Art is integral to Black Lives Matter: a conversation with Dr. Kristin Moriah

Queen's professor discusses role of art in resisting systemic racism

The art of resistance.
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While social media activism is surging in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, art can be more crucial to the Black Lives Matter movement than Instagram stories. 

Floyd was publicly lynched on a street in Minneapolis by the police on May 25. The scene became a horrific tableau for the reality of systemic racism against Black people: a white officer kneeling on the neck of an innocent Black man.

Floyd’s murder was caught on video and viewed across the world, provoking powerful feelings of anger and sadness, and inspiring some to create art to express those feelings. 

On the topic of art and its role as a catalyst for social change, The Journal spoke to Queen’s English professor Dr. Kristin Moriah, who teaches African American literature.

“Art has played a particularly important role in the development of Black Lives Matter – Toronto (BLMTO), maybe more so than in other places,” Moriah said. 

“Several of BLMTO’s founding members are arts practitioners, and one of the BLMTO actions which first drew public attention was the 2016 demonstration at the Toronto Pride Parade in which they momentarily stopped the parade in front of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s float.” 

Moriah is referring to an event in which members of BLMTO halted the Toronto Pride Parade for about 30 minutes and asked Pride’s Executive Director Mathieu Chantelois to sign a list of action items including disallowing the police to join subsequent parades with the intention of making Pride a safe space for Black and Indigenous people. 

“It was an unforgettable act,” Moriah added. “I remember the frenzy of news coverage then—imagine that just four years ago it was controversial to suggest that police brutality was a Canadian issue.”

Moriah pointed out what the news coverage at the time missed, which was that stopping the parade was also a “choreographed piece of performance art.” 

Rodney Diverlus, a co-founder of BLMTO, was one of the creative minds behind the act, according to Moriah. “He has written about that protest from a theoretical perspective for the academic journal Canadian Theatre Review in “Black Lives Matter Toronto: Urgency as Choreographic Necessity,” which can be accessed through Queen’s online library.”

Moriah said founding BLMTO members Syrus Marcus Ware and Sandy Hudson have written more extensively about the BLMTO movement in their recent edited collection Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada (2020), which is also available online.  

“Contributors to that collection include several established and up-and-coming poets and artists, [including] Leanne Betasamosake Simpson; Anique Jordan, Naila Keleta Mae, Rayvn Wyngz, and El Jones who was actually a visitor at Queen’s last semester and came to speak to my class,” she said.

In 2016, some met BLMTO’s Pride demonstration with apathy and disdain, but after Floyd’s death and the explosion of attention to issues of systemic racism, some people are finally listening and learning. Paying attention to what these Black artists have produced is an important step on the path to change. 

“Speaking to this particular moment, in some ways it feels like suddenly, just a few weeks ago, white Canadians began caring about anti-Blackness in Canada and what Black people had written about it,” Moriah said. 

Lists were made to determine just what was said and what needed to be known. The lists began circulating at the end of May and, by mid-June, reached a fever pitch shortly after. So many books flew off shelves.”

Moriah also said art and literature add deeper dimensions to our lives. 

“They are some of the most important ways of understanding the human condition and rallying people towards political action.”

Where tragic public events like Floyd’s death spark anger and sadness, Moriah emphasized that engaging with Black art provides a way for those who don’t know the lived experience of a Black person to deepen their awareness, empathy, and understanding.  

“Black artists and activists have long understood this, from the authors of nineteenth-century slave narratives to the poets and playwrights of the Black Arts Movement like Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez,” she said. “And while we live in very difficult times, I know that this moment will push Canadian art and literature in new directions, too. We are ready for change.”

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