The artist reflects on Lorraine Hansberry’s What Use Are Flowers?
Jun 23, 2020
The value of our lives is weighed against the weight of the economy; we lose.
Like Hansberry’s hermit, I teach. Staring at a digital patchwork of eyes and noses and mouths, trying to figure out what “showing up” means when it plays out on the thinnest possible surface of a screen, trying to learn for them and with them at once. (And by them, I always mean us.) I keep reading. I feel as if I am throwing a fistful of pollen into the wind—it is spring, after all—and hoping something, somehow, will be fertilized. Some-when. Perhaps that something will be a pot, a tool. Perhaps it will be a flower. Can it be both? Will it be neither? How will I know?
Is knowing overrated? What use is throwing, when I am always being thrown? What use is you and me together in a room? What use is you and me together, on the streets? What use is permission? What use are bullhorns? What use are hermits? What use is isolation?
What use is teaching, when learning happens just as well without it? What use is care, when what is essential is always what is at risk? What use is smiling, if no one will see my face? What use is shouting, if no one will hear what I say? What use is sleeping, if I cannot rest? What use is the wind behind my back, if I cannot run without fear? What use is walking? What use is waiting? Really, what use is the sunrise?
“Did someone say despair was a question in the world?” In To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Hansberry easily dismisses such questions as futile. I admit that I had wondered what use is hope, and what use is despair, but I have swallowed these horse-pills. I am letting them grow in me.
What is possible is part of reality too, Hansberry said.
If the world ends today, where will tomorrow begin?
In isolation, I am nurturing the essentials. They will sprout from my throat like flowers.
Steffani Jemison is an artist whose work is in MoMA’s collection. She lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her work Promise Machine was performed at MoMA in 2015 on the occasion of the exhibition One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North.
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