January 16, 2017

Meeting of the Minds

A conversation between Hank Willis Thomas and Chinaka Hodge

By OMCA Staff

Genre-busting artists Chinaka Hodge and Hank Willis Thomas are among the contemporary contributors to All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50. Hodge is a poet, playwright, screenwriter, and educator whose work on racial injustice, identity, and gentrification has earned her national acclaim. Thomas’ expansive art pieces address pop culture depictions of African Americans, racial violence, and civil rights. Here, they converse about how the Black Panther movement has influenced them.

Hodge: I am excited for what this exhibition offers in terms of a space to have important conversations. The Museum commissioned me to record a piece of poetry, which is about how the Black Panthers’ legacy speaks to what my generation inherited. I grew up in Oakland, and the Black Panthers have always been inextricable from my upbringing. Tarika Lewis, the first female Black Panther, taught music at my elementary school; they were members of our churches; they sent their children to school with me. It’s our family that we are talking about, but it’s also a legacy that is bigger than us. I don’t see them as historical relics; I see them as functional, moving, necessary parts of the machine that is Oakland. In fact, I think all of my work is in response to their legacy.

Thomas: I can’t wait to hear the piece you do, Chinaka. I can’t imagine there being a more necessary time than now to do such work.

Hodge: Thank you; I am excited to do it. Your work has always deeply affected me and inspired what I write. I often wonder about the idea of legacy in your work, Hank. What do you feel your job is, being your mother’s son? [Editor’s note: Thomas’s mother, Deborah Willis, is one of the nation’s leading historians of African American photography and curators of African American culture.]

Thomas: Stay black and live? And I am only using “black” as shorthand for human. I don’t believe in race as we have been conditioned to understand it through Eurocentric ideas. But as an African American male, I think it is important to live a life in defiance of society’s traps. It’s a tall order, but I don’t really have a choice. I have a few works in the show, including an interactive audio piece called Black Righteous Space. It’s about disrupting the image of oppression and reshaping the idea of rebellion. My father was a Black Panther in Philadelphia, and I think I became aware of the political elements of the Party in my early teens. Contrary to the way they are depicted as an anti-white organization, I think it has always been a humanist organization. I was inspired by this population of young people who took matters into their own hands.

Hodge: I have to ask you: How do you make the work you make, and stay sane and alive? Because I have a hard time staying afloat when I get to the realest art.

Thomas: Our communities are how we stay afloat. I always go back to a poem by Audre Lorde called “A Litany for Survival.” The last line is: “It is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive.” The idea is that you are never going to win at life—it’s a futile objective—but you’re going to live so you might as well live. So if you have a voice, there’s no reason not to use it. I’m curious, what does being a writer mean for you?

Hodge: My job is to make words into things that people want to repeat. We don’t have mantras the way we used to, and for better or worse, that’s part of what makes a movement. And I feel the same way you do about what my job is: Stay black, and stay alive and not die. I’m happy to engage in conversations about this at a really critical time.”

Three of Hank Willis Thomas’ work can be seen in the exhibition All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50. Chinaka Hodge’s spoken word piece is performed as a part of a video in the exhibition produced by Bread & Butter Films. Chinaka is also appearing with Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale in conversation at the Museum on Saturday, January 21.

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Inside Out, the Oakland Museum of California's Member magazine.