Looking Back – Looking Forward

Looking Back, Looking Forward is a newspaper edited on the occasion of Open Engagement, 2017. Edited by Katie Hargrave, Jen Delos Reyes, and myself in which we asked a handful of artists, writers, activists, and cultural workers to reflect on a “historical” text that they feel remains important to our contemporary context.

Introduction and contributors below.
You can read the entire paper:
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Dan S. Wang
On Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs

René de Guzman
On the Black Panther Party

Erica Mena
On the Young Lords

Rose Salseda
On Huey P. Newton & Juan Capistran

Anthony D. Stepter
On Roque Dalton

Paul Ramirez Jonas
On Paulo Freire


Fierce Urgency of Now, A Few Introductory Notes from the Editors
(excerpt from Looking Back, Looking Forward)

There is a fierce urgency of now for artists and cultural workers who audaciously believe in the immense capacity of art to help shift our sense of what is possible, to unleash our radical imaginations, to model and experiment with new ways of being in the world, to enact social change. With this sentiment in mind we have invited a handful of artists, writers, activists, and cultural workers to reflect on a “historical” text that they feel remains important to our contemporary context.

In some cases, the original sources and our contributors’ reflections feel as if they could have been written contemporaneously. The urgency of now could in fact be decades old. What does this tell us? Does it remind us, like the old adage says, that history repeats itself? Does it remind us of the ground we have failed to cover? We prefer to believe that our predecessors remain present; their writers are with us in our struggle, able to collaborate with us as we work through the problems we are facing in the fierce urgency of now. René de Guzman’s reflection on the Black Panther Party’s 10-point platform understands the Panthers’ urgency as present but also identifies the limited scope BPP founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale had available in to them 1966 when this essential document was produced in Oakland. In doing so, with the help of Bobby Seale himself, René’s writing offers what might be an ‘eleventh’ point in the 10-point platform, heralding the Panthers’ into our contemporary conversations. Other writers identify an almost spiritual connection with those that have been resuscitated, those that came before. Erica Mena, for example, describes so eloquently that part of the Young Lords’ practice was a recovery of lost and violent histories. That recovery is part of a decolonial effort. Mena suggests for us that what we need is not just a revising of these theses but a continual resistance to the violence of history, the violence of colonial erasure. Similarly, Rose Salseda’s writing suggests that we collaborate, necessarily, with our past generations. After Huey Newton, she calls working with the past for future generations revolutionary suicide. Is this what it means to commune with the dead? To embody I am we?

In some instances, our contributors illuminate the experience of being present with a text, or even the writer of the text. Grace Lee Boggs pressed the copy of “A Job Ain’t the Answer” into Dan S. Wang’s hands a few years before her death in 2015. This puts Wang directly on the path began by the both Grace Lee and Jimmy Boggs in Detroit, picking up on their contemplation of why the revolutionary movements of the 60s and 70s had failed. In other instances, our research allowed us, separated by distance from our contributors, to feel connected to their reflections, as we scanned pages from the same edition of Palante that Erica Mena references, or we hold our own worn copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed with our hands mirroring Paul Ramirez Jonas’ hand. Texts can connect us across distance, time, and context. While the conditions of writing might have been different, we can learn specific lessons within our own.

Anthony D. Stepter’s reflection on Roque Dalton reminds us of the power we have as cultural producers. His text, which is equal parts poem, letter, and reflection on a political life, is above all a conversation between poetry and revolution. Stepter’s writing posits that movement between the two is both both cyclical and not. There is and there is not, to use a word borrowed from Stepter, an “order” to making art and political engagement. This leads us to the title of this newspaper—Looking Back, Looking Forward. You’ll note the design of the cover reflects not two trajectories that might suggest backwards/forwards, left/right, up/down—instead we’ve opted to think of this process of looking back and looking forward as a cyclical one. Wait, maybe this isn’t quite right, either. We debated the title, we debated the design, because the process isn’t an infinite loop, but it’s not so simple as “progress,” either. We think of these essays, and project, not unlike Freire’s praxis— which insist on action and reflection as symbiotic. We think it is about study, about struggle, about history, about embodiment. Because the fierce urgency of now is what, and who, comes before it.

-Jen Delos Reyes, Katie Hargrave, and Heath Schultz, published 2017 on the occasion of the Open Engagement Conference