Inspiring. That’s the first—the most all-encompassing—word that comes to mind when I think about The Little Book of Big Visions: How to Be an Artist and Revolutionize the World (edited by Sandrine Micosse-Aikins and Sharon Dodua Otoo and published by edition assemblage in 2012). I flew through the 11 essays that made up this book, underlining like a madman, ideas for articles and events flashing through my head in constant succession. This is the beauty of non-fiction. This is the beauty of communication. We can light each other on fire with our ideas if we print them on paper and send them out into the world, ideas we might never have gotten the chance to tell each other in person.
The advice contained within Big Visions is subtle and more specifically focused—on Black artists living (or who have lived) in Germany— than the title implies. Don’t expect a straight-forward how-to. In one essay, Yvette Mutumba discusses the experience of Black artists living in Germany, while in another Sharon Dodua Otoo covers problematic elements in German theater. Spoken-word artist Philipp Khabo Koepsell talks about his experience working in Germany and interacting with a white audience as a Black performer in another essay, and extracts from an interview with Stephen Lawson punctuate the prose with quotation-length thoughts. But still, so much of what each author is saying is universal.
As the back-cover summary states, “This anthology is aimed primarily at Black cultural producers living and working in Germany…” But it is just as important a read for all artists interested in “revolutionizing the contemporary art scene” wherever they might live. As a white reader, I found it extremely helpful as a tool to understand and talk about some of the issues of racism going on across the arts—particularly in the realm of sci fi and fantasy literature where I spend most of my intellectual time.
Racism and other forms of institutional marginalization are in issue in every art, and I’ve followed the discussions on the topic in the SFF community closely. Sharon Dodua Otoo’s essay “Reclaiming Innocence. Unmasking Representations of Whiteness in German Theatre” is about the use of blackface in theatrical productions, particularly a 2012 instance at a Berlin theater, and yet, while I read, I saw so many connections to the discussion happening within the SFF community. Despite the article’s specificity, it felt like a primer for how to talk about issues of racism in art in any context. Replace the specifics in these quotes with specifics from the discussions in SFF, and you’ll see, at the root of it, we are discussing the same thing. Rather than do the substitutions myself, I’ve left the quotes intact and bolded the universal elements. If you are interested in the issue at hand, read them all, if you are interested in seeing the universality between these discussions in SFF and in the other arts, just read the bolded text.
“Thalheimer’s production of Unschuld is typical of mainstream contemporary theatrical productions in Germany: privileged people producing art for other privileged people.” (54)
“Loher’s supposed examination of humanity, and Thalheimer’s theatrical interpretation of it, requires “whiteness” to be normative and universal. Whiteness functions as universal because it seems not to be there—it becomes an absence of race. The white characters presented in Unschuld are, to use the words of Dyer (1997:3), ‘…not of a certain race, they are just the human race.'” (57)
“Black people and people of color in Germany, as well as the organisations representing their interests, are commonly seen as victims but rarely recognised as experts in public debates which touch on the subject of racism.” (60)
That last quote reminded me of an essay by N.K. Jemisin that I read just this past week, in which she says, to paraphrase because now I can’t find the damn link to the article: When are people going to start believing Black people when they talk about what it’s like to be Black? The idea being that the people in question, in this case the people being marginalized, are always the people who know what the fuck they are talking about when it comes to their own experiences, not someone on the outside of that experience, no matter how much power or intellectual clout they have. You would think that would be a no-brainer…
But let’s move on to how the people being discussed in Otoo’s essay responded to criticism. Hint: exactly the same way that the dudebros respond to women talking about sexism, the same way that authors being accused of racism react, cue pretty much every recent discussion of marginalization on the internet, ever.
Once racism has been drawn to the attention of a cultural producer, “the responsibility is on the cultural producers to incorporate this new information into their work—or at the very least accept and acknowledge the critical points of view that have been expressed. Counter protests of ‘censorship’ or ‘dictatorship’ are polarising and simply reveal the desire to retain the authority to decide what is racist and what is not: a typical symptom of white supremacist behaviour.”
When the conversation about the racist implications of the use of blackface in the play Unschuld hit the internet, “A great deal of hegemonic German media space was given to hegemonic German cultural producers and commentators to talk about their hurt feelings and to express their incredulousness at the criticisms levelled against them, while at the same time any serious engagement with the actual substance of the anti-blackface protestors’ arguments was avoided.”
How many times have I heard someone accused of racism (or sexism, or or or) do exactly this on the web? How many more times are we all going to have to put up with this shit? Someone calls racism, then an old white dude says he wouldn’t let “a group of people in the internet” tell him what the meaning of racism was because in doing so they were forcing him to accept their definition as “universal and exclusive” while “at the same time claiming this exact same right” for himself (quotes from Otoo’s essay). Boiled down: marginalized people define racism, point it out in the work of a person in a position of power; person in power says by defining racism you are taking away my power, I WILL TELL YOU WHAT RACISM IS AROUND HERE; thus person in power keeps all power, including the power to define marginalization, and people without power continue being marginalized. Same shit, different genre.
Meanwhile, on page 118 of Big Visions, Jamika Ajalon’s essay “THE FUGITIVE ARCHETYPE OF RESISTANCE: a metaphorical narrative” discusses the position of women of color as artists and references sci fi authors left and right. Though the essay’s style was slightly experimental—making it a more difficult read—I was so excited to find an essay referencing Nalo Hopkinson and Octavia Butler in a book of rather academic essays that I was practically vibrating as I read.
“Sun Ra put it best: ‘Space is the Place’ — the place where the impossible is possible. Knowing this, it is easy to understand why WOC have used speculative fiction and science fiction as genres of expression, overcoming the oppressive structures which incarcerate our realities.” (133)
To only highlight two of Big Visions essays does it a disservice, but let’s think of it as leaving part of the present unwrapped, waiting sparkling and shiny for you to discover yourself. This is a book worth reading, no matter who you are, but it will be of particular interest to artists in (or interested in) Germany, as well as those interested in transcending the problems of racism and race in art, any art, today.
Four out of five artist success stories.
Where I got it: Mannheim Anarchist Book Fair
Where you can get it: The Book Depository (free shipping worldwide)