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A Black Panther in Beirut

In Oakland, California in the late 1960s, Emory Douglas, minister of culture for the Black Panther Party, was responsible for the manifestation of Voice in his community, and represented the hope for revolution among the marginalized and Voiceless.

In Lebanon, some 40 years later, he is to pay a visit.

In America, a Black minister agitates in a New Orleans City Council meeting and demands entrance for residents who have come to protest the demolition of their homes to make way for luxury apartments. The protesters are met with Tazer guns and mace.

In Beirut, this response might include snipers and bullets. A non-violent tent occupation of Martyr’s Square is criticized for the economic damage inflicted on the downtown business district, itself occupied by foreign Capital.

In Detroit, residents destroy their valueless homes with gasoline and fire in order to recoup insurance money that will allow them to move out to the suburbs.

In Beirut, real estate barons offer a pittance to anyone willing to raze the city’s heritage to make way for hermetically sealed buildings closed off from the doomed street life below.

In Louisiana, six Black teenagers face emprisonment for assault in reaction to the hanging of nooses from a tree deemed “reserved” for white students.

In Beirut’s airport there is a waiting room clearly marked for arriving laborers. In Lebanon, the marginalized are stabbed in their sleep; thrown from their balconies; killed on construction sites. No one is prosecuted for these crimes.

In America, logos and signs maintain the country’s racist roots: Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima, the Native American as symbol for sports teams. Consumers eating their rice or pancakes, patrons of baseball games wearing face paint and waving tomahawks, do not challenge this.

In Beirut, diners are entertained in sushi restaurants by Filipina women dolled up as Japanese geishas; in Indian restaurants by Syrian men sporting <I>salwar kameez</I>. No one protests.

In Philadelphia, white parents pull their children out of a private swimming pool when Black children from a summer camp show up for some relief from the summer heat. There are few if any public spaces for swimming.

In Beirut, scandals erupt due to the presence of foreign servants in private beach resorts. Similarly, the “public beach” is but a tiny strip of trash-littered sand along water polluted by untreated sewage. No one cares.

In Los Angeles, the architect who planned out a bunker-like U.S. chancellery in Damascus builds a library, the symbol of democratic access to information. Its design reflects the security needs of a prison complex. Its location is a low-income immigrant community seen as undesirable.

In Beirut, an Art Center rises in an industrial neighborhood, and touts its communal use. It welcomes a small subset of the population, none of whom is from the neighborhood.

On American theater screens, the movie “Driving Miss Daisy” portrays a fictitious scene in which a Black man chauffeurs a Southern doyenne to a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King. The chauffeur waits outside, far removed from the man who speaks of his liberation.

In Lebanon, nannies and domestic servants take care of households while their owners listen to Black artists who speak of their exclusion from American society.

In America, in one of his more famous works, Emory Douglas collages the controlling hand of Capital decorated with logos of corporations and other Voice destroyers.

In Beirut, the sponsors list of any given cultural event proudly lists the banks, foreign NGOs, and other corporations that make such importation and implantation of outside culture possible. No one seems to mind.

In Denver, at the mayoral state-of-the-city address, a Black woman is excoriated for singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing”–referred to as the Black National Anthem–instead of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. She replies to the harsh criticism: “Art is supposed to make you think.”

In Lebanon, a craftsman sings silently to himself and creates his artworks which, when copied by thieving “local artists”, will sell for more than he can ever imagine.

In American museums and gallery spaces, almost fifty years after his group arose from an oppressed community, the work of Emory Douglas is literally given currency by the very media that helped destroy the Panthers in the first place.

In Lebanon, former signs and symbols of resistance find themselves equally evaluated by a similar over-mediation. They are thus rendered void of actionable meaning.

In America, millions of voters walked into polling stations and cast a ballot for a Black man thinking they would bring change to the country. In fact, they didn’t.

In Beirut, a dozen or so art mavens walk into a lecture and listen to a Black man speaking of his activism yesteryear, thinking they are part of some minor revolution. In fact, they aren’t.

In America, any local cultural manifestation, any expression of history and context, any resistant voice that dares speak out is suppressed; co-opted; destroyed.

In Beirut, a Voiceless man far from his hometown works in a corner shop of a neighborhood he can’t afford and writes his poetry in a beautiful calligraphic hand. Then, he throws the pages away. He explains: “No one will ever read them; I write for no one.”

From an America that doesn’t deserve him, Emory Douglas is coming to Beirut. For fifty dollars, one can enter an Art Center’s hallowed halls and benefit from a workshop with the artist.

Meanwhile, in a Lebanon that deserves him less, the Voices most in need of him remain outside, ever marginalized; waiting to be lifted, their song never heard.

DANIEL DRENNAN is the founder of Jamaa al-yad, a Beirut-based artists’ collective.

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