“We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers…”
In his still remarkably relevant 1927 book The Public and Its Problems, American philosopher John Dewey said this about art:
“…The function of art has always been to break through the crust of conventionalized and routine consciousness.”
This week, the quote brings to mind a beautifully crafted documentary film about the life and work of Bayard Rustin, a prominent figure in the mid twentieth century Black Civil Rights Movement who was also a long haul activist in anti-war, labor and international human rights work, and an openly and unapologetically gay man. In relation to Bayard Rustin’s life, Dewey’s quote also brings to mind politics as a form of performance art.
As was often the case in his organizing work, Rustin has remained offstage in American historical consciousness for far too long. No longer.
Here is the trailer for the film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin:
Filmmakers Bennett Singer and Nancy Kates, along with executive producer Sam Pollard and a team of talented editors and researchers, worked creatively to fuse form and content in an art work aimed at a Dewey-an “break” through the many layered crust of American political amnesia.
The directors cite inspiration taken from filmmaker Marlon Riggs and the innovative “pastiche” techniques of his film art.
You will find more commentary on the aesthetics of Brother Outsider as well as information on the film’s reception and details about the filmmakers here.
We are also collectively fortunate to have some outstanding recent scholarly work on Bayard Rustin and his complex and sometimes politically contradictory life.
Historian John D’Emilio has written an excellent biography of Rustin, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (Chicago 2003).
Many of Rustin’s own published writings appear in Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin (San Francisco 2003), edited by Devon Carbado and Donald Weise, and with the extensive involvement of the Bayard Rustin Estate and Rustin’s surviving partner, Walter Naegle.
Time on Two Crosses was republished in 2015 with a new forward by President Barack Obama, and in 2013, Walter Naegle accepted Rustin’s posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. Here is that ceremony on CSPAN.
And a fine collection of Bayard Rustin’s letters appear as a collected volume: I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters, edited by Michael G. Long (San Francisco 2012).
Sharon Carson, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, Department of English, University of North Dakota