Introduction by Thomas Allen Harris:
Last month I was invited to participate in a panel exploring the intersection of Diaspora with contemporary art practice. The panel included presentations by Canadian filmmaker Shanti Thakur, author Michael Thomas, ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin and myself, followed by a lively discussion about the meaning and importance of Diaspora and identity as expressed through cultural expression. The talk was part of a series entitled Politics, Policy and the Arts hosted by the Arts Across the Curriculum and The Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College. Following the panel there was the Student Awards Ceremony with the Brooklyn Museum Director, Anne Pasternak, presenting the awards. I was really impressed by both the talent of the Hunter arts students as well as the social engagement of the work which crossed the disciplines of performance, visual art, digital media and writing. After hearing award winner Kezia Roberts recite her poem, “Down by the Riverside”, a meditation on her experiences on the NYC subway, I was inspired to approach her about creating a piece for our blog and she agreed. I had been following the photography of Ocean Morriset on social media and some of his images were still floating through my head. So I decided to put these two creative folks together, reminiscing on the collaboration between legendary photographer Roy DeCarava and master poet Langston Hughes on the ground breaking Sweet Fly Paper of Life.
Gratitude to Hunter College Art Department whose good work and great students helped to make this possible!
Down by the riverside
By Kezia Roberts
Photography by Ocean Morisset
On the F train they are selling negro
spirituals: the tourists are amused, the
natives divided— the men sing in low
baritones of rivers and water and
fields of white fluff, all the south was ever
known for. The white man sitting across
is tapping a leather capped foot in time
to the ragtime, he has caught the old spirit:
his feet are a-tumbling down, shoulders shuffle,
head nods— the tourists take their cue to clap,
crumpled dollar bills and loose change abound
into the shiny green gift bag as they
shuffle through the car, dodging bags and feet.
They leave, onto the next car of captive
audience. The tourists look around most
pleasantly surprised and now alert to
a secret of New York City: revealed.
Their eyes turn to me, widened as if to
say: and what about you, other dark one?
What do you do? I slump into hard plastic
and close my eyes against the burning in
my cheeks. The train hurtles through black tunnels
and history, into the new darkness
where black men lay invisible unless
they are singing, begging for their freedom.
Time upends itself in a continuous loop
where nothing moves forward, but repeats
itself, car after car. Again and again.
The train pulls into 34th street.
“This collaboration between photographer and poet brought to mind one of the greatest collaborations of this kind, between the Poet Langston Hughes and Photographer Roy DeCarava who brought us the now, very rare and historically significant book, The Sweet Flypaper of Life. I culled from my archive, photos I’ve taken in the New York City subways over the last few years. In my selection process, I was careful not to choose images that translated Kezia’s poem directly, but one’s that captured the very spirit in which her words are written, and that convey the overall mood of the piece.“- Ocean Morisset