(says) James T. Green (and his voice drops very low.)
Four months earlier, it is early evening in the Loop, late May. Even the espresso machines are lolling, ready to close.
I lean forward conspiratorially. “Only if I can keep this on the record.”
“Say you’re on the L,” he says, “and you notice other black people who are acting different from yourself. And by you being in that same location, you feel you’re all being lumped together—but you feel like, ‘No, I’m different.’”
“Between you and that other person, there is a difference in class. But between you and that person and a person of a different race, you’re the same. See what I’m saying? ”
You can’t see it, so let me be clear: artist James T. Green and I are black, and between the two of us, his art and my interview questions, it comes up fairly often. Growing up in Orange County (African American demographic: 2% of the population), and studying art most of the way through, these conversations about being black in the art world are hard for me to resist. This is in part because I don’t have a lot of black friends (there, I said it), and in part because in journalism, my identity shouldn’t matter.
Of course it matters. But I’m a journalist. I want my work to be “universal” so that “everyone” will “relate” to it. Writing is uniquely anonymous. If I’m careful, if I don’t use any stereotypical language or culturally specific references, if I manage to sound straight, white, and male—what some might call “objective”—why, no one need ever know I’m black at all.
But James T. Green isn’t a journalist, and his work, using technology and new media to explore the black experience, will be read through his black identity first, whether he likes it or not. Nodding to the YouTube critical satirist Hennessey Youngman, Green shrugs and says anything that you make, no matter what it is, will be perceived as “through the black experience.”
“It’s just the way your art is consumed,” he says, “similar to the way you walk through life everyday. I’m concerned because I’m aware that it will happen no matter what I do. It’s my identity. But I’ve learned to frame my work to compliment this kind of reading.”
As I mentioned, Green works with new media in his exploration of 21st-century blackness. He geeks out about technology—his words, not mine—reads a lot of blogs, writes what’s on his mind, and does professional design work on the side of his regular artistic practice. Originally performance art oriented, he changed gears because he thought, well, “Wouldn’t it be cool to see more black new media art?”
When he talks to me about technology, he gets glowy and bashful. He doesn’t want to bore me. And I’ll admit, my technological knowhow is average at best. But it’s difficult not to get interested when he’s so interested in the hyper-communicative nature of technology. And given his background in performance, the immediacy, connection wise, technology offers makes the transition seem natural. It’s the close encounter of the third kind, and Green wants to make contact.
“I make things, I create conversations,” he says. “I just want to talk about the things that strike interest, and what I feel people should know about. If that means art, or design, or writing, if that means having a conversation over coffee—so be it.”
I made contact with Green through a story on Brooklyn-based art news blog Hyperallergic that featured his piece #Character (2012), a live feed of tweets with “black girls,” “black guys,” or “black people” updating constantly within the gallery space.
“It originated from some articles I read about the rise of ‘Black Twitter,’” Green tells me. (Black Twitter! It sounds like a Blaxploitation parody of The Social Network.) “They discussed Twitter as a network used mostly by black people: their pull and power, not only in selecting brands but influencing people.”
Back in 2010, the Internet buzzed about the number of black users on Twitter. The subject drew the attention of both ABC News and Forbes Magazine.
“Twitter has long enjoyed a disproportionately strong following of African-Americans, and it’s getting stronger still,” reported Forbes, according to a study published by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. “A full 25 percent of black Internet users are on the character-restricted social messaging service, and 11 percent say it’s part of their daily routine.”
“How about that, huh?” Green says. “Anyway, I came across someone’s tweet, and it was something really, really offensive, something I would have found incredibly racist if someone else had said it. But this one was by someone black and—I laughed. Then I thought, ‘Should I feel guilty for laughing?’”
Green started tracing conversations among this user, friends, followers and retweets. And he started getting angry.
“But that got me thinking about other users,” he says, “and what they say about black folks.”
Let me tell you, friends, it isn’t pretty. Related curiosity in mid-May of 2013 led a student based out of Humboldt State University to publish a visual graph called The Geography of Hate. The map geotags hateful tweets—that is, tweets using racist, homophobic, and ability-discriminatory slurs—within the states, color-coding areas of “high” to “some” prejudice on a scale from red to blue, respectively.
That the map does not show the context of this language, and what constitutes “negative,” does little to quell the rush of malaise. And this data was gathered only from those tweets with explicitly prejudicial vernacular. When you consider the implicit—the Hunger Games fiasco of 2012, all the Sweet Brown and Antoine Dodson and Charles Ramsey retweets, the buzz around Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander, the Florida woman who in the wake of the Zimmerman trial received a 20-year jail sentence for firing a warning shot—it becomes clear that the Geography of Hate illuminates about as much of America as an eight-pack of crayons illuminates the color spectrum.
“Social media makes the dialogue about race simultaneously very beautiful and very, very ugly,” says Green.
Ah, Phil Ochs once wrote, but in such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty.
Quotes from a 23 May 2013 interview at Lavazza in the Loop, near James’s day job. I bought him a latte and ordered a milkshake for myself because I didn’t want there to be confusion about the kind of person I am. James complimented my “thorough but conversational” interview style despite my forgetting to ask what the T in his name stands for.
Continue reading » sirens
This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.