Speak to Me: School of Art discussion series explores racial justice
Hilton Als, the Pulitzer Prize-winning staff writer and chief theater critic for The New Yorker, was sick in bed recently as protestors marched through the streets of his lower Manhattan neighborhood demanding racial justice. Sirens blended with the thrumming of low-flying helicopters as police confronted the demonstrators in the streets.
Als recalled feeling panicked. He asked his partner to stay close by.
“I was not so much frightened by the sound of the helicopters or the sirens, but by the fact of the police in them and what I knew from childhood could happen if they saw a black man sitting in an apartment in a predominantly white neighborhood,” said Als on June 9 during the inaugural episode of “Speak to Me,” a discussion series hosted by the Yale School of Art.
Als described his visceral reaction as a kind of “muscle memory” from his experiences growing up in Brooklyn and being subjected to police harassment and surveillance.
“It was a very odd and sad moment because I’m presumably a grown man who can take care of himself, but I knew that I was not safe in my own home, which then makes it not your home; it makes it a kind of way station if you’re under threat,” he said. “Since the police were starting to act aggressively, I didn’t really think that it was off the table that they would find me.”
The “Speak to Me” series provides a virtual forum for conversation about issues of racial injustice in the aftermath of the brutal killing of George Floyd. Marta Kuzma, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Dean of the School of Art, organized the series with Claudia Rankine, the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry, and Leah Mirakhor, a lecturer in the university’s Ethnicity, Race, and Migration program.
The conversations, which are open to the public, occur at 5 p.m. throughout the summer and can be joined through the School of Art’s website. Each session features a guest speaker. The series will continue as long as needed, Kuzma explained.
“We felt it was important to create a forum for conversation about real issues in the wake of the mourning of George Floyd’s murder and in the wake of national and international mourning after so many deaths unfortunately repeated at the hands of the police,” said Kuzma, who has prioritized incorporating social and political issues into the School of Art’s curriculum. “We hope this series will help us feel through what is going on now — to discuss it openly so that we might exist not only with respect to what is possible in this moment but to endure through this as change.”
During the series’ inaugural event, Als, a 2016 recipient of Yale’s Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes, also described a recent encounter he had with a police officer while walking up Broadway in Manhattan. He saw demonstrators coming down the street. He saw a police car blocking the street and felt a sense of panic. He instinctively reached for his driver’s license.
“These were the only elements of control that I had suddenly, was this driver’s license and a kind of silence,” he said.
He offered the officer his license. The officer, a black man, demurred and let him pass.
Rankine, author of “Citizen: An American Lyric,” a widely acclaimed exploration of racism in contemporary America, asked Als to put language to his emotions about the encounter.
“Heartache,” he responded.
“This man didn’t want to humiliate either of us, and to me that is so heartbreaking, that we have to go through all of these channels to get to a human response of respect,” he said. “So I think it is heartbreaking, and it is a heartache that I carry. I’m sure this man feels that heartache, too.”
To view the schedule of speakers as they are confirmed and to join the conversation, visit the series webpage on the School of Art website. Each forum is limited to 1,000 participants on a first-come, first-served basis.