The thunder in Lexington’s north end on Jan. 31 was the sound of hundreds of men and women taking to their feet to applaud as bell hooks was inducted into the Kentucky Writers’ Hall of Fame at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.
Her brief remarks capsuled her journey away from her Hopkinsville birthplace to escape a culture of fear and find her voice, and her return to her home state to take up residency at Berea College when she recognized the “world’s apartheid” was everywhere.
As fiercely as she writes about the most pressing issues of today’s world and resists the forces that would return to a culture of fear and hate, so also she speaks and writes of the power of love and truth. Her fantasy, she told the crowd, is that someday we’ll all stand together, join hands and sing “We Shall Overcome.”
Her installation took place in the same spot where a number of Kentucky writers gathered a few months ago to speak about freedom of the press and the importance of the First Amendment to our democracy. The ceremony took place in the shadow of threatened state budget cuts that would decimate such important literary and cultural resources as the University Press of Kentucky and the Kentucky Folk Art Center, along with major public-education offerings and the state Arts Council.
Sitting in the middle of the standing-room-only crowd, I thought about the words of Actors Equity President Kate Shindle in December as she spoke against the proposed cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts, sharing the many ways in which the benefits of the arts go far beyond the footlights.
Issues difficult to discuss — such as suicide, bias, poverty — can be brought into sharp focus through performing and visual art. Maybe that’s why literature and the arts are so threatening to those who would control as much of the world as possible. The forces of fascism, Nazism and communism forced creative refugees to leave their homelands and seek a place where their work did not leave them subject to arrests, mental institutions and even execution.
Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong once said “a dance troupe of a dozen artists is more powerful than a battalion of a thousand troops. The latter can only change people’s behavior; the former can change people’s minds.”
In the battle of the dictator and the artist/writer, new ideas might open the mind and touch the soul, and lead to truth.
An organization called PenAm has created a tool kit for writers and readers defending free expression. It lists warning signs of attitudes and actions that point to controlling agencies which threaten democracy, including the suppression of freedom of expression. America has been the refuge when it has happened in other places.
If — or when — it happens here, where would our creative refugees go?
And who would be left to open the minds and hearts of the next generations, to ensure their freedom to reach new frontiers in art and literature that challenge authoritarianism and power gone awry; that use their songs, their dances, their written words and moments on stage to see that freedom of expression — including dissent — is stronger than propaganda?
Kentucky author Walter Tevis, best known for books that became movies such as “The Hustler,” wrote: “Whatever happens to me, thank God I can read; that I have touched the minds of other men.”
Tevis knew: Art is Vassily Kandinsky abstract forms and bold colors, Mikhail Baryshnikov in mid flight, Alexander Solzhenitsy writing words he knows must be heard, the sound of “Les Miserables.” Transcendence threatens control; transformation terrifies.
At the conclusion of hooks’ remarks, underneath the sound of applause — music. Faint at first, then swelling as the audience, row after row, crossed arms and joined hands, lifting their voices: “We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome some day. Deep in my my heart I do believe we shall overcome some day.”
We must. The cost of becoming creative refugees without freedom of expression is too terrifying to imagine.
Kay Collier McLaughlin is an author and leadership consultant who lives in Nicholas County. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Related: Tom Eblen column, “Her writing, Kentucky institute are known worldwide. Now she’ll be honored at home.”