Online Conversation | Music, Creativity & Justice with Ruth Naomi Floyd
On Friday, July 23rd, we hosted vocalist and composer Ruth Naomi Floyd to discuss the work of creating as a catalyst for justice. An award-winning musician and photographer, Floyd discussed how music and justice work together to elevate the voices and wisdom of the downtrodden.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said when speaking of the legacy of jazz, “God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create, and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment.” In a culture wrestling with past and present injustices, Floyd believes that the creativity which God has endowed His creatures with can be a source of redemption and beauty amidst ashes. We hope you enjoy this conversation!
The opening song is “Walk Together Children” – Arranged and performed by James Weidman.
The painting is Aspects of Negro Life: Slavery to Reconstruction by Aaron Douglas, 1934
Special thanks to this event’s co-hosts:
Special thanks to Bruce Van Patter for this visual depiction of our conversation with Ruth Naomi Floyd!
Transcript of “Music, Creativity, and Justice” with Ruth Naomi Floyd
Cherie Harder: On behalf of all of us in the Trinity Forum, welcome to today’s Online Conversation with Ruth Naomi Floyd on “Music, Creativity, and Justice.” I’d also just like to thank our friends at the Rabbit Room, Square Halo, and the Bridge Project who are cohosting with us this program today, as well as add my thanks in addition to the Fetzer Institute, whose grant has helped make the series on creativity, the common good, and flourishing possible. Also today, I want to simply express our gratitude to all of you, our viewers. This is the occasion of our 50th Online Conversation since the pandemic began. And when we first started these, we were really learning as we went. Since then, we’ve had over 70,000 of you register for one or more of these 50 different Online Conversations from at least 108 different countries that we know of. And we’ve tried to tackle a whole variety of topics, from poetry to pluralism, loneliness to leadership, from dying well to leading a tech-wise life. If you are one of those folks who are new to the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith and to offer programs like this Online Conversation to do so in hopes of coming to better know the Author of the answers.
And certainly one of the big questions of life is how we think about, work within, and live faithfully within a world that was called and created to be good and beautiful, and yet everywhere is marred by ugliness and injustice. So how can we in our various spheres and stations, help repair, re-envision, and create new places of beauty, justice, and flourishing? It’s a big question. And to help us wrestle with it, we are so delighted to welcome our guest today, vocalist and composer Ruth Naomi Floyd, who has dedicated much of her life to creatively and compellingly exploring just those questions through music and the arts. Ruth Naomi Floyd is a vocalist and a composer who has been at the forefront of creating vocal jazz settings that express theology and justice for over 25 years. She has performed and lectured prolifically, taught as a professor or an artist-in-residence at a number of universities, and been awarded an honorary doctorate from Concordia College for contributions to the arts, justice, and music education. “The Frederick Douglass Jazz Works” is her latest body of compositions, which is based on the speeches and writings of the great leading orator, abolitionist, writer, publisher, and statesman. And just this past May, she was also awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant for her new body of work, “The Francis Suite.” In addition to her artistry and her music, she’s also contributed numerous works, including the books It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God, published by Square Halo, and The Problem of Good. Ruth, welcome. It’s so great to have you on this Online Conversation.
Ruth Naomi Floyd: Hello, Cherie. It’s fantastic to be here. Thank you for the kind invitation.
Cherie Harder: Absolutely. So you have been a visual artist, a photographer, a musician who plays I think it was the bassoon and the piano, as well as a vocalist. You’ve also been called an emancipatory artist. And so I’d love to start out just by asking you about your own artistic journey, both as a musician and a vocalist, but also what an “emancipatory artist” is and how you became one.
Ruth Naomi Floyd: Sure, thanks for asking. My parents were the product of the Great Depression, and so they both loved art and creating, but that was not an option for them. It was more about putting food on the table. So they vowed to themselves individually and then when they married that any children they would have would study art and music. And they kept that promise. And I’m deeply grateful, as my sisters are, too. And so we each started out playing piano and two instruments—I played flute and bassoon—and we all sang. But it was really the point of seeing my parents be creative in areas that were broken, there were troubling, that were scary, that were just horrifying. And so my parents were urban missionaries, and in the late 60s and 70s in Philadelphia, there was a great problem of gang warfare. And so they decided to go into the community, to live amongst the people in the neighborhood and combat this gang warfare. So they became part of the community. They lived and breathed the community. They knew their neighbor. They grew to love their neighbor by speaking truth of the gospel and creating and sharing an act of beauty. My father worked with the youth and helped them understand imago dei and that their lives matter, their neighbors’ lives matter, their enemies’ lives—the rival gang members—their lives matter. And as a little girl, I would wash the blood from the slain gang members with my mother. We would scrub the street. And my mother was a creative extremist, if you will, in giving beauty by washing away the blood of the dead so that their mothers would not have to see the blood of their son spread across the street. So my parents were what Martin Luther King calls “creative extremists,” and although a violent neighborhood, it remains one of the most beautiful, loving communities I’ve ever known.
So when a dear friend, Dr. John Newnes first called me “emancipatory artist,” I pushed against it. I thought, Oh, I’m not really that. But then I took some time to really study the word. And it’s one who seeks truth, one who seeks beauty, one who stands up for truth, and one who helps others see beauty, beauty in the midst of suffering darkness and despair, beauty in the midst of joy and light and love. You know, the great Toni Morrison told us that the function of freedom is to free someone else. And so in truth and beauty and freedom, I create. We are all his image bearers and have been given that same creative capacity to create. I am just grateful to be able to have the chance, the opportunity to create beauty, but particularly beauty out of the ashes.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s gorgeous. You know, there is another speech that I listened to of yours where you called yourself a “chaser of beauty,” which I thought was a beautiful phrase. And I’ve also heard you tell the remarkable story, I think it was of your great-great-great grandmother, who was known for seeking beauty even in the midst of great suffering. And it sounds in some ways like you might come by it naturally. But I wonder what you have learned in the process of looking for beauty when everything around you seems ugly or dark and how you might guide others who yearn to see the beauty around them but don’t.
Ruth Naomi Floyd: Sure. Thanks for mentioning one of my favorite human beings ever, my great-grandmother. It was her mother who was made to be a mule, as a six-foot-two enslaved African in America, to intimidate everyone around. Because of her strength, because of her height, they made her to be a mule, a human mule, who pulled the plow. And it was my great-grandmother who asked her siblings and they were the ones that told her that coming from this place of dehumanization, from this place of genocidal hate and evil, she searched for beauty, whether a leaf or a pine cone, a flower, a rock. She searched for it. She brought it back into the cabin. And so she also was a creative extremist, finding beauty in the midst of utter despair and evil. One of the profound gifts of Blackness in America is the long historic dance between utter despair and unspeakable joy. It is found in our culture, in our music, in our art, in our cuisine, in our life. And so the art of seeing demands that we see it with new eyes, with different eyes, with renewed eyes, and so eyes that have the courage to look, eyes that have the courage to see, to even look in the mirror and—Lord, have mercy—face the reflection that’s looking back at you and what that reflection brings. You know, eyes enough and voice enough to ask the questions or to see the questions and to search for the answers. So it’s in that courageous act of being willing to see, but I think that profound sense of knowledge and transformation can take place.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s beautiful. You know, I want to ask you about love, the role of love. You know, you have described both just now, but also many other times, the creativity of a suffering people who essentially wove their trauma into something durable, enduring, and beautiful. And it made me think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that love is the strongest, most irresistibly creative power in the world, that there is something uniquely kind of creative and generative about love. And so I wanted to ask your thoughts about love and the act of creating, in that if love itself is essentially creative, does the act of of making and creating also grow our capacity to love? Or how should we understand the connection?
Ruth Naomi Floyd: Sure. You know, I think, of course, of Reverend Martin Luther King and others. I think of Vincent Van Gogh, who says the more I— I think the quote is, “The more I think about it, the more I realize that there is nothing more artistic than to love each other.” And I think when we take the great command of Jesus, and when we treat it as an option, we get in trouble. Will we really understand and come to realize the depth of love? And love is a verb; it’s transforming. It’s amazing. There was someone in my life for over almost 40 years who brought great grief and despair to me and other members of my family. And it wasn’t until I stopped seeing that human being as an enemy and seeing it [instead] as a human being made in the image of God and struggling and praying and hoping and at times honestly resisting, trying to love her, that it brought about empathy.
The greatest acts of love is really found from Genesis—”In the beginning, God created”—to the cross of Jesus Christ and to the eternity that the first and greatest Artist is preparing for us. But to love is to risk, and creating is risk. We know that art shapes and reshapes us and that it’s there in the cross of Jesus, I believe—that’s where beauty and violence collided and beauty won. And so that act of loving someone and that being purposely trying to love someone, especially those that seem or are viewed or deemed unlovable, is in a way that is directly connected and intrinsically connected to art-making. And so I think it’s powerful to think of love, as you mentioned, Cherie, as an act, as an active way. I’m reminded of Romans 12: Renewing our mind every day to love, renewing our mind to see, renewing our mind to create things so that we really, truly believe and act that we are all created in his sight and we are made in his image.
Cherie Harder: You mentioned art shaping us, and one of the things that is so interesting that you have pointed out in various speeches is that almost all of distinctly American music, whether it is a gospel, jazz, ragtime, blues, soul, RB, hip hop, or whatnot, all of those different genres were birthed within the context of suffering African-Americans. And so often injustice or oppression obliterates expressions of creativity, which is part of suffering itself. What do you think enabled this extraordinary variety of musical creativity amidst injustice? And what do you make of the fact that it largely defines what is considered uniquely American music?
Ruth Naomi Floyd: Well, that’s a fantastic question, Cherie. Of course, it has to do with liberation. Of course, it has to do with chasing beauty. Chasing beauty is a profound disturbance. It is an interruption of the flow of injustice. And so searching and capturing and experiencing beauty is a form of resistance, and this is most powerfully demonstrated in the profound beauty, in the midst of unspeakable suffering, in the African-American spiritual. It’s the primary root of almost all American music is derived from the African-American spirituals. So what I’m saying is, there’d be no blues, there’d be no ragtime, there’d be no hip hop, jazz, R&B, country, hip hop, pop music, without the African-American spirituals. So the African-American spirituals are created by the enslaved Africans in American. And the question that’s always not far from my thoughts when singing or hearing or experiencing is, you know, that old question that’s asked in the Old Testament: how did they sing a song in a strange land? And still, the slaves took their everyday experience of plantation life and incorporated the hope of the spiritual and physical liberation and created a body of music that stands the test of time. I wish they were here to know that the melodies they uttered, the melodies that they created in the midst of profound and devastating suffering, would stand the test of time and would be the root of almost all Americans. That is beauty in the midst of ashes. I wish they knew. I wish they were here, that those African rhythms that they brought with them when dragged to this country would be a part, integral part, that basic material, the integral part of what it means to be American music, and that it would be played, created—in the sense of performed—around the world. So it’s powerful. It’s a profound example of creating as resistance.
Cherie Harder: I want to ask you about your most recent project, which in many ways encapsulates many of the themes that you have dedicated much of your life to studying and to, well, immersing yourself into performing as well as studying. And that is the “Frederick Douglass Jazz Works Project,” where you have essentially paired a series of improvisational jazz compositions with the words of Frederick Douglass. And I would love to hear more from you about this. In many ways, in reading Frederick Douglass’s works, I think of almost a march rather than an improvisational sort of jazz composition. But what led you to devote several years of your life really to putting his words—and he was a word guy more than a music guy—his words to music.
Ruth Naomi Floyd: Well, you want to talk about beauty in the midst. That is Frederick Douglass. I think in another life I would have been a historian. I love history. I love studying the patterns of human behavior. And I decided that if I’m going to communicate in jazz improvisational music—and I’ve done a lot of decades of study of African-American spirituals and blues and gospel and jazz and other genres of music and the history that were embedded in it—I decided I was going to go to the root. And so we love our liberator, Harriet Tubman. But I chose Frederick Douglass simply because of what you noted, Cherie, that there’s a lot of words, a lot of powerful, poetic, and prophetic words. So I started studying him, thought it would be a couple of years; it turned into almost a 10-year study. And I mean, this isn’t a Google search. This is like going to the U.K., going to Ireland, going to Scotland. Thankfully, my music and concerts and things put me there, but I was able to stay a day or a week later. And going to the Lincoln Library and the Schomburg and the New York Public Library, for 10 years and just gathering and understanding the culture of the time, what he faced, his courage, his strength, his, you know, his boldness in speaking truth.
And at the end of it, I was riding a train and I said, I’m just going to—long train ride—I’m going to read some of my favorite Frederick Douglass speeches. And a couple nights before, I’d come up with some—to me it was very odd composition—of two acoustic double bass, two double bass and voice. And I didn’t know what to do with it, and I put it away. And while I was reading one of his speeches, that rhythm of that composition reminded me of the words and the patterns and the rhythm in the speech. I came home and the words fit like a glove. I completed, composed, two more songs surrounding it where the music came first and then I added the words or the words came first and I added the music. And I thought it would just be a trilogy. But it turned into a whole body of music where we actually have too much music now. We have to decide which ones are going to appear on the album. But it’s been a powerful time and I think so many times in our culture we examine the fruit, but we have to go all the way down to the roots to really understand. And so I’m grateful for that time of study and really surprised and deeply grateful that the Lord allowed me to use my creativity as a composer, musician, vocals, to create this body of work where every lyric I sing are the words of Frederick Douglass in jazz improvisational music.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. You’ve mentioned before the link between remembrance and hope, so it’s not at all surprising to me that you would engage in historical study, and I wanted to ask you about that, that link, why that is, in that obviously part of the way that music keeps remembrance alive is by retaining and recalling our stories, stories of our history. But there are many stories in our history, and not only those of individual persons, but also of peoples, too, that can bring shame. Shame whether one is a victim, a perpetrator, complicit, absent, unaware, whatever it is. And it seems that shame rarely brings hope or healing. So I’d love to hear more from you just about the way that music and creativity make possible, not only remembrance, but a form of remembrance that could bring hope and healing.
Ruth Naomi Floyd: I love that question. Thank you for that question. You know, there’s been many writers and poets and artists and musicians attributed to this quote, but I love this quote, that “music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” And so what is the most important element in music? It’s silence. It’s that pause. It’s in that pause of what has come before and what is coming that we can live. We remember the past, remember the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. But it’s in that pause, in that silence that we can push forward to the future. That famous quote from Hans Christian Andersen that says, you know, “where words fail, music speaks.” And, you know, it’s in that act of listening, I believe, that music can bring about. So the notes are important, harmony is important, all the elements of music are important, but it’s in that pause. And so it does bring back that remembrance. And remember that to remember is to recall and it’s to honor the lives, you know. An enslaved African said when she saw a member of her tribe coming to the plantation, she said, “Are we yet alive to see each other’s face and remember?” And so actively remember is a testament, is an honoring, of those that have gone before us, but it also is a way to propel us and force and drag us and bring us and accompany us and walk alongside of us to continue to create. So I think the music, but particularly that silence—you know, you think of bebops and all this convergence of notes upon notes and then there’s that silence that really brings about what was played and what is about to be played. You know, what we call, you know, “the already and the not yet.” And I think that in that remembrance and in those silent moments, that’s where it’s powerful and that’s where music has its most powerful way.
Also, I’m a jazz musician, so it’s also the improvisation of that risk of jumping off a mountain without a parachute, the risk of creating on the spot, and even though you study your theory and you practice and you’re prepared and you know the art of practice, you understand that at that moment you are jumping, you’re leaping, you are risking. And in that risk, you fall. I mean, in jazz, you get tired of falling and you stop falling. You do what you need to to minimize that. But it’s in that falling and in remembering that pain and suffering of that fall that when you go— and in jazz, which is so powerful, it’s that there’s the next note that determines whether it was a wrong note. So it’s a theology of grace. You know, a critic asked Miles Davis, “Oh, this is powerful what you play. There’s two parts or four parts where I don’t know how you got from that note to that note and that dynamic.” And Miles Davis just said, “Oh, that’s where I made a mistake. I just corrected in the next measure, the next beat.” And I think it’s profound that those that follow the first and greatest Artist have the theology of grace, that where we’ve made a mistake, we have a chance to make it right. In our nation’s history, in the history of a nation, we’ve made many mistakes. We have another opportunity, another beat, another measure to get it right. And it’s in remembering while actively forging ahead, but taking time to be silent and respecting that silence, not ruining that silence.
Cherie Harder: That’s beautiful. So we could talk for a long time. I know there’s a lot of questions awaiting, but before we do this, I’m anticipating that there are probably many people watching who, like myself, will never be musicians. I cannot carry a tune in a bucket. But given that you have spent a quarter-century, essentially, studying, performing, embodying sort of this intersection of theology and artistry and beauty and justice, there are probably many people who are eager to be creative catalysts, even if they don’t have artistic talent. What would you tell them? What can they do to be creative, artistic chasers of beauty and catalysts for justice, even if there is very little musical ability?
Ruth Naomi Floyd: Sure. To see. To see beauty in the ordinary. I did a series with a photographer of taking ordinary objects that we never really, really take time to look at and to see the beauty of them. And really the beauty came when it was a close-up of the object or the thing. And so it’s powerful taking time to really look, to really see. But in the sense of creativity as a catalyst for justice: to become an ally. If you see injustice, become an ally for those of us— There’s some of us and hopefully most of us who are willing to be an artistic accomplice. That’s creative. So it’s not— I agree with you; it’s actually putting that love into action. But in the midst of suffering and grief and lament, we look to the first and greatest Artist who created out of nothing. And so we’re living in a broken world, in a pandemic where, you know, we have to cultivate a path towards loving and caring for each other. As Francis Schaffer said, imagining, letting imagination rise above the stars. Realizing that art matters, that art matters in a broken world. That art matters. That art shapes, that art reshapes us, that art builds, that art rebuilds us, and that, you know, the mystery of creating is infused with the first and greatest Artist. And so create and use it as an act of love, but begin by seeing and valuing and supporting those that can carry a tune, supporting those that are creating, encourage them and be an ally and accomplice. But create. All of us are creatives; we create in different ways and on different levels and different volumes and different values, but create and bring beauty in the midst of that.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. I see we have many questions that have come in already, and if you’re joining us for the first time, you can not only ask a question, but you can also “like” a question and that gives us a better idea of what the questions with the most interest are. So to start off, I’m actually going to combine two somewhat similar questions. Eva Nappier asks, “Can you share some of your favorite recent artists who best embody the idea of chasing after beauty?” And then relatedly, Fritz Heinzen asks, “Are there other jazz musicians and composers who have very successfully combined jazz and religious themes that you would recommend to us?”
Ruth Naomi Floyd: Sure. I’ll answer the second one first. Of course, there are many. I think of the great Mary Lou Williams. I think, of course, of Duke Ellington and “Sacred Song Suites.” There’s several that have brought about that combination of jazz improvisational music and lyrics and music of faith that communicate that faith. For me, I don’t see a divide between the sacred and the secular, but my discography has been lyrically committed to justice, to love, and to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and done primarily in jazz improvisational music. So there’s many. But those two are two of my heroes. Of course, there’s James Weidman, who is a mentor to me, who we heard—”Walk Together, Children”—in the start at the top of the time together. There’s the great flutist composer James Newton, who has composed European classical music and has done a profound— has a profound body of music that speaks to, draws upon the creativity of connecting music with faith. Please check James Weidman and James Newton out. And there’s so many, many more. For the second question, which I forgot. Can you repeat that? Sorry.
Cherie Harder: Yes, it was quite related. Eva Nappier asked, “Can you share some of your favorite recent artists who best embody the idea of chasing after beauty?”
Ruth Naomi Floyd: Ok, wow. There are so many. Wow. You know, I have to say, in some ways, the great writer-thinker and in a way prophetic James Baldwin, as a writer and artist, really continued to chase after beauty and acknowledge the tensions in his life. When they refused and he continued to create and continued to chase beauty even when they left America and had America in his rearview mirror, and even when he came back and even when he saw the things appeared, when they appeared to change, the root and the centrality of what was going on had not changed or had not moved in a way that was fast enough. And so he’s a great inspiration to me for many reasons. But he continued to reach for creativity, for beauty in the midst of a lot of despair in his life and in the midst of attempting suicide in the midst of a depression, in the midst of rage. He continued to seek beauty until his last breath. And even at this last breath, he said, “I hope that somewhere in the rubble of my life, there’s something you can reach for. There’s some beauty there.” And that’s our hope, isn’t it? Our hope is—and the truth lies—in the Lord Jesus Christ, where beauty has already won.
Cherie Harder: So a question from Ann Sherer, and Ann asks, “How does the embodiment of the arts relate to the physical suffering of both ourselves and those who’ve gone before us?”
Ruth Naomi Floyd: I think it’s the art of lament. Look at all the great works of art, the great bodies of music. And we see that when truth-telling about lament, of that total and utter despair, pushing against unspeakable joy, and that dance in between, it’s powerful. Nietzsche says, you know, life would be a mistake without music. I’m paraphrasing. But, you know, and then he also says, Nietzsche says, I cannot believe in a God who doesn’t dance. And I’m glad that our God dances. But the same one who became a man of sorrows for us is the same one who sings with us. Sings over us with joy. And so the greatest blues singer never stops singing, and so Jesus never stops singing. So I think it’s that combination, that combined, that community, that intrinsic ways of together of that lament. We have to tell the truth. We don’t give space for lament, we don’t provide space for it or a place for it. And when we get to lament and when we’re present in it and when we acknowledge it, when we carry it, it’s then that the truth is told. And some of the most powerful bodies of work have come through acknowledging and truth-telling through the lens of beauty, but it’s most certainly through the lens of lament.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s great. So our next question is from an anonymous attendee, but it’s a clarifying question that actually I think you just touched on, and they ask, “Is it creativity that gets us to justice or is it specifically beauty? And if the latter, could you please clarify how beauty gets us to justice?”
Ruth Naomi Floyd: We all know what beauty looks like. We don’t have to say, is that beautiful? And although we live in a world where it’s shoved down our throats, what beauty is, if indeed we have come to know the most beautiful one, we understand what beauty is because we understand, looking at other human beings, that we are made in the image of the beautiful one. So stereotypes aside, beauty in a combination of creativity is the one that points us to justice. When we say and when we look at someone—in the sense of justice, I’m talking about how we treated each other—and we say “that is not good,” we are participating in an assault on imago dei. And we, more importantly, are saying that God made a mistake. And that we know better. And so that we become an art critic to the greatest Artist ever known. And so I would say, to be very clear, that it’s in creating and in seeing beauty combined, that it’s a powerful way. It’s a profound way of confronting justice. And all you have to do is look at the gospel of Jesus Christ to see that again and again and again and again.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Jackie Vialle and, Jackie, I hope I pronounced your name correctly, but Jackie asks, “Do you feel like you were destined to create this body of work in art, that it was born in you? Or do you feel that seeking and chasing beauty is something that you or we have to cultivate and work for this manifestation?”
Ruth Naomi Floyd: I think it’s both, you know. I think cooking well is being creative, and I was not a natural cook, I had to work hard at it. I had to learn, I had to listen, I had to look. I saw my great-grandmother create phenomenal meals, artistic meals, beautiful meals, great-tasting meals with almost nothing. So I think it’s both, Jackie. I think it’s both. I mean, for me, I’ve always felt as an artist from when I can first remember, and I think that has a lot to do with my parents. But I also think it has a lot to do with blood running warm in my veins, that God in his sovereignty allowed me to have this beautiful, beautiful legacy that is birthed on this land in ugliness. But only he can transform it, take beauty and make beauty out of ashes. And so for me, it’s both. I think for some people might be one or the other, but I believe it’s both. It’s in cultivating, but then also there are artists that just have it, that just have known it and have chased after it from the beginning.
Cherie Harder: So a question comes from Kevin Young and Kevin asks, “What are practical ways that I, as a white man, can practically make justice a reality for all people, especially Black Americans or people who are still suffering years of racism in the US?”
Ruth Naomi Floyd: I think to really see them, to really know them, to sit at the feet of the culture and history of the people. Particularly, I’ve been talking a lot about the art and creativity of African-Americans. So to do that. I think too, still also know that you’re made in the image of God. So not to feel shame and not to back away from who God made you to be in his likeness. To study and to listen, to listen, to listen. And to really study. I had a friend who wanted drapes, new drapes in her house. And for six months she sent me swatches. She went to France, to Paris, to get the swatches and everything. And it was really important that the drapes reflected her identity, her loves, her passions, her art. And then she came to me and she said, “I really need to spend some time learning about the history of African-Americans and what justice looks like for them and what it has and has not been. Send me six book titles and I’ll order them and I’ll read them. And I said, “No. Use the same six months, you research and send me 20 books and I’ll pick six out. You spend the time singing and not the cliff notes of studying.” So let’s say studying and then also listening and then acting. There are acts of justice that you can do as an ally, that you can do as accomplicement.
And it all is centered around imago dei. I know that seems like the theme of the day, but it really is. Of treating your brother and sister as you want to be treated. Of loving, of realizing, of sacrificing, and of sharing and of giving back in a way that— when you see injustices, it’s not just enough to speak the truth about it, but to act towards it. So for me, my years, decades, of working in HIV and AIDS, working with transpeople, working with the community, trans community, working with the unhoused, working with homeless, working in prisons and helping to bring about reform. So it’s one thing— as my father said, “I want you— you’re an artist. I want you not only to do what you do behind a piano, behind a mic. I want to know what you’re doing outside of it.” Not that the art can’t speak and challenge, but for him, he said, “I want you to actively, in the community, be doing the same thing you’re doing behind the microphone.” And they showed me. So those are a few things. And to begin to share with friends and family of the injustice you see. But to listen. To see with new eyes. To respect, to study. To love. And to act. In ways that you can repay, in ways that you can. Fill that gap where justice hasn’t filled in. There’s small, tiny ways we can do it in a profound way.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Talli Valentine and Talli asks this: She says, “I’m reminded of Willie James Jennings talking about ‘readjusting the sidelines’ for the future of our church, culture, and nation and Shelley calling poets the ‘acknowledged legislators of the world.’ How do you see artists doing this work of reimagination and legislation? What do artists uniquely possess for seeing anew what is previously unseen?”
Ruth Naomi Floyd: I mean, it begins with truth-telling, and you can tell the truth in many ways. You can speak, or you whisper truth, maybe shout it when you’re able to be creative extremists. We have a whole history of those that were creative extremists in the public eye and fighting for justice, particularly legislation. So we all know what’s going on with the voting act; we all know the history of the vote for women, people of color. And so there’s ways of being creative extremists. During WWI and WWII, artists were active and, if you will, creating illusions so that the war would be won. And that’s powerful. And to speak to power and create ways and think of new ways that we can do that. And creativity in the sense of action, of being involved. I do believe we have to spend time knowing that you’re called to do this because there’s been many missteps and many actions that have proven detrimental when a person was trying to help. So I think in some ways, you asked the question, am I called to do this, in which ways am I called to do this? And how can I do that? And in Jesus, his life on Earth, it’s just remarkable how he was able to do that. In silence and confronting and storytelling and speaking and action and community and gathering people together, starting small and doing those kinds of things. I think it’s really profound.
Frederick Douglass speaks to that. He has a profound quote. He talks about all that’s gone on. He said something like, “slavery has carried on an act of blood.” Even now. And it’s so prophetic because it’s 2021 and that’s still true. It has left the testament of blood. And he lists all these things about the shedding of blood, and then he says, “And the church has been silent.” Cherie and Talli, the church hasn’t been so silent now. The words that are coming out, are they the truth? Are they reflective of Jesus Christ who loved the marginalized, who fought for them, who died for them? Are the words that the church, the divided church speaking, does it center on the unadulterated gospel of Jesus Christ in its fullness?
Cherie Harder: So I want to combine two questions that are somewhat related, and we can always break them out. Elizabeth Hamlett asks, “What comfort and practical advice can you offer to a religious community that has been afraid of art and creativity?” And somewhat similarly, Eva asks, “How can we encourage the church to support more and varied creative forms and to better recognize their generative power?”
Ruth Naomi Floyd: History tells us that, you know, there was a time when if you wanted to experience great art, where did you go? To the church. That is probably the last place people are looking for when they’re looking for great art. I think it’s really powerful that if we took seriously artists, we took seriously their bodies of work, particularly those that are prophetic, and that we supported them, the world would see Jesus in a new and powerful way. So what I’m saying is, is that if the world could see us loving each other, loving our enemies, and seeking for justice, what Micah 6:8 talks about, putting out and presenting beautiful, powerful art in a healing way, in a profound way, in a way that’s organic, in a way that is transformational, we wouldn’t need to say, “How can we get people to church? How can we get them here?” They would be flooding our church. I say this all the time. In 9/11, there was something the churches, particularly in New York, had to offer that so many thousands of New Yorkers came; they somehow thought we had the answer. And as you very well know, two or three services were added. And it was the music that was played and it was the artistry of creating and speaking a sermon. If we would put that first and foremost and really show the world that we believe in the first and greatest Artist and we’re made in his image and we carry that gift, the world would be transformed, America would be transformed, our states, our cities, our communities would be transformed. And just as those mothers that came to see where their sons were slain, my mother, by putting a bouquet of flowers, that grief was transformed in a small way, but in a powerful way.
Cherie Harder: We’re going to have time for one more question, and this one comes from Claire Leikert and Claire asks, “You discussed knowing you were called to the work and persevering because of that calling. How do you discern that call to creativity and beauty for each person?”
Ruth Naomi Floyd: I think it goes back to the silence. I think if you sense or you have a desire to know that you want to create in a deeper way, I think it’s in that silence. For me, it was a community, much like Marian Anderson. I attended the same church she did—not at the same time—but as a young girl. And as that Christian and church community surrounded her and pushed her and supported her, they did the same to me. So how I knew was an elder in a church came to me and said, “Ruth, that’s nice you sing a solo every now and then in a celestial choir, but you have a voice that’s different, you have a voice that should be heard. You need to walk in that.” And so I think it’s powerful when a community comes around and does that. But speak to those that love you, that know you. And seek the Lord and ask. You are creative, but if you’re longing and wanting and asking the question of “can I be an artist in a way that is lived and breathed daily?”, sit in silence, reflection, consult your community, those that you love, and then take the leap and act and create.
Cherie Harder: Ruth, would love to have the last word from you.
Ruth Naomi Floyd: Sure, I’m going to read a quote from my brother and friend who is an artist and a composer, and then just end with a few sentences of my own thoughts. Joshua Stamper’s states, “No one thing we create is the definite statement of our aesthetic vision. Each work is a thread. All threads are woven together to create the larger tapestry of our vision and language. Each thread represents a moment that is unique. A thread spun tomorrow looks and feels different than the threads spun today or yesterday or next week. That is part of the beauty of the tapestry as it’s being woven moment by moment. When it’s finished, all moments will be taken in at once. In the meantime, don’t ask one thread to do the job of the full tapestry. While we spin each thread, our only responsibility is to make sure it is sound, strong, and has integrity.”
For me, art is essential to human life and its spirit; in a world of uncertainty to create is an act of artistic disruption. Creativity is a vehicle for truth and can address the themes of justice through the lens of beauty. Creativity is essential to human life and its spirit, and it speaks profoundly to the human condition and our time. We need redemptive beauty to serve as an interruption to the flow of injustice and as a form of resistance.
Cherie Harder: Thank you, Ruth. That was beautiful. Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.