Life is for Learning; Writing is for Social Justice

Comedian Steve Harvey has a routine where he talks about the third eye of comedians. In talking about this third eye, he says that you get your two natural eyes, but you also get a third eye that allows you to “see” the underlying currents in situations — or, to see things that others don’t see. He sums it up by saying that “it gives you some great days but it can also cause you a lot of pain. There are a lot of cats that are in pain and suffering.”

It’s a heavy burden to bear when you feel that you are seeing society as it is and you are struggling to express that, even with your god given talent to do so. But you must do it anyway because, given the ability, it’s your job to express what you see. And to sometimes hold up a mirror to society, revealing what’s really going on.

In the book, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, Harold Cruse breaks down the responsibilities of those who are here to change society. Amongst those that he charges are the artists because he states: “In advanced societies, it is not the race politicians or the ‘rights’ leaders who create the new ideas and the new images of life and man. That role belongs to the artists and the intellectuals of each generation.”

We have seen over time where it has most certainly been the artists that have facilitated change in our communities. Whether it’s by creating songs that describe the inequities and injustices around us like Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” or providing a rallying cry for those out in the streets rioting like Martha & the Vandellas “Dancing in the Streets,” artists are always right in there, in the trenches with organizers and leaders, providing valuable components to revolution.

But we have also seen where that same responsibility has driven some of our most brilliant minds to the brink of insanity, drug use, and violence. Marvin Gaye recorded the song “Life is for Learning” in 1980 during his exile to London. This was a time in his life when he was completely caught up in his addictions, both drug and sexual. It was just nine years after he recorded one of the most socially responsible and culturally conscious albums of our time “What’s Goin On.”

The song begins with the simple yet complex line “The artist pays the price, so you won’t have to pay, If only we would listen to what they have to say.” It sounds like an artist that’s wracked from the pain of seeing the ills in the world. He is pleading with us to hear his cry as he shows us the visions that god has given to him. Interestingly enough, Marvin was an artist who was continuously painted as an extremely attractive sex god but he was never quite comfortable with that. He really wanted to be respected for his art and ideas bout the world

I can certainly relate to what Marvin might have been going through when writing his song. Sometimes it seems that you pour your heart out on the page doing everything that you can to shed light on things like urban angst, crumbling infrastructure, deteriorating community health, and violence. It can feel like taking on all of the pain of society. Many days, I have found myself mired in what I thought was writer’s block because I felt like it was too much. I call it writing to reach the world. Even in fiction — ESPECIALLY in fiction — I’m trying to create something meaningful that will inspire people to reflect on their current condition and be moved to change.

Personally, I am trying to learn to just write. And keep writing. I’m trying to learn not to let my intentions overwhelm me as they often do. I encourage myself with the reality that there will be hits and misses. I feel myself filling up with the enthusiasm for the betterment of my community, I try to dump it all on the page, and I hope it will touch someone. But most of all, I heal myself because my purpose has been fulfilled. As artists, we are only responsible for creating the picture and bringing voice to the ideas.

Exhaling words is like breathing life into our community and something we must continue to do in order to birth change.

Carolyn Wysinger earned her B.A. in English from California State University, Long Beach and her M.F.A. from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her social activism work has been included in several workshops and conferences including BUTCHVoices and Black Lesbians United.  She is a contributor to the Queer Women of Color Media Wire and her debut short stories collection, Knockturnal Emissions: Thoughts on #race #sexuality #gender & #community was recently published by Glover Lane Press.