Howard Palefsky is a 73-year-old New York City native. He has a B.S. from the City College of New York and his M.B.A. from Stanford University. Palefsky and his wife, Vicki, moved to Atlanta in 2006 after 33 years in Siilcon Valley. They’ve been active leaders in the arts community, have three grown children and two grandchildren.
I have been associated with a number of performing arts organizations in San Francisco, Santa Fe and Atlanta as a ticket holder, patron and board member for the past 30 years. But issues of systemic racism, equality of opportunity and equity were, frankly, not top of mind until my wife, Vicki, and I moved to Atlanta — where my own experience with racism and various arts organizations can be better described as an important but not an urgent issue.
While I have not witnessed overt, hostile, verbal or physical manifestations of racism or discrimination in the arts organizations with which we have been associated, it does not require an engineering degree from Georgia Tech to observe the disparity of “color” in the audiences, boards, staffs and performing artists active around the city. Systemic racism and lack of equity exists and is pervasive in most organizations in the U.S.
The events of the past six months have resulted in a re-examination of the role that intrinsic or extrinsic systemic racism has played in the evolution of many organizations, including the performing arts. We have seen a rush to overt and public recognition of the role that racism has played in hiring, staff advancement, governance and audience development in these organizations and a plethora of programs have been designed to address these issues. The fact that recognition of this toxic issue has moved to the forefront in our society bodes well for some improvement.
Last year, I was quoted in ArtsATL saying, “Before you expose a young person to the symphony, you have to expose them to breakfast, because a hungry child is not going to hear the violin.” I believe that if we commit ourselves to meeting children’s basic needs by addressing economic and social injustices today, we can cultivate Atlanta’s next generation of ticket holders, patrons and board members — and see a better and broader reflection of our society in the audiences, offices, stages and board rooms of our performing arts organizations — tomorrow.
Fahamu Pecou is an interdisciplinary artist and scholar whose works combine observations on hip-hop, fine art and popular culture. His paintings, performance art and academic work address concerns around contemporary representations of Black men and how these images affect the reading and performance of Black masculinity. (Photo by Sindayi Ganza)
It is not so much the bold and blatant acts of racism that get to you, but rather the more subtle and insidious microaggressions and social conditioning that are the most harmful. I’ve never been called a “nigger” or sprayed with water cannons, but I have experienced countless forms of racism in all facets of my life. I’ve experienced it from the teachers in middle and high school who immediately wanted to change my name to “something easier to pronounce.” I experienced it in college from professors that told me the Black art aesthetics I was attracted to were not “real art.” I’ve experienced it in the limited opportunities for Black artists that exist outside of February and in the centering of whiteness as “normal” at every level of society — from institutional representation to the courses and programs offered at colleges and universities worldwide.
One of the biggest challenges I had as I transitioned from student to professional artist was the fear that my work would be typecast, opportunities limited, if my work was considered “too Black.” I think many Black artists experience this and often struggle to balance being their authentic selves while trying to create work that will be accepted in the mainstream art world.
My experiences with racism in all its forms have helped me to define my voice as an artist. All the things I’ve been through have shaped the person I’ve become and ultimately the way I move and contribute to the world. Combating racism is not so much for me a matter of strength as much as it is a sense of obligation. As a human, as an artist, I recognize and accept that my words and work can and do connect powerfully to others. It is a responsibility I do not take lightly. As James Baldwin says; “The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”
In the face of racism, the greatest form of resistance is always hope. Hope isn’t about fantasy, it is about aspiration. Hope allows us to imagine a better world. If we can imagine a better world, we can create a better world. One of the greatest superpowers an artist has is the ability to see something before it even exists. The ability to create something that was not here before.
Layla Felder, 16, is an aspiring writer who’s working on her first screenplay. She also enjoys writing prose and poetry. Her mom is Black, her dad is white, and although she is mixed, she identifies as Black. Her family’s embracing of race conversations at home is reflected in the raw way she discusses it in her writing. Layla is also an actor model, stand-up comedian and the founder of a club called the Kid’s Opera and Art Posse (KAOP), a group that’s trying to create the next generation of opera and art patrons. Follow her progress on Instagram @laylajfelder or @kaopweb.
I was watching TV the first time I learned about police brutality toward Black men. The news announcer’s listing the facts of a murder is something I will never forget: nighttime, officer thought he was armed, hands up but killed regardless. The detail that stuck in my brain was how the bullet twisted and burrowed into the target like a malignant metal maggot. I couldn’t comprehend why or how someone would do such a thing. If the police were supposed to catch the bad guys, why were they killing innocents instead? I wanted to cry, but I think I was too shocked, too confused, too revolted by humanity to muster tears. My soul was heavy and the rest of the day passed in a pained haze. I was 11 years old.
Unarmed Black men have been killed with such frequency since that summer five years ago that I have come to expect police brutality as a sad fact of life. If I reacted to every killing the same way, I would be living in a permanent haze of depression, bitterness and reproach. But I can’t do that. I have grades to keep up, responsibilities to honor, for lack of a better word: a life to live. I’ve learned to cope by allowing myself a small bit of time to mourn each lost brother or sister in quiet solitude. After all, it felt like we [BIPOC] were the only ones mourning because no one else seemed to care.
I expected George Floyd’s death to pass unknown, unacknowledged and meaningless to those with the power to do something about it . . . but it didn’t. And I was shocked. As outrage grew, anti-racism movements gained traction and people posted black squares and statistics on social media, I watched with mouth agape. I saw fires of passion ignited in the breasts of people from different countries. For the first time, people were sharing stories and others were truly listening.
At my school, classmates were embracing conversations they’d tried so hard to avoid in the past. Teachers were letting us skip class for our mental health and all of a sudden white friends of mine were reaching out to me to say they were there for me, and to offer their sympathy. It’s been two months and every day I wake up in fear, expecting people to forget. And every day I am shocked and relieved that they haven’t. We still have a long way to go, but I am so grateful that we’ve finally started moving.
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