A letter released on Friday that carried the names of some of the most influential black figures in film, television, visual art, music, theater, literature and other cultural disciplines called on the institutions they work with to actively fight racism by cutting ties with the police, as well as financially supporting and advocating for black artists and their work.
The letter, published online to commemorate Juneteenth, was promoted by a new organization called Black Artists for Freedom, which describes itself as a collective of black workers in the culture industries. It carries the names of hundreds of cultural leaders, including Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, Lupita Nyong’o and Tessa Thompson in film; Debbie Allen, Lee Daniels and Sterling K. Brown in television; John Legend, Questlove and Janelle Monáe in music; and Jamaica Kincaid, Marlon James and Jesmyn Ward in literature.
Making a direct appeal to the institutions with which they work, the collective laid out the ways that racist stereotypes are perpetuated in books, film and other mediums, and demanded that institutions work to right those wrongs.
“No more stereotypes. No more tokenism. No more superficial diversity,” the letter read. “No longer will we watch Black culture be contorted into a vehicle for self-congratulation, complacency, guilt relief, experiential tourism, fetishism, appropriation, and theft.”
Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation and one of the architects of the effort, said the letter started to come together informally a few weeks ago when she was on the phone with a friend discussing the protests across the country in response to the killing of George Floyd. She said the question was “What can we do?” And the answer that arose from the conversations that followed was to compose a letter in celebration of Juneteenth that unified the voices of artists across different cultural fields.
“We wanted to use the day to celebrate our imagination and our value,” Ms. Lucas said. “We thought one way we would be able to do that is show our strength in numbers.”
The initial letter published online carried more than 1,000 signatures and offered an option for others to add their names.
The letter echoes the appeals of protesters marching against police brutality in its call for institutions like museums, theaters, book stores and festivals to break contracts they have with police departments and “reconceive what it means to keep art, audiences, and patrons safe.”
“We hope to amplify the movement’s work and to call out our own industries for what they are: institutions that promote colonialism, capitalism, and racism, and that function in exploitative and destructive ways,” the letter read.
Many cultural institutions put out statements in solidarity with protesters or posted black squares on social media for #BlackoutTuesday — efforts that, in some cases, were criticized as tone deaf or insufficient in responding to the racism in their own organizations. Friday’s letter urged these institutions to “put their money where their mouths are” by hiring and promoting black cultural workers in all disciplines and putting substantial resources into their work. It called on them to recruit black people for leadership positions and create pathways for black students to enter their professions.
The letter closed with the demand that black artists have the freedom to shape how stories about blackness are told rather than listening to what overwhelmingly white institutions consider “marketable” or “palatable,” whether in television shows, novels, fashion, podcasting or the myriad disciplines that the 1,000-plus names represent.