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Saturday, May 8, 2021

Reciting a cultural resistance

Pierce Freelon has a lot on his mind. He knows others do too, he just wants everyone to let it out.

Pierce Freelon performs a spoken word piece about systematic oppression on Wednesday, Jan. 27. // Photo by Caleb Galbreath
Pierce Freelon performs a spoken word piece about systematic oppression on Thursday, Jan. 28. // Photo by Caleb Galbreath

“When was America great? And for whom was it great? What period are we talking about here?” Freelon said on Thursday, Jan. 28.

In his spoken-word presentation, “Captain America,” Freelon effortlessly blends his love for comic books and sci-fi with how Captain America’s commandeering is a metaphor for black people in America.

Through the roughly four minute performance, Freelon highlights the ways the metaphor of Captain America has been institutionalized and appropriated in every way the world operates– even mentioning the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and others.

He starts by answering the question, “‘What is it like to be black in America,” by describing the Marvel superhero Captain America.

“He may seem like a strange candidate to represent the black experience, but if you look at the biography of the character is a hidden heritage. A super soldier America’s embarrassed with,” Freelon recites.

The power behind his words is felt like a ton of bricks before he reiterates the answer to what it’s like to be black in America. As he pantomimes a gun being used he says, “Captain America, click clack. We are capped in America.”

Freelon taps into the science-fiction fanatic in him to envision a world without oppressive regimes dominating over his race.

That’s part of the reason the Social Issues Resource Center and its coordinator, Aleyda Cervantes, brought Freelon to campus, she said.

“I think artivism brings people together. It comes from deep inside you – poetry, music – it’s very personal,” Cervantes said. “If you share those personal stories then you draw other people [in].”

Wayne Rocque, the outreach coordinator for the Social Issues Resource Center, applies his own interpretation to Freelon’s words.

“If we don’t imagine an alternative, even if its radical, then we’re going to be stuck in the systems that currently hold us in place,” Rocque, said. “We need to imagine a whole new world for us to work towards.”

Freelon has a desire to challenge the narrative of America and it being “great” in order to help combat systems of oppression for anyone oppressed because, as Freelon suggests, all oppression is connected.

Freelon, born and raised in Durham, North Carolina, is a man of many talents, lending himself to hip-hop and jazz music, as well as spending time as a professor and journalist. As an artivist – when art meets activism – he creatively expresses his experiences. Through this method, the personal becomes political.

Third-year Western student Zi Zhang was drawn in by Freelon’s words and left with a reminder to speak up.

“Recognizing your voice is important too, I think that’s the biggest [takeaway from] artivism,” Zhang said.

The seemingly mild-mannered man with budding dreadlocks utters words that attack the audience with the ferocity of a well-intentioned mama bear protecting her cubs. 

Freelon knows the history of oppressive constructs in America, specifically among the African-American experience, and knows how the same issues of the past plague the world now. He also knows Western’s campus is no different than the places battling such issues.

“I think that the recent events on campus have ignited a new conversation around race,” Freelon said. “It’s crazy, it shows how deeply entrenched racism and white supremacy are structurally. We can’t even have a conversation without someone lashing out.”

Freelon tells of the West African, more specifically Ghanaian, term, Sankofa, meaning “looking back to move forward.”

Through this word, Freelon is able to recognize who and what came before him as a means in which to form a plan of action to move forward. This can happen in a global, or local, way that he hopes is done through artivism.

“If there were five artists in here that said, ‘Okay, I’m going to take my personal experience and interpret it through a poem, or through a song, or through a music video or through an art piece,’ then that could potentially be the change that sparks another person to make another person come to a deeper understanding with someone they share a campus with,” Freelon said.

He said he simply wants a dialogue about tough issues so events such as the hate speech from fall quarter won’t be so commonplace. It all starts with one or two voices.

“So much of systems of oppression are about silencing folks and making folks invisible. So, literally just saying ‘I’m here, and this is my experience,’ is a political act and it takes a lot of courage,” Freelon said.


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