we are and how we see ourselves in relation to the world.  All these words are written with authority.  They seem so definite.  But language is manmade and therefore subject to human fallibility.  It is not absolute.  It is conditional.  It lives and breathes and evolves.

For example, the word “revolution” didn’t always have the aforementioned definitions.  According to etymological records, the late Middle English origins of the word “revolution” reveal a meaning of to “turn the eyes back,” restore, consider. Latin origins point to the word “revolvere” where the “re,” means “back” (also expressing intensive force) and “volvere,” means “roll.”  The etymology of “theatre” points to the Latin “theatrum” and the Greek “theasthai” meaning, “to behold.”  

So, revolutionary theatre, in its original context, meant beholding a forced consideration or restoration of the past.  Revolution could be the Adinkra concept of Sankofa, a beautiful long-necked bird, facing forward but looking back in order to snatch up the golden egg of wisdom before carrying on.

There is a lot of wisdom in the thoughts, words and deeds of our predecessors — wisdom that we could and should carry forward.  

The literary culture bearers of the past — the Renaissance’s luminaries Hurston, Hughes, Cullen, Toomer, Fauset, Johnson, Locke, among them — feed into the Black Arts renegades Shange, Teer, Milner, Kennedy, Childress, Ward, Wesley, Baraka, Bullins, and the like, who feed directly into …well, us.  The continuum of the revolutionary struggle for inclusion, respect, value and the allowance of authenticity stretches even further back for sure — and, possibly, sadly, will extend even further beyond us.  

We’re not starting a revolution in the American theatre (or anywhere else, for that matter), we’ve inherited one.

To the early Harlem Renaissance era cultural leaders, it was revolutionary to write in the King’s English.  Black writers and intelligentsia believed that if they could just do what white people do better than they do it, our humanity would be undeniable to them and we’d be permitted to live dignified lives, whereby dignified meant equal to and embracing of white culture.  

Later, the Renaissance artists were encouraged by their white benefactors to embrace their “primitive,” authentically Black expressions.  For the first time, Black writers were lauded for doing so, as many whites felt that Western society had developed in such a refined manner, it no longer had “soul,” and Black people were useful in restoring them to their intrinsic, animalistic, natural impulses.  

The Black Arts Movement, on the other hand, was one that was not curated as directly by the white power structures.  It was a grassroots effort that launched, among other things, hundreds of Black-led theatres across the country, of which less than 10 remain.  “For us, by us” might have been their motto, but, full disclosure, many of those institutions began with the support of white foundations (and I don’t blame them one bit), and because of that origin, they perhaps largely remained under the Eurocentric/white supremacist economic and aesthetic standards for the duration of their existence. 

At its apex, the only theatrical pathway that was really for us and by us in the American theatre, to my limited knowledge, was the Chitterling Circuit — a series of venues that were set up in segregated Black communities where independently produced, live, theatrical performances could tour for the benefit of Black audiences.  

Around those venues grew an economy to support the events of the shows.  And the Black people who made that money largely returned to Black communities to spend that money because the country was segregated by law. The popularity of these Chitterling Circuit offerings was due entirely to the patronage of Black people — the stories they wanted to see, the way they wanted to see them, was crucial for any production’s success.  

Later during the Black Arts movement, Etheridge Knight called for a return to the FUBU mindset:

  • “Unless the Black artist establishes a ‘Black aesthetic,’ he will have no future at all. To accept the white aesthetic is to accept and validate a society that will not allow him to live. The Black artist must create new forms and new values, sing new songs (or purify old ones); and along with other Black authorities, he must create a new history, new symbols, myths and legends (and purify old ones by fire). And the Black artist, in creating his own aesthetic, must be accountable for it only to the Black people.” 

Though we were born into these circumstances, now it is our turn to take the reins of this centuries-old revolution — this application of our will for the overthrow of white supremacist power structures, this new attempt at the forced change of the center around which we rotate.  But if we are to honor the etymology, part of the revolution is looking back and considering.  With that in mind, check these quotes from 50 years ago:

  • “Currently, these writers are re-evaluating Western aesthetic, the traditional role of the writer, and the social function of art. Implicit in this re-evaluation is the need to develop a ‘Black aesthetic.’ It is the opinion of many Black writers, I among them, that the Western aesthetic has run its course: It is impossible to construct anything meaningful within its decaying structure. We advocate a cultural revolution in art and ideas. The cultural values inherent in Western history must either be radicalized or destroyed . . .”  —Larry Neal
  • “The motive behind the Black aesthetic is the destruction of the white thing, the destruction of white ideas and white ways of looking at the world. The new aesthetic is mostly predicated on an ethics that asks the question: Whose vision of the world is finally more meaningful: ours or the white oppressors’? What is truth? Or, more precisely, whose truth shall we express, that of the oppressed or of the oppressors? These are basic questions. Black intellectuals of previous decades failed to ask them.” — Larry Neal
  • “In a context of world upheaval, ethics and aesthetics must interact positively and be consistent with the demands for a more spiritual world. Consequently, the Black Arts Movement is an ethical movement. Ethical, that is, from the viewpoint of the oppressed. And much of the oppression confronting the Third World and Black America is directly traceable to the Euro-American cultural sensibility. This sensibility, anti-human in nature, has, until recently, dominated the psyches of most Black artists and intellectuals. It must be destroyed before the Black creative artists can have a meaningful role in the transformation of society.” — Larry Neal
  • “I will never again involve myself with what I call secondary consciousness. I will never see myself, see other Black women, see Black men, and Black children secondarily, through the eyes of the oppressor … the slave master … I maintain that I will never in my life walk secondarily again — or even appear to have any secondary views. If you approach me, you must approach me on an equal level.” –Sonia Sanchez
  • “Revolutionary theatre must take dreams and give them a reality.  It must isolate the ritual and historical cycles of reality. But it must be food for all these who need food, and daring propaganda for the beauty of the Human Mind. It is a political theatre, a weapon to help in the slaughter of these dimwitted fat-bellied white guys who somehow believe that the rest of the world is here for them to slobber on.  This should be a theatre of World Spirit.  Where the spirit can be shown to be the most competent force in the world …. We will talk about the world, and the preciseness with which we are able to summon the world, will be our art.” — Amiri Baraka

These words could be spoken today.  These calls to action, these revolutionary concepts, are not new.  The protest.  The sit-in.  The boycott.  The march.  The non-violent direct action.  The whistle-blow.  The working twice as hard for half as much.  The inspirational speeches in the King’s English.  The insurrection.  The minding our own damn business and building our own systems only to have them all torched from underneath us.  The infiltration and assimilation of the systems to change them from within.  The media appeals to morality and humanity.  The defection to what we hoped were more favorable lands.  

All these strategies are well worn, yes, but, despite the generations, we have never lost our desire to apply our will, or our desire to behold a rolling back or reconsideration of the axis point around which we revolve.  Not never.  Something in us knows this must happen.  Something in us knows that accomplishing an irreversible and unequivocal revolution against white supremacy is the answer, the only answer, to any sustained freedom, dignity, health and humanity for Black, Indigenous and people of color.

So, it’s our turn to take the next evolutionary step in this epic tale. But while we’re neither a part of nor have we created anything new in this revolution, we must press forward.  

Have we looked back and retrieved the golden wisdom that will finally and truly unseat this white supremacist system?  Have we looked back and gotten the golden wisdom that would unite Black, Indigenous and people of color, and inform the new power paradigm we should install after we forcibly remove white supremacy?  

Have we looked back to identify the tools we should use in our overthrow?  Have we looked back and gotten the wisdom that will inform the new narrative we should construct to create context and give meaning to our identity and understanding of life in the absence of the narrative that has been thrust upon us? 

Have we looked back to identify different economic models, other aesthetics, other beliefs and values on which to center our revolution — ones that are in alignment with nature, not depleting of it?  Do we know where we stand in the continuum?  Are we willing to change our internal iceberg and our outward behaviors and practices?  Do we have the will to apply some force in order for this change to once and for all occur?  

Or are we just talking in circles?  

Word Is Bond

They say revolution starts with changing our words.  But we’ve already confirmed that the words themselves are generated by thoughts, and thoughts by perceptions, beliefs, values and worldview.  

So, really, revolution starts with our changed awareness.  It starts with waking up to the ideas of ourselves and our capacity differently from how we have done before. 

It starts with changing where we apply our focus.  It starts with looking again at what we perceive, and by changing what we make those perceptions mean by the narratives we build around them.  

It starts with what we allow ourselves to believe — to accept as real and true, to trust and to expect — and what we consider worthy of our time, attention, labor and love.  It means first applying the force of our will to overthrow the Eurocentricity and white supremacy within our own minds, hearts and bodies.  

But how are we to do that using the thing that reinforces the thing?  It seems like a Catch-22.  Hell, even that shit is white!  I can’t even come up with a reference that isn’t part of the Eurocentric underwater iceberg! 

So what are we to do?  Learn another language.  

Yes, let’s have everyone learn to speak Wolof and Igbo; Shona and Zulu; Xhosa and Bamun; Ndebele, etc.  (Damn, even these are the English spellings of those languages!) 

See, I can’t even make my point in this essay without slipping into the very paradigm I’m challenging. 

How are we to overthrow the white power structure if the white power structure is within us? We put our stank on it, but it’s still the King’s English.  We put our foot in it, but they’re still not our ingredients.  Hell, the white power structure even determines our relationship to time.  Don’t think so?  What’s today’s date?  “A.D.” doesn’t mean “After Dolemite.” 

So, to break up the white supremacist power structures of the American theatre, we must, first, overthrow ourselves, ’cause what’s the point of finding the leverage to push white supremacist folks aside, only to end up with a bunch of Black, Indigenous and other people of color who are really just the same kinds of cultural supremacists replicating the same consumptive, individualistic, exploitative, and hierarchical culture into our narratives, experiences, and ultimately, our circumstances?  

Can we call that a revolution?! Well, yes, we could in the sense that we’d all still be revolving, albeit around the same axis of Eurocentricity.  That’s how convoluted English is!  It’s revolution whether we change or not.

So, brothers and sisters (said in the broadest sense possible), when we say revolution, we can’t be saying that we just want to be the ones holding the seat of power.  We have to be saying that there is a new system of power, a new narrative, a new axis around which we revolve, and a new language that reflects what we believe, what we value, and the world that we want to see made manifest.   

And if we aren’t to learn a new language, we need to take the power of language to reflect the underwater iceberg, bounce the sun off it, and use that lens to melt the iceberg itself.  How?  By bringing conscious awareness to what we say and what our words imply about who we are to ourselves, each other, the world and about the very nature of life itself.  

We have to re-educate ourselves and the beloved communities we serve about the power and usefulness of narrative, as a spiritual tool to aid in the co-creation of our collective experience and circumstance in life.  

We need to use narrative’s power to breathe life into the world we want to see at least as much, if not more, than we use it to understand what is.  

We have to create systems that demonstrate the essential nature of our services, in exchange for ones that render us useless.  In short, we have to use the word to re-create the word.  

’Cause word is bond. 

  • “Further, he [the Black artist] must hasten his own dissolution as an individual (in the Western sense) — painful though the process may be, having been breast-fed the poison of “individual experience.” — Etheridge Knight
  • “Liberation is impossible if we fail to see ourselves in more positive terms. For without a change of vision, we are slaves to the oppressor’s ideas and values — ideas and values that finally attack the very core of our existence. Therefore, we must see the world in terms of our own realities.” — Larry Neal
  • “Now any Black man who masters the technique of his particular art form, who adheres to the white aesthetic, and who directs his work toward a white audience is, in one sense, protesting. And implicit in the act of protest is the belief that a change will be forthcoming once the masters are aware of the protestor’s ‘grievance’ (the very word connotes begging, supplications to the gods). Only when that belief has faded and protestings end, will Black art begin.” — Larry Neal

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