Dear Mr. Jimmy

By Niama Safia Sandy

Monday, April 19, 2021

I was born just two years before you left this physical realm. Some 34 years since you’ve been gone, your prescience is present at every turn. The last year in particular has been especially terrible and wondrous. I know you saw a lot but I have wondered whether the weight of now would bear down on you differently and what you would think about where we have found ourselves in this country, in the West, on this planet overall. In some ways I know you have already said much of what there is to say about it all. About whiteness. About capitalism and the relentless violence and conditions it levies upon us all. About the needless suffering it continues to produce. About the increasing savagery and militarization of the police all over the country. About the fact that practically every other day they kill another Black person. Yesterday it was Daunte Wright, a 20-year old man in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. Our grief and numbness is compounded by the fact that this comes less than a year after we collectively watched George Floyd, another Black man, have the breath pressed out of his body by a policeman’s knee in Minneapolis. 

Facing The Rising Sun; Niama Safia Sandy performing with singers Vuyo Sotashe (left) and J. Hoard (right) singing “Lift Every Voice & Sing” in Washington Square Park at Interdependence Day, July 4 2020, co-organized by Niama Safia Sandy with The Blacksmiths & The Wide Awakes. Photo Credit: Colton Williams

It’s important for you to know there is also an ongoing global public health crisis. Nearly three million people have died. It has fundamentally changed daily life on the planet. It has revealed so many of the disparities that were already so clear to us. It has offered many a new kind of clarity. Accordingly, George Floyd’s killing set the country and the world ablaze. It was a perfect storm scenario. We could not turn away from the casual, caustic and continuous barbs of structural racism.  

It felt like a turning point. Urgent in a way we had not seen before. People poured into the streets in protest and pursuit of their power - on both sides. There is darkness and weariness, but there is just as much hope, unity, and resilience. 

It was not and is not a moment that allows for the personal and political to be separate. It is clear that this is a matter of life beyond the incessant spectacle of Black death. En masse, people finally seem to be seeing through the lens of the work you created for us. And honestly, it has been the most beautiful, delirious, exhilarating, and exhausting time of my adult life.

We See You; The final march of the Wide Awakes Day procession led protestors and artists holding full-size placards featuring Eric Garner’s eyes (the work of artist JR); Wide Awakes Day, October 3, 2020, co-organized by Niama Safia Sandy in collaboration with The Blacksmiths & The Wide Awakes. Photo Credit: Marc Azoulay

A Moko Jumbie at Liberty; A member of the Kaisokah Moko Jumbie USA dancing in the final legs of the Wide Awakes Day procession down Broadway at Liberty Street on October 3, 2020, co-organized by Niama Safia Sandy with The Blacksmiths & The Wide Awakes. Photo Credit: Ben Lozovsky

Vanessa L. German; Reckoning: Grief and Light, 2021; Mixed Media; H: 8’ 6” x W: 12’ x D: 5’ 6”; Courtesy of the artist and The Frick, Pittsburgh

Jamea Richmond-Edwards; Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Coming Forth to Carry Me Home, 2020; Marker, ink, pastel, colored pencil, acrylic, spray paint, glitter, rhinestones, fabric and mixed media collage on canvas; 72 x 72 inches; Courtesy of the artist

Tariku Shiferaw; A Boy is a Gun (Tyler, the Creator) 2021; Wood, wall paint and lacquer; 106 x 140 inches

"Through this work, I have come to understand joy as a healing and generative space, a portal for transmutation to activating and wielding a certain kind of power."

Since last Summer, I have worked in collaboration with New York-based artist collectives The Blacksmiths, The Resistance Revival Chorus, The Wide Awakes, Joy To the People, and others, to create public events that offer our communities resplendent respite, reverence, and revelry. We dreamed with all the love we could muster. We made art in the streets. We found energy and focus in a time that feels like the most draining moment of our lifetimes. We raised our voices singing, screaming to affirm life and the power of joy. Musicians flooded the streets setting the meter for thousands of protesting bodies. We danced in the streets like we owned them (because we do). We acknowledged the labor and footsteps of our ancestors hither and thither, including those whose unceded lands we are settled upon. There was/is an energy that I can’t say I’ve felt on the streets of this city. We chose beauty and ourselves over violence. From Harlem, to Elmhurst, to Flatbush, and beyond, we proclaimed that there is nowhere in this city or the world that is out of the reach of our desire for change. We bathed the streets in joy and love. Through this work, I have come to understand joy as a healing and generative space, a portal for transmutation to activating and wielding a certain kind of power.

I have imagined that our collective joy opened up this hallowed ground, and called spirits of the thousands whose blood sweat and tears are literally baked into the city and its story to help us as we continue to forge a fully viable future—for all of us.

Even before now, my work as a curator, educator, writer, musician, and organizer has been rooted in a kind of radical vision and truth-telling. My creative practice delves into the human story—through the critical lenses of healing, history, migration, music, race, and ritual. Like you, I hope to be an agitator who calls into question and makes sense of the nature of modern life and to celebrate our shared humanity in the process. No matter the disciplinary intersections my work crosses, I sift through the remnants of history in the hope of constructing moments of beauty and transformation activating the embers of what our ancestors left behind in the ether, on the streets, in the archive. This is all in service of telling stories we know in ways we have not yet thought to tell them and to lift us all to a higher state of historical, ontological and spiritual wholeness in the process.

I firmly believe that art is the mechanism, not only for sharing perspectives, but also for sparking the destruction of the systems that do not serve us and never did. This work, like yours, calls us to grapple with the multifarious modern conundrum of ecology, geography, race, class, and gender, the very heart of what keeps us from our humanity and what would allow us to be more humane. I hope we never lose our grip on the power of our voices and vision.


Playlist curated by the author:

About the author: Niama Safia Sandy is a New York-based cultural anthropologist, curator, producer, multidisciplinary artist and educator. Niama’s work delves into the human story, often with stories of the Global Black diaspora at its center.

In 2020, Sandy helped found The Blacksmiths, a coalition forging support for Black liberation against anti-Black racism in the academy and at presenting institutions. Through The Blacksmiths, she has produced resources and public events engaging communities, activists, artists across disciplines, and more to close the gaps in appropriate opportunities for Black artists of all disciplines, curators, and administrators on the global stage.

Niama is a member of the Resistance Revival Chorus, a group of women and non-binary identifying musicians bringing song to life in the spirit of activism, collective joy and resistance. She is also an active member of the Wide Awakes, an international open-source network of artists and creatives radically reimagining the future through creative collaboration. She has presented work, and spoken at art institutions around the world. Niama and her work have been featured in The New York Times,Teen Vogue, The Washington Post, Hyperallergic, OkayAfrica, and more. She has written for outlets including Artsy, Active Cultures LA, and NAD NOW. Niama is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Pratt Institute and Curator-in-Residence at Fridman Gallery.

Leasho Johnson; Rules for Being Free (Anansi #6), 2020; Charcoal, distemper, watercolor, ink, acrylic, gold foil, oil, oil stick, and gesso on paper; 52 x 68 x 1.75 inches; Courtesy of the artist and FLXST Contemporary

Deborah Jack; Untitled, 2021; Collage, salt, and gold leaf on archival photo paper; 32 x 16.9 inches; Courtesy of the artist

Nate Lewis; Probing The Land 8, 2020; Hand-sculpted ink jet print, ink, graphite, and frottage; 44 x 60 inches; Courtesy of the artist