Benae Beamon, Boston University
Wading through the complexity of my emotions after the 2016 election, I found myself in need of a resource that would not simply refute the tragedy and pain or forsake the possibilities of joy and justice but own the value and reality of both. The womanist and mujerista traditions believe in the expansiveness of the ethical canon with the lived experiences of women of color acting as ethical lessons, and even Marcella Althaus-Reid took ethical and theological example from women lemon vendors in Buenos Aires. There are profound cultural resources that offer ethical insight, empowering and teaching individuals about ethical possibilities and how to ignite one’s own ethical imagination.
Favianna Rodriguez, an artist and activist, talks about the unique capacity of art. Rodriguez notes that art is distinctive in its ability to deliver “potent, powerful, and empathetic content.” Art exposes the true capacity and depth of human beings as well as the heights of our moral imagination. Rodriguez refers to art as cultural strategy, an agenda that is intrinsically political but speaks to something beyond the political in the individual. She touches, here, on art as cathartic because it reflects sheer humanity, in both its seemingly impetuous hopes and its perilous ills.
I’m interested in the indefatigable ability of art to speak to all of these realities simultaneously without disposing of the ethical certainty that the universe bends towards justice. Beyond that, I am moved and inspired by this capacity as it speaks to the resilience of the human spirit. The blues sits in pain unapologetically; poetry maintains that even complexity has a rhythm; and jazz speaks to the spontaneous capacity of the individual to create joy without abandoning even the most troubled baseline.
After the election of Donald Trump, and the inhumane and/or nonsensical executive orders and press conferences that followed, I was determined to acknowledge how lucky I am to live in the presence of beautiful, brown bodies that lift one another that thrive, survive, and love in community. As a black, queer, woman born from the South, I contemplated all of the ways in which I carry my ancestors and their strength with me and take solace in the voices and arms of people that I love. I, also, heard the universe’s admonition of Trump and his white, cisheteropatriarchal, neoliberal capitalist excuses for prejudice and propagation of evil as Nina Simone sang “so you’re living high and mighty/rich off the fat of the land/just don’t dispose of your natural soul/ ‘cause you know darn well/that you’ll go to Hell.” While I do not necessarily want to encourage the dichotomous and binarist notions of Heaven and Hell, I connect deeply to Simone’s call never to abandon one’s humanity as a connection to one’s sense of justice, morality, and truth. Simone nearly makes one’s humanity sound unimpeachable while reflecting back the tragedy in its loss; she reminds me to trust myself and my internal moral compass as innately bent towards justice and right. Meanwhile, Rapsody laments “all my people growing tired/mamas fighting with they babies/they the ones to start the revolution, shit crazy/the media portray me with lies/wanna justify how my Black folk die/they don’t wanna hear our cries.” Rapsody registers current horrors, unjust and undue death and violence, without losing sight of the revolutionary love that combats it.
Jazz musicians Max Roach and John Coltrane fill me with joy through some of their most powerful, sociocultural exchanges, We Insist! and A Love Supreme, respectively. Both of these albums were released during and intentional responses to Apartheid and injustice in the Civil Rights Movement. Roach’s track “All Africa” asserts that “the beat has a rich and magnificent history/full of adventure, excitement, and mystery/some of it bitter, and some of it sweet/but all of it part of the beat.” Roach embraces the complication of human emotion and holds firm to the power and pertinence of historical memory. Roach and Coltrane create consistency and a semblance of order but don’t let it outweigh the power and freedom of chaos and spontaneity. The music of Roach and Coltrane provides lessons on elegance, balance, and the ethical value of simplicity. Coltrane plays impassioned flourishes, creates space for every individual voice, never loses that of the collective, and maintains direction; he does all of this and leaves the listener with one phrase “a love supreme,” his guiding principle.
The voices and artistic expression of Simone, Rapsody, Roach, Coltrane, and more teach me about the ethical capacity of the individual and the ways in which it proves inseparable from emotion. Injustice, hierarchy, and hegemony produce anger, frustration, veracity, hope, joy, and more, and inspire my understanding of the expansiveness of ethical possibilities and examples. More importantly, these artists teach me about ethical possibilities by envisioning more welcoming and open moral possibilities with their music. It is this pushing of the moral imagination, which those oppressed and burdened by hegemonic leanings do everyday, that I find most uplifting about art: its uncovering of the potential for a love supreme.
Benae Beamon is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Division of Religious Studies in the Religion and Society track at Boston University. She focuses on black queer ethics, folding the study of black churches and philosophical hermeneutics into sexual ethics discourse, and the title of her dissertation is Black Religious Ethics and Black Transwomen’s Bodies.