I’ve bounced around the country in the last year or so, from San Francisco to New York, but in the spring I decided to come to St. Louis to finish my book of short stories, “Delusions of Grandeur,” since many of the tales take place in the haunted old river city.
It turns out I couldn’t be here at a more interesting time. Protesters have shut down streets and major interstates. Parts of the region have burned. Flights have been diverted from Lambert St. Louis International Airport. Mass “die in” protests have shut down malls and intersections.
In the wake of Michael Brown, the passionate city is a place where anything can happen and where creativity abounds. From the now iconic “Hands up” pose born on the streets of Ferguson, to protesters interrupting the symphony in an elegant protest of song as banners unfurled from the balcony. St. Louis artist Mallory Nezam started #ChalkUnarmed, drawing chalk outlines of people on public sidewalks or plazas, then adding the name of an unarmed black man who was killed by a police officer, with the date and location of his death. #ChalkUnarmed had spread to other cities around the nation. http://empathyeducates.org/st-louis-artists-respond-to-ferguson-with-chalk/
Cbabi (pronounced Kuh-bob-bi) Bayoc is a local artist famous for his portraits of black fathers interacting with their children. Cbabi stands for Creative Black Artist Battling Ignorance and Bayoc (which he waited for his wife to discover) stands for Blessed African Youth of Creativity. Cbabi wanted to have a last name that included the attributes of the wife he was going to bear children with because the last name, he felt, should reflect both parents and not just the father.
In 2012 he embarked on a sensational project, “365 Days With Dad,” creating a portrait a day of a father interacting with his child. While the project caught fire over social media, Bayoc wanted to make sure the black community at large was included, and set up temporary studios in local markets to reach his audience.
I was struck by his latest print, R.I.P. SON, which depicts a black father with his two boys, one which has a target on his chest. The prints, which are available for $35, are powerful and heartbreaking.
I’m an optimist, and as such I see the beauty in the response to the Brown tragedy. I see the young emerging leaders in the streets. I see long-ignored issues being addressed. I see art and creativity flourishing. Nationwide, unarmed black men are killed by police with horrifying regularity, but are typically in less passionate cities where the victim is simply mourned over potato salad. It’s the response of St. Louisans that made Mike Brown different, and ignited a national discussion.
A little over a century ago St. Louis was the nation’s 4th largest city. A metropolis mighty enough to launch the first transatlantic flight which bore her name, and to host the first Olympic games in the United States. From the smoldering ashes I see a city awakening, more relevant than she’s been in a century, exporting her culture in hands-up poses, chalk outlines, dialogue, stories, art and cries for social justice.
As the smoke clears I see the passing of the old guard, and the rise of a much more dynamic St. Louis.