for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations
When I was six years old, my big sister pulled me aside and whispered in my ear.
“I learned a bad word today.”
I asked her, “Is it terrible?”
“It’s awful, horrible.”
I smiled gleefully. She always shared the best bad words, but this one had her worried.
“What is it?” I asked.
She said, “Prejudice.”
She told me it meant to judge someone by their outside skin or where they came from. We lived in a factory neighborhood right next to the projects, where you could find every skin shade in the Crayola box.
We were misfit kids, an unwanted trio, daughters of a mentally ill mother and a violent father. Our clothes didn’t fit, what we had of them, and we ran wild in the empty lots next door. I knew, even at that young age, if I were ever to be judged by what I looked like on the outside, I’d be in serious trouble. From the moment I learned that word, I vowed to make my best attempt to understand people by their inside skin.
|With JM, where they met (Prague), and daughter Samsa.|
He had pages of drawings – people he watched on the street, scarab beetles he studied in the museum – brilliant renderings that showed me a whole layer of the world I had not known existed.
Over the years, we helped each other grow as artists, trying out different paths and mediums.
Both of us struggled with the labels society put on us, “black artist” for him – he was expected to make art out of his own racial experience, and for me, “woman writer,” an assumption that my writing would somehow be more feminine than a man’s.
We thought if we could examine these labels, and what they did to people, we might come to some answers about why they existed.
I began to create the characters of Ror, a white girl artist who meets Trey, a black street artist (oh, that I have to use labels to describe them!). They both grow up in odd circumstances, making them outsiders. Their shared talent and passion lets them see beyond color, into their true inside skin, the place where they fall in love.
But society’s already gotten to Trey. In a discussion at the modern art museum, while they are looking at the 20th century female Mexican artist (wow, labels) Frida Kahlo’s paintings, Trey relates his beliefs about museums to Ror:
“How do people get into a museum, anyway?” I wondered.
“You gotta be rich, white, friends with the right people,” he said. “Or you gotta be dead. We ain’t dead yet.”
“I’ve got one out of four,” I said.
“Yeah, but you’re a girl. You may’s well be black like me.”
“Frida Kahlo’s a girl.”
“Married to a famous dude.”
I stopped short. “So that’s what I’ve got to do to get in a museum? Marry a famous dude? I can’t do it on my own?”
“You dream ’bout bein’ in the museum till you dead, Ror. I’ll take bein’ the revolutionary. Let history worry about me,” Trey said.
I didn’t like that answer. Not one bit.
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“There’s plenty of living artists, and they’re in galleries that anybody can go into…look at Audrey Flack and think about what got her there. Go to SoHo. Go down the Village and look at young painters just coming up, like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat…those guys started on the street, but they didn’t stay there.”
His words filter down through her, and get her thinking about her own power and the extent of her talent.
Ultimately, she comes to the bottom line question, the main part of art-making that’s in her control: Is this piece of art in front of me the best I can make it?
As a black artist and a woman writer, JM and I struggle to transcend labels, but for Into the Dangerous World (Viking, 2015)(excerpt), we had to look straight at them to expand the range of the story, to actually talk about these concerns we regularly face.
Reality is tough, and prejudice is a persistent monster, but we dealt with it head-on; through Ror’s drawings and her adventures with Trey, we hoped to show our readers the value of digging into the beliefs of the people who surround us, and see what’s really true within ourselves.
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